Your Daily Phil: Josh Foer on what Jewish philanthropy lacks + Connecting with heritage in Uzbekistan
Good Friday morning!
Ed. note: In celebration of Sukkot, the next Your Daily Phil will arrive on Wednesday, Oct. 12. Chag sameach!
In today’s Your Daily Phil, we talk philanthropy and risk capital with author and entrepreneur Josh Foer, and feature op-eds by JFN’s Andrés Spokoiny on making connections during Sukkot, and by Theodore Feldsher on connecting with Sephardic heritage. Also in this newsletter: MacKenzie Scott, Aaron B. Lerner, Natan Sharansky, Lorry Lokey and Ilan Vitemberg. We’ll start with a visit to a Sukkot art installation at Manhattan’s JCC.
When Sukkot arrives on Sunday evening, the main event space at Manhattan’s Jewish Community Center will be on the roof, where two large sukkot stand side-by-side, ready to host all manner of gatherings.
But this year, the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, as the building is known, aims for visitors to also spend time in a smaller sukkah, on the seventh floor balcony, that measures just 9-by-12 feet, and will remain empty of furniture for most of the holiday. That sukkah, known as Imkha, is an art installation by Tobi Kahn, the prominent Jewish artist known for making ceremonial objects.
The sukkah is constructed of 13 white panels of smooth, painted wood, with rectangles jutting out from the walls at different depths. Rectangular holes peek out from between the rectangles, letting light in through the walls as well as through the sukkah’s roof.
Kahn chose white so that sunlight and the colors of the city and nature could reflect off of its walls. Similarly, he intends for the sukkah and the rectangles that make up its walls to serve as a space of reflection and imagination for its temporary dwellers.
“We think of ushpizin, we invite people to come in, and I want all your memories to be there,” Kahn told eJewishPhilanthropy, referring to the traditional Sukkot liturgy that invites biblical figures to dinner each night. “That’s why I wanted it to be white, so you could project your memories onto the wall… To me, Sukkot is very much about memory and bringing in people that aren’t there anymore.”
The project is funded by Zelda Stern, a local philanthropist who is on the board of Yeshivat Maharat, the Orthodox women’s seminary in Riverdale, and owns one of Kahn’s Omer counters, an object used to tally the 49-day period between Passover and Shavuot. The sukkah is a tribute to her late husband, Stanley Rosenzweig.
Since last November, the panels that now make up the sukkah’s walls have lined the walls of Makom, the JCC’s meditation studio, where they will return when the holiday ends.
“I’ve always wanted to do a sacred space that was a sukkah, but that was used all year round,” said Kahn. “It wasn’t going to be something that was up for eight days and in a basement for 11 and a half months… All those people that were working out in that room, their memories are there.”
Josh Foer on what Jewish philanthropy lacks, his new production company and where he gets his ideas
If you’ve paid any attention to the seemingly endless stream of efforts to reinvent Judaism in the last decade or so, odds are you’ve encountered a project of Josh Foer’s. Before Yom Kippur, eJewishPhilanthropy’s Ben Sales spoke via Zoom with Foer to talk about the Jewish nonprofit world, his creative process and goals, and how he pays for all of his ideas.
A series of projects: The 40-year-old author and entrepreneur is part of the team behind a litany of initiatives: Sefaria, the popular digital library of Jewish texts; Atlas Obscura, the online magazine cataloging unusual travel destinations; and Sukkah City, the 2010 art installation in New York City’s Union Square that reimagined what a sukkah could look like and represent. Recently, he embarked on two new projects alongside partners: The Lehrhaus, a bar-cum-Jewish study house in the Boston area, and Leviathan Productions, with the aim of producing TV shows and films telling Jewish stories. He’s also on the board of the Jim Joseph Foundation, which funds both Sefaria and the Lehrhaus.
Following his curiosity: “I like to learn, and I think that when there are gaps in the landscape that [are] like, ‘If only this thing existed, it would help me pursue my curiosity better,’ my inclination is to try and figure out if there’s a way to solve that problem… Sometimes it takes a long time. An idea needs to incubate and gestate and sometimes it’s not ripe yet, and that’s OK. A mistake can be pursuing something before it’s ready. So I’ve got ideas I know are kind of not quite there, but I know they might be there in a few years.”
More risk capital: “If I had to identify what I believe to be the single biggest source of stasis in our corner of the universe, it is the fact that there is so little meaningful risk capital [for nonprofit ventures] in the Jewish world… There are certainly places that will write small checks, $30,000 checks, $50,000 checks, but to start a real ambitious venture requires more capital than that — like an order of magnitude more capital. And there aren’t addresses to go to for that kind of real risk capital, whereas there is a whole system in the for-profit world.”
REBUILDING OUR COMMUNITIES
Building permanence among the temporary (Sukkot 5783)
“While generally not a fan of dystopian fiction, I recently fell for one such book: The Second Sleep by Robert Harris. A page-turner murder mystery, it takes place in 31st-century England, a time in which civilization has reverted to a new Middle Ages,” writes Andrés Spokoiny, president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, in an opinion piece for eJewishPhilanthropy.
Skyscrapers: “The narrator in the story has only a vague knowledge of our civilization but knows that it was a mighty one, full of hard-to-fathom technological wonders… Interestingly, in this dystopian future, there’s virtually no trace of our gravity-defying skyscrapers. As the narrator explains, our modern style of construction, with iron and steel beams inserted in concrete casing, is deceptively fragile. The glass that covers modern buildings doesn’t decay, but it breaks and falls off. When that happens, the building is exposed to the elements, small cracks in the concrete allow moisture to penetrate, and the iron beams end up rusting, eventually bringing down the entire structure. In the novel, London is dotted with reddish-brownish stains where skyscrapers used to stand, like monuments to the futility of human hubris.”
Temporary huts: “It seems appropriate to talk about rotting buildings during Sukkot, the holiday in which we’re instructed to live in temporary, fragile huts, exposed to the whims of the changing weather of autumn. Our sukkot are deliberately perishable and have no pretense of permanence. But as I read The Second Sleep, I realized that even those buildings we believe will last forever will, over time, also crumble, just like our holiday huts.”
Communities: “We live in a time in which skyscrapers are easy to build. From my office in Manhattan, I saw the magnificent complex of Hudson Yards spring up from the ground in just a couple of years. Communities, in contrast, can’t be built overnight. The fact that they can last forever doesn’t mean that they are unbreakable. Yet, they can outlive even the tallest and strongest building, provided we take care of them.”
Making connections: “The notion of community, as Judaism understands it, is under fire today. The ideas of mutuality, reciprocity and radical hospitality are countercultural today. We live in a society in which the other is to be avoided, not sought, in which electronic devices shelter us from the challenge to build meaningful relationships with real people. In a time of intolerance and echo chambers, we struggle to define what we have in common with our fellow Jews and with our fellow human beings.”
Elul in Uzbekistan: Looking back at thousands of years to find inspiration for today
“Rising antisemitism, the assimilation crisis, the soaring cost of Jewish education and the associated costs of an observant lifestyle are just some of the challenges contemporary American Jewry faces. In spite of these numerous challenges, many Jewish programs have inspired significant numbers of young Jewish Americans to strengthen their relationship with their Jewish roots. One program in particular, the Sephardic American Mizrahi Initiative or ‘SAMi,’ stands out as it redefines and raises the bar on how organizations can assist young Jewish Americans from all walks of life establish and maintain a more authentic relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people through a Sephardic lens,” writes Theodore Feldsher, a participant on a recent SAMi trip, in an opinion piece for eJewishPhilanthropy.
Off to Uzbekistan: “Traveling to Uzbekistan with SAMi provided the authentic connection to Judaism I was craving. We were provided with a taste of a more undisturbed and genuine sense of what Jewish life was like in Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries for generations prior. Our tour visited the synagogues and yeshivot where some of our greatest Sephardic rabbis studied and where countless Jews from lands near and far were welcomed with open arms.”
Full circle: “Traveling to the holy land of Bukhara provided me with a stronger connection to Judaism, comparable to no other experience in my life. I feel indebted to my lovely wife for convincing me to take part in SAMi’s life-changing program and pray to return to Uzbekistan someday soon. Uzbekistan and SAMi have forever altered my Jewish paradigm for the better and helped me realize that sometimes, experiencing Judaism’s most authentic and unadulterated traditions (which can be traced back all the way to the times of our Holy Temples) will help us better understand what it means to be an observant Jew in America today.”
Divorce Dealings: Puck’s Teddy Schleifer looks at the possible changes — or lack thereof — in MacKenzie Scott’s philanthropic giving following her divorce from Dan Jewett. “The conceit of the philanthropic establishment is that there is virtue in patience, in the bureaucracy, in the R.F.P.s, in the site visits, and in the years of trial-and-error that precede giving-at-scale. MacKenzie, unique among philanthropists in her weight class, has been betting that’s all an excuse for inaction. Over the last year, MacKenzie had intentionally painted these efforts as a joint venture with her new husband. She referred to ‘Dan’ in her Medium posts as her partner; nonprofits thank both of them in paeans to their benefactors; there’s the joint Giving Pledge signatures, etc. And yet… most people don’t buy it. ‘Those in the philanthropic-industrial complex were being too cute by half by referring to “MacKenzie and Dan.” It was always just her, and it belittles her/makes her smaller by lumping her partner in with it,’ argued one philanthropic adviser over text. ‘Again, they’re kind of responsible for that themselves, but it was always just MacKenzie’s money and vision — does her a disservice by pretending otherwise.’” [Puck]
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Word on the Street
Employees at San Francisco’s high-profile Glide Foundation are making efforts toward unionization…
The Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles selected Aaron B. Lerner, currently executive director of Hillel at UCLA, as its next president and chief executive officer, effective Jan. 2…
Natan Sharansky, the former chair of the executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel, Israeli government minister and Soviet refusenik, has been named chairman of the Combat Antisemitism Movement board of advisors…
The Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation donated $30 million to the Cleveland Clinic, establishing the Morton L. Mandel CEO Chair and the Morton L. Mandel Innovation Fund…
Temasek Trust, the charitable arm of the Singapore state holdings company, Temasek, announced the launch of a $200 million global collaboration to fund philanthropic efforts across the Asia-Pacific region…
HIAS, the Jewish refugee aid group, announced that two new affiliates, Jewish Family Service of Colorado and Jewish Family Services of Greenwich, Conn., have been added to its network of organizations that provide resettlement services and other integration support for refugees when they arrive in the United States under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program…
Silent Donor launched an online service that provides a platform for donors to send anonymous donations to established nonprofit or charitable 501(c)(3) organizations. Notable exceptions to the service provided by Silent Donor include political donations of any kind, and donations to 501(c)(4) organizations…
Philanthropist Lorry Lokey, retired founder, chairman and chief executive officer of Business Wire, died last weekend at 95. A signer of the Giving Pledge, his donations were heavily concentrated in education and the sciences, including a $10 million gift to the University of Haifa for a new downtown campus in the city’s port area. Additional gifts established the The Lorry I. Lokey Interdisciplinary Center for Life Sciences and Engineering at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, the Lorry I. Lokey Stem Cell Research Building at Stanford University and a new chemistry building at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev…
Bay Area Israel educator Ilan Vitemberg died at 57 of complications from long COVID…
Pic of the Day
Orthodox Jewish men inspect hadas, or myrtle plants, one of four species to be used during the celebration of Sukkot on Thursday in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem.
Physician, philanthropist and the majority owner of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, Miriam Adelson celebrates her birthday Monday…
FRIDAY: Atlanta area resident, Allan Nelkin… Highland Park, Ill., resident, Margery Nyberg… Senior advisor to the chairman of the Genesis Prize Foundation, Jill Smith… Director of community security at the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County, Ron Vosatka… Founder and chair of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights, Kenneth L. Marcus… President of Detroit’s Imperial Management and a board member of the William Davidson Foundation, Eli Saulson… Creator, host and producer of “Extra Virgin” on the Cooking Channel, Gabriele Corcos… Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Closter, N.J., Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner… Political fundraiser and strategist, Arie Lipnick… Member of the Knesset for the Shas party, Michael Malchieli… Director of the leadership institute at AIPAC, Natalie Lascar Lefkowitz… Executive director at the Israel Action Network and AVP for public affairs at the Jewish Federations of North America, Adam Teitelbaum… CEO of Holbrook, N.Y.-based MW Impressions, Daniel Mael… Executive assistant at WPP, Tayla Harris… Senior editor for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Magazine, Barbara E. Martinez… Senior associate on the real estate team at Korn Ferry, Samuel Schear… Co-founder and chief growth officer at Riseup Israel, Tamara Harel-Cohen… President, Kam Global Strategies, diplomatic spouse, Laura Kam…
SATURDAY: Leah Koenig… Founder and chairman of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, author and philanthropist, Isadore “Issy” Sharp… General surgeon in Tempe, Ariz.,Dr. Agustin Estrada… Gossip columnist and businesswoman, Rona Barrett (born Rona Burstein)… Author of more than 300 horror fiction novels that have sold over 400 million copies, R. L. Stine… Attorney general of Maryland, Brian E. Frosh… Academy Award-winning film producer and director, Edward Zwick… CEO of Heart of a Nation, Jonathan Kessler… Movie director, writer and filmmaker, Shira Piven… One of two Jewish Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives, he represents Tennessee’s 8th congressional district, David Kustoff… Scholar-in-residence at UJA-Federation New York, Rabbi Menachem Creditor… Entertainment reporter and sports commentator, Ben Lyons… Magazine editor and daughter of Wolf Blitzer, Ilana Michelle Blitzer Snider… Freelance communications specialist, Aliyana Traison… Founder of Knock Knock, Give a Sock, an organization assisting the homeless, Adina Lichtman… Board member at Israel Policy Forum, Michael Hershfield… Rabbi Paula Jayne Winnig…
SUNDAY: Founder, executive chairman, and now retired CEO of C-SPAN, Brian Lamb… Retired federal government manager and analyst, Charles “Chuck” Miller… Burbank, Calif., resident, Richard Marpet… Former U.S. ambassador to Canada in the Obama administration, he is now an executive at Bank of Montreal, Ambassador David Jacobson… Commissioner of Major League Soccer since 1999, Don Garber… VNOC engineer at Avaya, David Gerstman… Director of Jewish learning at the Brandeis School of San Francisco, Debby Arzt-Mor… Managing director and financial advisor at Morgan Stanley Private Wealth Management and co-chair of DMFI, Todd Richman… Best-selling author and motivational speaker, his 2010 TED Talk about leadership is one of the most popular talks of all time, Simon Sinek… Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivas Elimelech following 17 years as rabbi at Ohev Shalom Synagogue in Washington, D.C., Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld… Musician and singer, the protégé of her late father, singer-songwriter Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Neshama Carlebach… Israel’s minister of energy, Karin Elharar Hartstein… VP for Jewish education at Hillel International, Rabbi Benjamin Berger… Partner at Left Hook Strategy, Justin Barasky… CEO at Denver-based energy firm Nexus BSP, Ben Lusher… Associate director of legislative affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, David Meyerson… VP at JBG Smith Properties, a publicly traded REIT, Lily Goldstein… Manager of corporate communications at Apple, Julia Schechter… Instock manager at Amazon in NYC, Kayla Levinson Segal… CEO at Tel Aviv-based Keese, Daniel Rubin… SVP at SKDKnickerbocker, Jason Kaplan… Physical therapist in Montreal, Chaya Notik…
MONDAY: Professor emeritus of constitutional law at Harvard Law School, he has argued 35 cases at the U.S. Supreme Court, Laurence Tribe… Past chairman and CEO of KB Home, Bruce Karatz… Long-time IDF chaplain, Yedidya Atlas… Award-winning writer and photographer based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Diane Joy Schmidt… Vocalist and songwriter best known as the lead singer of Van Halen, he is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, David Lee Roth… Co-chairman and chief investment officer of Oaktree Capital Management, Bruce Karsh… Former NASA astronaut who flew on five Space Shuttle missions, he has held many positions at NASA including chief scientist, John M. Grunsfeld… Shareholder at the Bethesda, Md. law firm of Selzer Gurvitch, Neil Gurvitch… Founder and principal of two Los Angeles-based real estate firms, Freeman Group and Metro Properties, Rodney Freeman… Governmental relations and strategic communications principal at BMWL Public Affairs, Sam Lauter… Israeli comedian and actor, twice voted as the funniest Israeli, Asi Cohen… Israel resident and writer, he is the author of four acclaimed books, Matti Friedman… State Department official and Jewish liaison in the Biden White House until a few months ago, Chanan Weissman… President at the Alliance to Combat Extremism Fund, Ian Sugar… Head of public policy and sustainability at thredUP, Seth Levey… VP in the Chicago office of Goldman Sachs, Avi Davidoff… Director of campus programming and strategic relationships at CAMERA, Hali Haber Spiegel… Adviser for human rights at Israel’s Mission at the United Nations, Or Shaked… Head of school of de Toledo High School in West Hills, Calif., Mark H. Shpall…
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