Julie Sandorf, on the cusp of turning 50, is also on the cusp of starting a big new job. In January she becomes president of the Charles H. Revson Foundation. Revson, with $165 million in assets, according to 2005 tax records (the most recent publicly available), is a major player in both New York and Jewish affairs, two areas that get much of its focus and funding. Recipients of major gifts in the Jewish realm include the Jewish Theological Seminary, for a fellowship in advanced Jewish studies, the Jewish Media Fund, Hillel and the American Jewish World Service.
Sandorf is leaving Nextbook, which brings Jewish-themed literature to the reading public through an online magazine (nextboook.org), cultural events, library reading groups and its Jewish Encounters biographies, which are co-published with Schocken. Eight books have been published, with 104,000 copies sold, and three new titles are due out next year.
Sandorf helped start Nextbook four years ago. It grew from discussions with Mem Bernstein and Arthur Fried, trustees of Keren Keshet – The Rainbow Fund, a foundation established by Mem’s late husband, Zalman Bernstein. Keren Keshet is a powerhouse in Jewish philanthropy, with $285 million in assets reported in its 2006 tax filing, and it provides virtually Nextbook’s entire $5 million yearly budget.
In the 1990s, Sandorf established and ran the Corporation for Supportive Housing to help the chronically homeless, and consulted for the Robert Wood Johnson, Rockefeller and Oak foundations.
Sandorf is one of the few professionals to bridge the worlds of Jewish and general philanthropy. She lives with her husband, a physician, on the Upper West Side, and their daughter attends Duke University.
Jewish Week: Why should literature be the focus of a Jewish nonprofit?
Julie Sandorf: Literature tells our narrative. I used to build affordable housing — I was not an English major! But literature and books are how we began as a people, how we’ve maintained our culture. It provides a narrative that is open to all perspectives. There’s been an overall devaluing of intellectual and literary culture in this country, so we have a constant battle to make it accessible. But I believe if you offer high-quality resources in a way that excites people, they’ll rise to the challenge. I don’t believe that we’re a country of “Desperate Housewives.”
What is the One Book program?
We offer to synagogues, churches, day schools and community groups the Jewish Encounters book series as a way to build lively discussions. We offer the books at 40 percent discount plus free shipping, and also create discussion guides to help facilitate the program. So far 37 synagogues have participated, and 11 day schools have through our partnership with Ravsak (the Jewish community day school association).
What’s something you haven’t been able to accomplish at Nextbook?
I would love for the One Book program to reach more synagogues, churches and book groups. That’s been somewhat challenging. We are working to reach out to an increasing number of these communities. It is not for lack of trying; there has been tremendous outreach to Jewish organizations. In some places we’ve found partners, but it hasn’t been easy to find others.
How do you identify Jewishly?
I was raised in a very secular home. My parents did not belong to a synagogue, and there was no ritual or religious observance at all. I always felt like there was something missing, but didn’t know what it was. When my daughter was 3 she came home from her church nursery school at Christmastime and said “Mommy, I want to be Christian,” at which point the alarm bells went off. I took myself to a bookstore to buy a book about Chanukah. We joined a Reform synagogue and Sarah started Hebrew school, but it was a disaster. Then three other mothers and I found a young JTS student who became the children’s teacher in our living room. I eventually went to Friday night services at B’nai Jeshurun at somebody’s urging. I never thought I’d be a member of a Conservative shul, but in many ways they embody the values we have here at Nextbook, which is about creating energy and beauty and not dumbing it down, yet at the same time providing a very open and welcome door to people who are Jewishly uneducated.
What ideas do you want to implement at Revson?
I am walking into an institution that has worked very well, so as far as I can see there is no need for cleaning house. I have ideas I would like to play out. I am hesitant to say them because they’re unformed and they do not have board approval, and foundations should be driven by donor and board intent. I am really excited about getting back in the New York City mix. (Revson provides funding for public policy, public affairs and public interest legal work in New York). I’ve missed that, and I’m excited about potential new opportunities in Israel. The board has said that they are very open to exploring new ideas, new tracks, and I need to go on that journey with them.
How are the Jewish and general nonprofit worlds different, if at all?
This really gets me going! There are three notable differences. I have found more turf protection and defensiveness in the Jewish nonprofit world than in the secular world. There are more examples of institutional preservation taking precedence over mission. I have found greater levels of lethargy and complacency particularly among the more established institutions. That has led to mediocrity more often than not. There’s a lack of follow-up: for example, phone calls and e-mail not returned.
There’s a lagging in entrepreneurial energy in the more established institutions, and in the Jewish world those seem to take up more of the landscape than in the secular world. The third thing is greater insularity. Philanthropies in the secular world are more responsive to looking at ideas and models that may not have been what they’ve always done but can adopt them from lessons learned from other organizations. There are notable exceptions, and entrepreneurial energy coming up from the grass roots, but the Jewish nonprofit world needs to look outside established organizations for interesting models and ideas, and see how they can be applied.