Atlanta — With the new administration in Washington proposing to reduce or eliminate a host of federal projects that address social-service needs, the arts, humanities and culture, the Jewish Funders Network held its annual three-day conference here this week. The question on everyone’s mind was how will Jewish philanthropy respond to the Age of Trump.
JFN, with offices in New York and Israel, has more than 1,800 members from more than 430 families or foundations in 11 countries, with a total annual giving estimated at $1 billion.
In the two days of sessions I attended, I never heard the president mentioned by name from the podium, but references to the November election and its aftermath were a constant subtext. From the opening d’var Torah, in which Rabbi Peter Berg of Atlanta noted that the gathering was taking place at “the most divisive time in memory,” to countless references from speakers of “great volatility,” “great uncertainty,” “high anxiety” and “seismic change” taking place today, it was clear that the 430 participants — lay and professional staff representing foundations large and small — were grappling with how to respond to the new reality.
Not surprisingly, no consensus emerged. In private discussions, there was talk of the growing debate in the community over whether to take sides politically when it comes to giving. I heard talk of funders who plan to shift their financial support from Jewish projects to civic and social causes, and of some who are holding back for now, and still others determined to double down in support of values and issues they feel the administration is downgrading, from immigration to voting rights.
Among the dozens of sessions were ones on planning security and building resilience in the community, understanding anti-Semitism, and women as agents of change.
The most common theme to emerge was an oft-repeated call from speakers for greater empathy, and the need for more creative collaboration and bold action by foundations and individual funders, with an emphasis on the key role they can play in shaping a more caring society.
“Jewish philanthropy should be at the forefront” of efforts to “take advantage of the current [political] crisis” by “filling gaps” in “human needs,” Lisa Eisen, vice president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, told the assembled audience. “We can’t give in to compassion fatigue,” she said. “Business as usual is over.” In calling for more alliances, she urged fellow participants to leave their “egos, fears and politics at the door, and let the revolution begin.”
More Worries Than Solutions
A breakout session I attended, in response to the situation in Washington — it was titled “Jewish Philanthropy in the New Era” — asked participants to discuss three topics: what are you most worried about, what gives you hope, and what strategies and ideas are you considering in your philanthropy?
Judging from the conversation and the notes posted on the board under those three headings, there were more worries about political polarization, lack of dialogue and fear of a weakening of our democracy than there were solutions. But there was a streak of optimism, too, based on the belief that young people are becoming increasingly engaged in efforts to strengthen civic society, and that the real fears of a social breakdown may spur dialogue and a counter-response to administration policies.
Much of the public discussion at the conference had a distinct undertone of concern about political trends in Washington. But there was also an implicit recognition that a significant minority of key Jewish funders around the country seek to pull federations and other centrist organizations to the right, in part by threatening to withhold funds if those organizations are perceived as leaning left.
For reasons pragmatic as well as ideological, JFN officials encouraged dialogue and discussion for funders in determining the direction of their giving.
At the end of a lengthy interview Monday afternoon, JFN’s president, Andres Spokoiny, emphasized: “There is no community without conversation,” adding that if the conference participants come away with only that memory, “Dayenu, that would be enough.”
Earlier, in his main address to the participants, he opened with a reference to a political slogan in his native Argentina praising silence — ostensibly about the use of car horns but interpreted as a more general political warning about speaking out.
Though he avoided specifics, his message to the conference, considering current events, was that “silence is not helpful,” and that “a silent community is not a vibrant community.” He called for “speaking what’s in your heart,” listening to other points of view, and as funders, taking a leadership role grounded in “moral clarity based on Jewish values.”
Keynote speaker Sherry Turkle, the MIT professor and best-selling author whose primary interest is the dying art of conversation in the age of technology, drove that message home at the opening plenary Sunday afternoon with an engaging talk on the salutatory effects of face-to-face conversation and the societal dangers of our over-reliance on personal devices.
“People” — and not just the younger generation — “would rather text than talk,” she observed, based on her research. “What we are seeing is a flight from conversation.” She noted that real conversation “is where intimacy grows, empathy thrives, and productivity and collaboration increase.”
Our society suffers from “disconnection anxiety,” she said, obsessing on the constant use of our personal devices to the detriment of our ability to enjoy the solitude necessary to think creatively.
“I’m not anti-technology,” Turkle insisted. “I’m pro-conversation. That’s the moral of my story.”
Spotlight On Younger Leaders
Emerging thought leaders in the Jewish community under the age of 45 played key roles at the conference, with Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, moderating a discussion on transformation in our community with Sarah Reuven, chair of Slingshot, Elie Kaunfer, president and CEO of Mechon Hadar, and April Baskin, the Reform movement’s vice president of audacious hospitality (Kurtzer noted that hers is “the best title” in Jewish communal life).
Kurtzer’s thesis was that the distinctions between American Jews and non-Jews has faded significantly over the last three or four decades so that there is no longer a clear sense of “us” vs. “them” or a common Jewish political/ideological consensus. In addition, he said, Jewish organizations and institutions matter less today, with “most of us skeptical of institutional commitment.”
The panelists acknowledged that something has been lost in the process, but Baskin and Reuven said diversity has made us stronger while Kaunfer observed that the community has focused more on “counting Jews” than finding real meaning in Jewish texts and traditions. He called attention to the importance and relevance of Torah as “democratic, deep and countercultural,” and he received applause on urging funders to take more risks and “make big bets” in their giving.
Among the other conference highlights: Joshua Foer, the best-selling author of “Moonwalking With Einstein,” spoke movingly of the significance of Sefaria: A Living Library of Jewish Texts, a project he co-chairs, which now offers, for free, the Talmud, Torah and many other texts online in Hebrew and English.
“Engaging with the great Jewish minds of the past should be our communal goal,” he said. Judaism’s Great Books should be reclaimed, “not as collections for our shelf but for a living conversation that has been carried on for 3,000 years.”
A new element of the conference was the introduction of musical segments in the program each day, including engaging performances by the New England Conservatory’s Jewish Music Ensemble and Mais Hriesh, a young Palestinian flutist from Nazareth studying at Bard College.
Spokoiny noted that JFN is committed to incorporating more music and arts into the conference program. Perhaps it’s an example of filling the gaps in culture, anticipating major cuts from the administration.
Gary Rosenblatt’s attendance at the conference was subsidized in part by JFN.