What could a community center in a highly diverse New York City neighborhood do with a cool $5 million? How about birth baskets for families with newborns, weekend Hebrew-language classes, joint social justice and advocacy projects for Jewish and Latino teens? Or a current affairs lecture series, more art exhibits, museum trips and book clubs? And finally, how about an expansion of the Ukulele Shabbat program?
These are all things the YM&YWHA of Washington Heights hopes to add to its programming thanks to a $5 million donation from The Norman E. Alexander Family G Foundation.
According to Vicki Compter, UJA-Federation of New York’s vice president of capital gifts and special initiatives, a gift of that size is considered “a very large donation for a Y, especially one that is not having a capital campaign.”
Martin Englisher, the Y’s CEO, said it’s the biggest gift the 102-year-old institution has ever gotten, by far. The second largest was a donation of $1 million “back in 1986,” he added.
“It’s something tremendous — it’s transformational,” Englisher said. “It gives us the ability to go to foundations [to ask for money] … who might have been worried that we didn’t have the infrastructure,” he said. “I think it kind of puts us on the map.”
Alexander’s daughter, Gail Alexander Binderman, said in a news release that she and her children, Debbie and Dan, “took advantage of the Y’s many activities (nursery school, day camp, after-school programs, and concert series) over 45 years ago.” She said that “the warmth and professionalism of the Y’s staff left a permanent impression” on them, “which they now hope that many other community members will experience.”
Englisher said everyone at the Y was moved by the sentiment. “It’s very special to have people have early-on Jewish experiences” at the Y and then reach out and help “later in life.”
“Nobody ever has done something this large, that’s so impactful and allowed us to really dream,” he added.
The donation will be used to establish the Norman E. Alexander Center for Jewish Life and hire at least two new staff members. Officials at the Y are in the midst of searching for a Jewish life director and a “higher level marketing person to reach out to people who don’t know we’re here,” Englisher said.
The Y serves about 10,000 people a year. Englisher said he hopes the new funding will allow the institution to serve “initially at least another thousand.”
About half of those are Jewish. Englisher said the clientele has “some Orthodox but very few. Most are Conservative, Reform and just Jewish, and are attracted to the Y for their heritage and not about religious observance.” He added that the Y also attracts a lot of intermarried couples.
The other half is mostly Dominican. The rest are African American, Asian and non-Jewish white people, he said.
This reflects the surrounding community, which, according to the 2010 census, is 18 percent white, 8 percent African-American and 3 percent Asian/Pacific Islander. Latinos of any race make up 71 percent of the population and, according to UJA-Federation’s 2011 Jewish Community Study, Jews make up 12 percent of the population of Washington Heights and the adjoining Inwood. Nearly a quarter of Jewish households in the two neighborhoods have a Russian speaker.
Alexander, who died in 2006 at the age of 92, established the foundation to “benefit organizations having a substantial Jewish affiliation and which promote medical research, social welfare, Jewish education and/or Jewish cultural heritage,” according to his will.
In the press release, Binderman said her father “was a strong believer in Jewish culture and proud Jewish identity.”
“He would be delighted by the programs and activities that this gift will make possible. This gift will be transformative and provide opportunities to bring the best to our very own community,” she said. Alexander, a businessman and philanthropist, was also a founder of The Jewish Week. He is described on the website of the paper’s teen publication, Fresh Ink for Teens, which he funded, as “a man who lived with a zest for learning, dedication to the Jewish community and a special interest in educating and inspiring young people.”
Other beneficiaries of Alexander’s largesse include a wide range of Jewish organizations including Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the Weizmann Institute of Science and The Jewish Museum. He also helped fund the establishment of a Jewish studies library at Columbia University.
The Y announced the donation at its fifth annual gala Tuesday, which honored Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Holocaust survivor, sex therapist, media personality, and author, for her 50 years of volunteer service to the Y as a board member and past president.