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‘Green’ Jewish Groups Pulling In Green

‘Green’ Jewish Groups Pulling In Green

This has been a good year for Jewish Farm School, an environmental education organization that aims to reconnect Jews with the joys of working the land and growing their own food.

Last summer, JFS was one of two start-ups selected to join Bikkurim, the New York-based incubator that provides its resident groups with office space and computers in downtown Manhattan, as well as a stipends and organizational consulting.

Started in 2005 with just $5,000, enough to run only two programs a year, the Jewish Farm School has seen its budget mushroom to $110,000 last year, as it increased its Organic Farm Alternative Break service learning trips for university students to six a year, in addition to running urban sustainability programs in Philadelphia.

The organization, which is financially supported by Hazon, has branched out and formed JFS Cooperative Design, a consulting division that helps synagogues, JCCs and other Jewish organizations plan and develop their own sustainable gardens and farms. It has also forged a strategic partnership with Eden Village Camp in the Hudson Valley, which received a sizeable grant from the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Jim Joseph Foundation. Jewish Farm School is on target to increase its budget by 36 percent this current year, says JFS’ co-founder Nati Passow.

Jewish Farm School is one of many Jewish environmental organizations that not only promote sustainability, but seem to practice it, too — in spite of the tough economic climate. While environmental organizations receive a tiny slice of America’s largesse — just 2 percent, according to Giving USA 2009, which tracks this data — a 2008 poll of 375 “environment and animals” organizations indicated that 40 percent saw an increase in contributions received and 22 percent said that contributions had remained the same.

Many in the field attribute the boost in funding to the Farm School and other such nonprofits to the growing popularity of the Jewish environmental movement.

“We’re in the right place at the right time,” Passow told The Jewish Week. “There’s a growing interest in sustainability and the environment.” Even in a tougher economy, people see and value what we’re doing and what we have to offer, he said. “If the economy was stronger, we might be growing faster.”

While no one has studied how Jewish environmental organizations are faring as a group, those running them say they’ve been hurt by the economy, but not nearly as much as those in other sectors. And as more and more Jewish environmental organizations chase limited dollars, the jury is out on whether these organizations will remain sustainable in the long-term. (In 2008, giving to environmental causes overall fell to $6.6 billion, a 5.5 percent drop, according to Giving USA.).

Just ask Jakir Manela, who runs the Kayam Farm at Pearlstone in Maryland. Speaking just as he was walking out of an unsuccessful meeting with a potential donor, Manela told The Jewish Week, “The excitement is even greater and the commitment is even stronger to Jewish environmental causes, but the money just isn’t coming through.”

Manela’s farm, which demonstrates biblical laws and serves as an outdoor classroom to more than 3,000 visitors each year, was launched in 2007 with an $80,000 start-up grant from the Meyerhoff Foundation in Baltimore. “Now they’re being targeted by anyone in the Jewish community who wants to do something green,” he says. “They can’t handle all of the requests.”

A two-year grant from the Jacob & Hilda Blaustein Fund for the Enrichment of Jewish Education, which allowed the Kayam Farm to hire a lead educator, runs out next fall, and Manela is having a difficult time finding funding to fill the gap.

“There’s a multiplicity of efforts and not necessarily a multiplicity of funders,” Manela says. “Until an organization like Kayam receives strong and stable support, the Jewish community’s commitment to environmental sustainability remains questionable.”

Environmental nonprofits enjoy both an advantage and a disadvantage, says Mark Charendoff, president of The Jewish Funders Network. The disadvantage was pretty clear when many colleagues tried to dissuade him from going forward with a planned matching grant program for environmental causes in Israel earlier this year.

“The environment falls into a category of discretionary grant-making that is going to be difficult to motivate people to make first-time gifts,” he acknowledged. “It’s not feeding the hungry; it’s not housing the homeless.”

But JFN did go ahead with the matching grants initiative sponsored by the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, with “great trepidation,” Charendoff says. The result, however, was gratifying, he says. “Not only did people respond, but we were oversubscribed. We had to say ‘no’ to some people. The demand far exceeded our matching funds.”

In September, JFN awarded $1.5 million in matching grants to 13 nonprofit Israeli environmental organizations, including the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership, the Israel Green Building Council, and The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. The fund provided between $25,000 and $50,000 in matching funds to donors making first-time gifts for the environment in Israel, or donors who doubled their prior donations. A third of the donors were Israelis and two-thirds were first-time donors.

“Unlike a lot of causes we’re involved with, the environment is an area in which I can personally make a difference through my actions and not just writing a check,” Charendoff says. “Even younger people who don’t have a significant connection to the larger Jewish community are highly motivated to care about the environment and highly motivated to take action.”

Environmental education organizations received a boost in June when Teva Learning Center director Nili Simhai won the 2009 Covenant Award for excellence in Jewish education, which came with a $36,000 prize for Simhai and a $5,000 award for her organization.

“That they picked someone who focuses exclusively on environmental education was really telling,” says Jewish Farm School’s Passow. “There’s a sea change; the field is very fertile when it comes to this work.”
While there’s been more interest than ever in Jewish environmental educational programs, day school educators and congregational leaders are increasingly balking at their prices says Alexandra Kuperman, Teva Learning Center’s assistant director. “They just don’t have the budget. They want it to be free.” With day school enrollment down, the organization is feeling the decrease in enrollment in its programs.

To make up for the shortfall, instead of relying on an infusion of new grants, Teva Learning Center has worked to forge partnerships with new schools, camps and congregations. “Eighty percent of our budget is fee-based, which makes us more sustainable,” says Kuperman.

Hazon, the environmental advocacy organization, has seen its budget nearly quadruple from $550,000 in 2005 to $2 million in 2008. This year, however, “it has been very hard work to try to balance the budget,” which will probably remain flat, says Nigel Savage, Hazon’s founder.

Yet interest in environmental activism continues to mushroom. In 2006, Hazon launched its first food conference, which 158 people attended. Last December, “after Lehman Brothers went bust and the sky started to fall,” 560 people signed up for the conference, a 40 percent increase over the past year.

“There’s an underlying energy on the ground to green our communities, to integrate sustainability into our education, to think more seriously about what it means to keep kosher in the 21st Century; it’s phenomenal,” says Savage.

While Hazon’s budget is flat, it has launched two new programs: an Upper West Side bike lane push and the Jewish Climate Campaign, which calls for every Jewish institution to set up a “green team” and commit to steps to become more green by the end of the next shmitta cycle in 2015.

“It’s been an incredibly tough year; people who support Hazon both individually and as foundations have been hurt,” he says. “Yet we’ve had existing funders who have increased their commitments and new donors who’ve come in.”

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