Miami Beach, Fla. — “This room has the key to solve the crises” facing the Jewish community, asserted Andres Spokoiny, president of the Jewish Funders Network, speaking to the more than 350 members of the group here this week at its three-day annual international conference, its largest ever in the U.S.
And while his message sounded like hyperbole, he has a point, given the collective funding power of JFN members and the enthusiasm among many of them to take an increasingly active role in addressing major communal issues.
Those include, according to Spokoiny, the complex challenges of an America society with a strong emphasis on the individual, in contrast to the Jewish value of peoplehood. He also said that the ideologies and organizational structure of much of our community — formed to respond to the realities of a century ago or more — are now out of date.
“We haven’t adapted,” he said, asserting that “new communities need to be created and re-invented, and it will be done by the people in this room and their grantees.”
The people in the room were a mix of major philanthropists and their staffs, heads of family foundations, and professionals and lay leaders of communal charities, all of whom give away at least $25,000 a year in the name of Jewish values.
A sign of the growth and expanded vision of JFN is that it welcomed 120 first-time attendees to the conference and included more than 60 Israelis representing family foundations and charities in the Jewish state.
Most notably, JFN elected its first Israeli as co-chair of its board. Joining Dorothy Tananbaum of New York as chair is Avi Naor, a successful businessman active in a number of charitable initiatives for education and social services in Israel, including a group that promotes road safety. It was founded in memory of Naor’s son, Ran, who was killed in a road accident in 1995 at the age of 19.
In an interview just prior to his election, which was hailed as “an historic moment” for the group, Naor said the direction of philanthropy has changed for the better in Israel, though it still has a long way to go.
“It’s a challenge to change the culture of giving in Israel and for the public to see it as a positive value,” said Naor, who noted that charitable giving increased 20 percent in the last two years in Israel “but it is far from where we should be.”
He stressed the value of bringing sophisticated business methodology to philanthropy and to “be prepared to terminate what doesn’t work.”
Naor and Tananbaum agreed that the relationship between North American and Israeli Jews in terms of philanthropy has evolved from “the rich American uncle” paradigm to a partnership based on equality.
“There is an equal playing field,” Tananbaum said, reflected in a growing interest in the diaspora among some Israelis, from the Jerusalem government’s plans to heavily fund projects aimed at assuring Jewish education and continuity in the diaspora to the Ruderman Family Foundation's sponsoring of a diaspora studies curriculum at the University of Haifa.
Spokoiny, who joined the conversation, said that philanthropy in and for Israel has shifted over the decades from building the state to “building the kind of Jewish society in the state that the Jewish people want.”
JFN maintains an office in Israel and plans to hold its annual conference there next year.
In his major address to the members on Monday, Spokoiny spoke of the creative efforts of Jewish start-ups but called for supporting rather than replacing established Jewish organizations.
“We have to build more robust organizations,” he said, while asserting that the Jewish community has “invested billions of dollars in its delivery system [of social services] and we have to help them.
“We have to change the paradigm of the community from command and control to collaboration and connection,” he said, adding that the findings of “the next Pew report will depend on the decisions you make today as community leaders and funders.”
Engaging Elusive Young Adults
The importance in the community of JFN, which fosters connections among like-minded partners and helps identify best practices, has grown in recent years along with the influence of foundations and philanthropists to set the agenda for the Jewish community.
Clearly that agenda is focused these days on increasing Jewish identity among young people, from teens to those in their 20s and 30s. (“Anyone over 40 is invisible when it comes to Jewish projects,” one observed noted.)
At a session I moderated on “post-college engagement,” much of the conversation among the four panelists focused on keeping Birthright alumni in the fold. While Next, a division of Birthright charged with follow-up efforts, has been blamed by some for lack of success, it was noted that no one organization should be responsible for keeping hundreds of thousands of 18- to 26-year-olds interested in pursuing their Jewish identity and interest in Israel. Rather, it is up to the community as a whole, through a wide variety of offerings.
Complicating the challenge is that young people today are wary of affiliating with Jewish organizations and religious institutions.
Erika Eskenazi, a young woman from a Reform background in California and now living and working in New York, spoke of how discovering several Moishe Houses in Brooklyn has kept her involved in Jewish life.
“It gave me a sense of community that was authentic and not threatening,” she said, “and I’ve established great relationships through the people I’ve met.” (There are now more than 60 Moishe Houses around the world, where single Jews in their 20s are provided a modest stipend to form home-based communities for themselves and their peers in apartments they share.)
Fellow panelists Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of Hillel, Morlie Levin, CEO of Next, and Nancy Rosenfeld, president of the Stephen and Claudine Bronfman Family Foundation in Montreal, emphasized the need for more collaboration within the organized Jewish community to keep track of and engage young adults, whether or not they are returning from Birthright.
Note to conference planners: Given the interest among audience members for Eskenazi’s experiences post-Birthright, it would be wise for future panels of this nature to have more alums represented.
On Choice, And Leadership
Two key themes of the conference, which included dozens of panels and breakout sessions (and time for casual networking), were how our society’s “radical freedom of choice” poses challenges, and the need to focus on issues of leadership and succession within Jewish organizations.
Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and author of “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less,” gave a thoughtful and entertaining presentation, challenging “the assumption that more choice means more freedom and more freedom means everyone is better off.” He cited research showing that too many choices — whether it’s 175 salad dressings in the supermarket or multiple options for health care or mutual funds or careers for college seniors — results in confusion and “paralyzes rather than liberates” people.
His conclusion that “radical freedom is radically disabling” is particularly intriguing for an American Jewish community, most of whose members no longer feel tied to the obligation of halacha (or Jewish law) and are presented with infinite options of how to live their lives.
In a discussion with Schwartz following his presentation, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Reform movement, which is based on individual autonomy, acknowledged that “all this choice” can make for “very confused and sometimes unfulfilled Jewish lives.” But he emphasized the importance of “digging” deeper rather than “grazing,” in seeking lives of “depth, purpose, obligation and happiness.”
Micah Goodman, a popular author and educator in Israel, said that Israelis once thought of religious freedom as “freedom from religion, not freedom of religion. But that paradigm is changing,” he said, and young Israelis are exploring choices.
Idit Klein, executive director of Keshet, which advocates for the LGBT community, said she and her peers once felt alienated from Jewish life but that there are now “more inspiring, authentic options” that allow more Jews to feel involved.
Schwartz, given the last word, said he is “not sanguine that we [as Jews] can still have a center that will hold. We need to find a sweet spot between no choice and unlimited choice.
“Sure, a fish can marry a bird,” he said, “but where will they live? I don’t know the answer.”
In a session on leadership and succession, Susan Wolf Ditkoff, a partner and co-leader of philanthropy practice at Bridgespan, a group that advises mission-driven foundations and philanthropists, presented the findings of a new major study her group completed. It is entitled “Leadership Pipeline Initiatives,” and was sponsored by the Weinberg Foundation of Baltimore.
Based on extensive interviews with 160 people in the Jewish nonprofit field, it concluded that finding the right leaders to head Jewish organizations is difficult and urgent, given an estimate that 75 to 90 percent of Jewish nonprofits need to find new executive leadership in the next five to seven years.
Two themes that emerged from the study: there is insufficient development and advancing of the leaders already in place, and many Jewish organizations are not attracting and retaining the leaders they need, given “steep hierarchies, bureaucratic cultures, little autonomy for junior and mid-level staff to take risks and feel ownership of their work, low salaries, and limited career advancement opportunities.”
JFN members praised the Weinberg Foundation for initiating the study and called for more attention on the problem.
One sensed that, unlike discussions at other conferences voicing concern about leadership and succession, this one would result in JFN and its members following up and addressing the issue. As the drivers of much of the Jewish agenda, they ask themselves: If we don’t act, who will?