From the Professional Staff

“Jumping” Right in at the Jim Joseph Foundation

By Aaron Saxe on June 29th, 2015

The mission of the Jim Joseph Foundation—to foster compelling, effective Jewish learning experiences for young Jews—has been a central theme of my life for as long as I can remember. I grew up influenced by dozens of Jewish educators in a variety of settings including Sunday and Hebrew school, youth groups, day camps, and group travel to Israel. I spent most of my childhood summers at Jewish overnight camp, deepening my connection to Judaism and building lifelong friendships. And, I engaged deeply in Jewish life in college and after graduation. Professionally, I spent three years as Program Director at Camp Alonim in Simi Valley, CA, and most recently worked at the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund of San Francisco in a number of capacities.

As a result of these experiences, I grew to understand the Jewish education landscape and the functions of a foundation program officer prior to joining the Jim Joseph Foundation team. Still, no life experiences fully prepare one for a job, which is why I was eager to get started in mid-April. Instead of an “easing in” period, I jumped right into the deep end—a deliberate decision by the Foundation. This rapid onboarding was invigorating and exciting, providing significant early exposure to a range of Foundation grants. Three of them in which I am involved, each at various stages of implementation, highlight pillars of the Foundation's efforts: funder collaboration; grants implemented in partnership with grantees; and evaluation. My reflections below hopefully offer insight into the Foundation’s strategic approach to grantmaking, as well as a new employee’s experience engaging early and often with grantees.

Funder Collaboration

I first began work on the Community-Based Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Initiative—one of the Foundation’s most complex and ambitious initiatives. Working with other professional team members, we developed a grant proposal for a community seeking funding as part of this collaborative effort to strengthen Jewish teen education in ten participating communities. I observed the amount of due diligence and analysis that informs the development of a grant proposal, and also gained an early understanding about the importance the Foundation places on funder collaboration. By engaging other national and local funders in this initiative, lessons are shared, dollars increase, successful models adapted, and Jewish teen learning opportunities are amplified. Sure, collaborating with other funders at this scope and scale takes effort and time, but the outcomes for Jewish teen education nationally are far greater than if any one funder tackled it alone.

Grants as Partnerships

The second grant in which I have been involved is in its very early stages (awarded in February this year) and aligns with a passion of mine: Jewish camping. Foundation for Jewish Camp’s (FJC) Hiddur Initiative aims to enhance Jewish learning and growth in Jewish camps by employing expert Jewish educators to work with participating camps. At a recent gathering to celebrate Sandy Edwards, who was the Foundation’s Associate Director of ten years, Chip Edelsberg presented a slide of the grant process when the Foundation launched in 2005. The slide was blank. But under Sandy’s leadership, the grant process today—from origination to closure—is robust and thoughtful. Working through these steps for Hiddur, I saw many examples of the true partnership between the Foundation and grantee. The Foundation works closely with the grantee to finalize the award letter, ensuring that both parties are comfortable with the deliverables and timing. Further, any changes to the budget or program design are made in partnership, with the grant’s goals and objectives as guiding principles in any decisions.

Evaluation

Finally, the third grant example is the Specialty Camps Incubator, another collaboration with FJC and one of the Jim Joseph Foundation’s most celebrated grants. In the second cohort of this initiative, four new specialty overnight camps were launched that blend Jewish learning and values with interests like sports, science, entrepreneurship, and more. This grant affirms (and demonstrated very strongly to me) the priority the Foundation places on evaluation. Prior to joining the Foundation team, while I knew of the Foundation’s commitment to evaluation, I did not fully appreciate how truly important it is to achieving outcomes. Evaluation results are disseminated to strengthen the field; successful models (like the North Shore Teen Initiative, BASIS—Israel Education Day School Project; Los Angeles High School Affordability Initiative, and B’yadenu) are documented to share for broader implementation; and existing Foundation initiatives are improved based on evaluation findings. For example, early evaluation results for the Specialty Camp Incubator uncovered the need for camps to add new session lengths to attract more campers. Now entering year two of the second cohort, enrollment is up across the board in part because of this change.

My first two months at the Jim Joseph Foundation have been overwhelmingly positive and provided a framework for me to quickly learn about the Foundation operations and strategies. I’ve immersed myself in grant proposals, logic models, budgets, evaluations, and annual reports. I’ve engaged in conversations with a number of co-funders and grantees. I’ve learned from skilled grantmakers and expert teachers. Onboarding can be challenging of course. But from my perspective, it is great to “jump” right in. My early experiences and quick learnings ultimately will benefit future grantees and co-funders with whom I work. The Foundation is undergoing an exciting time of transition—I am fortunate to be a part of it and to have the great opportunity to help advance Jewish education.

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The Jim Joseph Foundation invests in promising Jewish education grant initiatives. We partner with effective organizations that seek to inspire young people to discover the joy of living vibrant Jewish lives.