Turning off the Bypass Road of Israel Education

In the West Bank, one can travel directly from Jerusalem to Efrat to Ariel without having to go through Nablus, Rafa, or Ramallah.  There is a bypass road that avoids areas deemed to be troublesome, problematic, or unsafe. There is beauty (and efficiency) in a pathway that goes directly from point to point; a thoroughfare that provides feelings of safety and security while circumventing locations that are considered less desirable.

As a traveler, however, the bypass road is problematic. The traveler is only exposed to and interacts with a narrow group of people and their perspectives on life. Call it tribalism, isolationism, exceptionalism – the truth is one can traverse Israel and the Territories without ever seeing many of its inhabitants. The traveler on this road is cut off from difference.

At the end of January, I participated in Makom’s pilot training seminar, Dreams of Others, designed for educators seeking a deeper understanding of the Israeli Palestinian Conflict.  Over the course of five days, we went off the bypass road. Using the pedagogy of hesed (respect) and din (judgment) and a framework of dreams and nightmares to understand personal bespoke narratives, we visited the in-between spaces.  We visited the home of a Palestinian woman named Hinadi living in Silwan and the home of Ahron in Ir David, ostensibly in the same neighborhood while worlds apart.  We visited Mayor Oded Revivi in Efrat before meeting Ashraf Al Ajrami, the former Minister of Detainees and Ex-Detainees Affairs in the Palestinian Government, in Atarot.  We met with Palestinian and Jewish devotees of civil society and those with completely divergent viewpoints.  As expected, we heard about the safety and security concerns of Jewish Israelis and of the civil rights and democracy challenges of the Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. But we also learned that no segment of people can be cast as binary.

First, the beauty. The trip was partially defined by hospitality. This ranged from rugelach to baklawa; from traditional coffees and teas to sodas and spirits. There was not a home, office, or classroom that we entered without being welcomed as any guest would be, with open arms. This visit was co-created by R. Joe Schwartz, R. Danny Weininger, and Osnat Fox (The Education Lab of the Jewish Agency), and lead educators Mohammad Darawshe and Rebecca Bardach. I mention this both to credit these talented educators and to highlight the importance of having a Palestinian / Israeli Arab perspective and presence on this journey and a significant focus on processing.  It is one thing to have speakers show up with varying views; it is another entirely to build a program together which engenders trust and candor.

Experiential education like this is not without its challenges. A 24-year old Palestinian nonprofit CEO who traveled to meet the group was not dropped off by her Palestinian taxi driver outside of the restaurant in Gush et Tzion- rather she was left more than 1/2 a kilometer away because the driver feared he would be shot when opening the door in this settlement community.  Additionally, on our final day of travel, we were forced to take literal side streets as the main roads in the West Bank were closed after the Israeli raid in the Jenin refugee camp.  A terrorist attack outside a Jerusalem synagogue; a shooting in the Silwan neighborhood; and rockets overhead in and around Gaza followed over the subsequent 48 hours.  While not constant, fear is a reality for many.

In many ways, the last two decades of Israel education (both metaphorically and in some instances literally) have taken place on bypass roads.  These scenic passageways exposed learners to Israel’s achievements in science and technology; advancements in arts & culture; academic and athletic successes; and humanitarian accolades, often under the banner Israel Beyond the Conflict. On this bypass road, many educators and programs avoided topics like the second Intifada, the Lebanon War, Gaza incursions, and terror attacks. Certainly, meaningful discourse about the conflict has existed in some Jewish education settings, and many entities have engaged with Jewish and Arab Israelis, Palestinians, and Arab communities across the Middle East as a touch point for Israel travel experiences.  But, across the field writ large, this has been more of the exception than the rule. There is a difference between making space for a conversation and intentionally, regularly incorporating it into curriculum and practice.  More and more organizations in the field of Israel education are finally doing the latter, and we think our community and our next generation will be better off for it.

This new vertical builds on the vital work of educators and practitioners in developing the field of Israel education over the last two decades. Organizations like The iCenter, the Israel Institute, Makom, The Shalom Hartman Institute, The Center for Israel Education, and Israel Studies departments across North America emerged during that time. Parallel to this, talented individuals helped found immersive Israel travel providers for youth and young adults, including Birthright, Honeymoon Israel, iTrek, Onward Israel (which is now a part of Birthright), RootOne, Tamid, and many others.  Organizations existed before this but were far less interconnected.

Jerusalem overlook with Palestinian children’s cemetery in the foreground adjacent to an excavation site in Ir David / City of David

Jerusalem overlook with Palestinian children’s cemetery in the foreground adjacent to an excavation site in Ir David/City of David

The Jim Joseph Foundation is now following the lead of other philanthropists who have led the charge by investing in Israel education that includes the conflict. Conflict education is the more multilayered approach that engages with different perspectives and people. This approach trusts that offering a balance of perspectives will not turn a learner away; rather, it will have the opposite effect. Sivan Zakai, a researcher and professor who directs the Children Learning about Israel Project, argues that conflict can and should be taught from as early as Kindergarten and progressively build on that education as students increase their depth of knowledge and begin to understand more about nuance. Some organizations and initiatives, like For the Sake of Argument and Resetting the Table, focus on how to have and learn from courageous conversations. Others, like The iCenter’s Conflict Education, teach educators directly about the history and present of the conflict. Still others, like Makom, incorporate travel components to Israel and Palestinian territories as a way to deepen Israel education in a way that reflects the learners’ needs and the realities of our world today.

While the newer interventions themselves are formidable, we continue to invest in market studies, applied research, and evaluation to better understand both the opportunities and needs in the field today. Particularly over the last two years, practitioners, educators, and funders have encouraged many organizations in the field to embed conflict content into core offerings to create a deeper and more holistic understanding of Israel for learners.  The iCenter recently found that more than 130 initiatives now incorporate learning about conflict education related to Israel and the Middle East into their curricula.  This was not the case five years ago.

The purpose of the Dreams of Others Seminar and other conflict education experiences is not to change the minds of the participants. There is no political agenda. Rather, it is a deep learning and training opportunity to help educators create experiences for learners premised on connection, meaning, and purpose. Young Jewish learners are asking and, in some cases, yearning for an authentic approach to Israel that includes dialogue about the conflict from many vantage points.  In juxtaposing their universalist human values with their particular Jewish ones, many are finding the topic of Israel more of a wedge than an opportunity to engage. These immersive experiences can help them navigate and lean into nuance and varying perspectives. Similar to our belief in trust-based philanthropy as a methodology to achieve effective relational grantmaking we believe that we should trust the young Jewish women and men we serve to engage in courageous conversations as they build their complex identities.

We are grateful to the bold educators who are charting this path and engaging learners in holistic Israel education experiences—taking all of us off the bypass roads for a more impactful, more authentic learning experience.

Steven Green is Senior Director, Grants Management and Compliance at the Jim Joseph Foundation.

originally published in the Jerusalem Post.

Today’s Investments for Future Impact: How a Network Organization Leads a Field

Reflections from the Prizmah Conference

A joy of being part of the funder-grantee relationship is experiencing the grantee-partner’s work first-hand. In particular, I am grateful that the Jim Joseph Foundation prioritizes staff time to experience field-wide gatherings hosted by grantee-partners, many of which are occurring for the first time following the height of the pandemic.

Recently, I was privileged to attend the Prizmah conference in Denver, where I learned alongside educators, education leaders, lay leaders, content experts, funders and other inspiring colleagues. While I was a little nervous congregating with so many people again, I was immediately put at ease by the warmth and creative energy that was palpable throughout the conference (as well as thoughtfully planned break time to breathe in the fresh Colorado air).

Experiencing the conference reinforced for me the importance of investments in network organizations. These organizations, such as Foundation for Jewish Camp, JCCA, along with Prizmah and others, are uniquely positioned to bring together many diverse voices in the field to celebrate and learn from each other’s successes, while also addressing challenges and imagining and planning for a vibrant Jewish future.

Now in its seventh year as an organization, Prizmah’s conference exemplified its readiness to sustain and grow the day school field by supporting the people and schools who positively influence young learners and help develop them into leaders. Here are some insights into how Prizmah leveraged the conference to pursue this vision:

  • A Platform for Futurist Thinking – By bringing education futurists to speak at the conference, Prizmah helped reinforce the need for day schools to anticipate not just what families and educators want now, but to think about these needs with a long-term view, ten, twenty years out. What should Jewish/secular curriculum look like then? What will parent engagement need to account for then? What will student and educator needs be at that time? What will an endowment look like that ensures financial stability and offers long-term affordability models? Many conference participants had already begun to think in this way and about these questions, but futurist speakers like Lisa Kay Solomon, Ariel Raz, and Louie Montoya helped to inspire, prioritize, and concretize how to develop plans with a level of specificity that address these areas.
  • An Investment in the Entire Ecosystem – Prizmah has a very holistic approach to the day school field’s opportunities and challenges. In this regard, Prizmah as a network organization is a conduit for the Foundation to invest in educators that influence myriad learners, families, and communities each year. At the conference, while some of the conversations focused on the local level, it was clear that people were craving macro level systemic content and resources. Conference participants, for example, wanted to hear how Prizmah network members and partners are addressing educator pipeline, recruitment, and retention challenges. While these are three distinct challenges, they are also clearly related. Prizmah, as the field leader, can help craft potential solutions to solve one of the challenges in ways that account for the relationship between all three. This complex set of issues is an area of interest to the Jim Joseph Foundation as it relates to not only day school education but the broader Jewish education sector as well.
  • Relevant and Timely Programming and Resources – The theme of the Prizmah conference, Creative Spirit, says it all. This mindset was evident in every detail of the conference program design as well as all that Prizmah offers to its network members and beyond. In addition to the speakers, learning sessions, and networking, the conference provided a real time space for organizations to share their resources and address nearly anything a day school education leader would need to support their educators and, in turn, their students and families. From youth mental health, to diversity, equity, and inclusion, to digital technology tools, network organizations are able to offer support through these gatherings at the individual, community, and macro levels. And while virtual conferences can be valuable, especially when being physically together is not an option, there is no substitute for in-person gatherings and resource sharing.

Prizmah is a partner that both thinks granularly and also with a larger “systems lens.” This perspective is critical in developing viable interventions at a scale that leads to field-wide solutions. Forward-thinking thought leadership, partnerships, collaborations, and investments will help build a shared vision for the future of Jewish day schools. I am proud to work alongside our Prizmah colleagues and other strategic partners to support these efforts so that more educators are well positioned to positively influence the lives of young people today and in the future.



How Culture Change and Data Gathering Go Hand in Hand

Earlier this year, the Foundation shared its strategy around DEI. As 2022 concludes, Stacie Cherner, Director of Evaluation and Learning at the Jim Joseph Foundation, reflects on the process of culture change and data gathering in this context, progress made, and the work to do moving forward.

In 2017 the Jim Joseph Foundation entered a two-year process to develop a new strategic framework for grantmaking. We began with fundamental questions: What had we learned in the years since the Foundation began? How has Jewish education in the United States (which is the core focus of our funding) evolved? What could we uniquely contribute to this field during the next phase of our work?

As we’ve articulated, the Foundation believes that Jewish learning and the Jewish community will be richer when leaders, educators, and participants better reflect the full diversity of today’s Jewish population. Working toward this vision has been a priority of the Foundation’s for many years. However, developing a new strategic framework provided an opportunity to be even more explicit about this work by adding “engaging diverse voices and partners” as one of our core guiding principles.  Today, we elevate this principle in our grantmaking strategies, in our hands-on work with grantee partners, and in every department of the Foundation.

Throughout the Foundation’s two-year process, we relied on trusted partners to help us learn about needs to address in this area and some best practices to do so. In particular, the Jews of Color Initiative’s Counting Inconsistencies and Beyond the Count reports concretized our learning that, while exact numbers may be unknown, a large percentage of Jews of Color experience racism in Jewish settings and are marginalized. In addition, they are woefully underrepresented in positions of leadership in organizations in our community.

This learning added urgency to our commitment to elevate diverse voices and perspectives both internally and in our external communications. This includes how we build teams, seek consultants, make grants, build internal processes, and share learnings and information. In this regard, the Foundation itself has undergone a culture change in how we think about and approach work in this space.

We made strides this year in articulating what success looks like—such as more grantees elevating DEI in their work—as a result of making these commitments. The Foundation also asked questions and gathered data and insights related to our portfolios of grants, looking at investments across sets or groups of grantees. We restarted a data collection method—an annual survey of grantees—that we paused during strategic planning. In sync with our value of data-informed decision making, we piloted a new version of our annual grantee survey to ask about participation rates (how many people were reached and how often), and we added new questions to help us understand to what extent these participants represent the diversity of the Jewish community.

We know these data collection methods are new for most and the language and questions themselves are appropriately evolving. But most important to us at this moment is whether our grantees are even trying to collect this important information. If more and more say “yes, we know the answer to this question” instead of “we don’t know the answer because we don’t collect that information,” then we can ascertain that progress is being made. At the same time, we understand that culture change does not happen without a commitment by the organization’s leaders. We include additional questions on our survey about the diversity of boards and senior leadership teams.

Finally, this year, we also collected diversity indicators for our leadership at the Foundation. Concurrent to that, we doubled down on our efforts to build a diverse team as we fill open positions on our board and staff. We have integrated these goals into recent searches by working with consultants to identify diverse pools of candidates beyond our direct networks and through specialized anti-bias training for interviewers. On the program side, we are also investing in a new assessment of our investments to elevate diversity through the programming, advocacy, and research of organizations such as JIMENA, Keshet, the Safety Respect Equity Network, and the Jews of Color Initiative.

Culture change is deep, and often challenging work. Asking these types of questions is one catalyst, we believe, to creating large-scale change. If we don’t ask, we don’t communicate that we want to learn and see these changes occur. By asking these questions, the Foundation is inviting our partners to learn with us. We believe a proactive intention to create a culture of belonging within the programs we support and to bring in a multitude of voices in leadership makes for the best decision making and has the greatest potential to expand opportunities for connection, meaning, and purpose for young Jews, their families, and friends. We have explored our own assumptions and looked to uncover bias. Going forward, we are ready to continue listening, learning, and changing.



Everyone’s Professional Journey Can Add Value to a Team

When I accepted my position at the Jim Joseph Foundation earlier this summer, I was beyond excited, proud, and, to be honest, a little bit nervous. I am new-ish to San Francisco and moved between three States last year. This is my first in-person hybrid office role in over two years and the first role in which I focus exclusively on grantmaking.

I am still navigating many parts of what is new and feel very fortunate that I am surrounded by people who want to teach me, support me, and assure me that it is ok to be vulnerable. At the same time, those very same people also want to learn from me. This gives me a sense of pride and confidence as I continue to find my footing. Whether sharing how I approached experiential program design for the Seattle Jewish community or how I navigated building positive workplace cultures across multiple sectors and countries, I can bring helpful insights to the practice of trust-based Jewish philanthropy. This collaborative workplace framework—in which professional team members are simultaneously students and teachers—aligns beautifully with hitlamdoot, the Jim Joseph Foundation staff value of ongoing learning.

As I reflect on what helped lead me to this role at the Foundation, certain experiences, traits, and practices stand out as particularly formative and have served me well. Everyone has their own list of formative moments that evolves and grows over their professional journey. The Foundation believes that the best grantmakers have rich experience working in other settings and can bring direct field experience to their roles. In this regard, any organization looking to add new professional team members can keep in mind the array of candidate experiences and backgrounds that might add value to their professional team. Cultivated at different stages of my academic and professional career, here are some of the ways I approach my work and look to elevate the new professional team around me:

  1. Leading with Empathy – I was not surprised that my recent CliftonStrengths assessment identified empathy as my number one strength. I have always been a people person who feels most complete when I know I am connecting with others and advancing positive change. Though not always common practice in the corporate sector, I approached my work in entertainment and luxury marketing with this mindset and tried to help foster systemic change by modeling empathic behavior. Whether working in the for-profit or non-profit sector, I have learned that empathy is an essential trait, especially during challenging moments. As I begin to interact with grantee-partners, I try to first gain an understanding and relate to the challenges they encounter in the field, which helps me support them in the best way possible to succeed.
  2. Practicing Cultural Competence – This concept is one of my favorite take-aways from my Master of Science in Social Work degree program. At its core, cultural competence is about having awareness and open-mindedness across differences, which is necessary when working with and supporting diverse groups of people. In practice, cultural competence is all about being curious and respectful, especially as I develop new relationships and partnerships with colleagues both in and outside of the Jewish community.
  3. Finding Leadership Opportunities at All Levels and for All Team Members – Throughout my career, no matter where I sat within an organization, I always found opportunities to be a leader. From mentoring early-career colleagues to find their leadership voice, to taking on assignments outside of my job description, these leadership opportunities helped  me develop authentic connections with colleagues throughout an organization. This, in turn, helped me feel heard when I later brought recommendations to executive leadership about the direction of the organization moving forward.
  4. Approaching Time with Intention – Time is one of our most precious commodities. When I was a community engagement professional juggling so many competing priorities, I learned quickly that I had to be very thoughtful with how I structured my schedule. For this reason, I am a big fan of labeling blocks of time on my calendar so I (and my colleagues) can visualize how I am going to be productive between independent projects, meetings, and self-care (yes, it is ok to block time for a walk too!). Also, when it comes to designing program experiences or even 1:1 meetings–whether with colleagues, grantee-partners, or peer funders–I find it helpful to outline the purpose and include time at the end to review what is happening next. If you are not already familiar with Priya Parker’s work, she is the go-to expert on The Art of Gathering.

My experiences over many years shaped the professional I am today and how I show up in the world. Some of my Foundation team members share these experiences and traits. In other instances, I am bringing something entirely new to the team. As organizations hire new team members, candidates’ backgrounds, experiences, and practices can both add something new and reinforce how a professional team approaches its work. Different perspectives from different team members help to make a better team. Recognizing the value of different kinds of experiences will help our field bring new voices from a variety of career paths into the mix, ultimately expanding the field’s pipeline and strengthening our collective impact. I am grateful for this opportunity where I can continue learning, leading, and creating change alongside an incredible community of colleagues.

Jenna Hanauer is a Program Officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation.


Everyone Has a Role: My Experiences Shaping Culture within the Jewish Philanthropic Space

Where we work is often where we spend a significant portion of our time. Thus, the culture we experience at work (even when virtual, at home) deeply influences our lives. Before merely experiencing workplace culture, it has to be created—sometimes with great intentionality over years of planning, and sometimes rapidly and organically, borne of necessity.

After the recent racially motivated shooting in Buffalo, for example, Mallory Morales, Office Coordinator at the Jim Joseph Foundation, and I initiated what we termed Community Conversations—opportunities for our Foundation colleagues to come together in a safe, supportive space to engage in learning, discussion, and difficult conversations with room to embrace mistakes. These Community Conversations weren’t planned over years or even months. But as a queer, indigenous, Jewish, woman of color, I was heavily impacted by the shooting in Buffalo, the ongoing inhumane treatment of black, brown, and indigenous people in this country, and the continued gun violence we experience. I wanted to share my feelings openly so colleagues understood the heavy weight these incidents can carry for employees of color and make space for others who might feel similarly outraged, called to act, and/or saddened by these events. I also wanted to know that my colleagues were allies with me. The conversation allowed our organization to collectively process and reflect while feeling supported by co-workers.

Increasingly, as our field emphasizes having a strong, positive, inclusive workplace culture that fosters these types of conversations, field leaders also think about how best to create that culture. From my time both as a foundation professional currently and previously as Director at Sha’ar Zahav—one of the first LGBTQ+ synagogues, founded in 1977, to serve as a dedicated space for queer Jews in San Francisco—I have been a part of culture building in two different environments. In both places, I’ve experienced how all members of the team play a vital role in shaping organizational culture.

After just a few days at Sha’ar Zahav, I experienced a culture of welcoming and belonging. I was warmly greeted and invited in by the community. For me, this was new and refreshing. Growing up in Los Angeles in the ‘90s and early 2000’s, it was certainly different from the experiences my family and I had at synagogues. Throughout my time at Sha’ar Zahav, I noticed that being welcomed with open arms (figurative and literally) was not solely because I was an employee. This welcoming nature was woven into the culture of the community. Out of a history of being othered, as queer folks, Sha’ar Zahav intentionally created a culture for individuals to be fully embraced, whether they were a first-timer or long-time member, Jew or other faith.

In this culture, I felt I could finally relax and focus on what mattered—my work. I didn’t encounter questions I faced at other Jewish spaces, and more generally the white spaces, I grew up around: “who did you come here with?,” “what are you?,” “where are you from?,” “how are you Jewish?,” and other questions we’ve now come to understand as microaggressions, that often result in loss of self-esteem, feelings of exhaustion, damage to the ability to thrive in an environment, mistrust of peers, staff and the institution, and decreases in participation.

Everyone helped create this culture, from senior staff to junior staff, lay leaders, and congregational members. I learned how intentional an organization must be to cultivate culture. The Sha’ar Zahav community spoke openly about culture development and in its Siddur stated, “we begin each service by singing and linking arms with the people next to us, reminding us that whether we are long-time members of Sha’ar Zahav or this is our first time in a Jewish setting, we are all welcome.” Prior to Covid-19, Hinei Ma Tov was traditionally chanted while linking arms with the stranger next to you, epitomizing the inclusive culture. As Engagement Director, I focused on increasing membership and fundraising. During my three years at Sha’ar Zahav, the organization grew in membership by 47%. We accomplished this growth through listening and genuinely caring about our community. Because I am an inherently curious person, I developed a keen desire to listen to new (or potentially new) member stories and truly learn about their lives. Coming from a career in Business Development for Institutional Asset Management, prior to moving into the non-profit space, it was a shift in how I developed relationships—from an emphasis on caring primarily about metrics, performance, and the bottom line, to prioritizing human connection.

As part of Sha’ar Zahav’s all-female staff of five, I admired the passion, dedication, and discipline exemplified by incredible women living out their personal and spiritual values. I saw the challenges working for a local nonprofit funded primarily by the community it serves (some LGBTQ+ communities are at a financial disadvantage). This challenge is not unique to Sha’ar Zahav. Because many organizations that serve historically marginalized communities also seek funding directly from their constituents, local nonprofits that often serve as dedicated spaces are forced to make difficult budget decisions. These decisions impact staff and the organization’s ability to provide services to communities that need it most for a sense of belonging, connection, meaning, and purpose.

Experiencing both Sha’ar Zahav’s challenges and culture deeply informed my decision to join the Jim Joseph Foundation as a Grant Operations Associate in July 2020.  I wanted to make a positive impact in the lives of future generations; to serve more people at a larger scale, and to influence change. I also wanted to be in a professional setting that both valued culture and understood it to be something shaped collaboratively and ongoing. In this regard, my personal values aligned with the Foundation’s values.

The Foundation’s culture of belonging—where employees are encouraged to be who they truly are—helps make this possible. I appreciate our proactive approach to culture building. In the first few weeks after joining the team, we engaged in CircleUp’s training sessions to learn Effective Strategies To Interrupt Implicit Bias, Microaggressions, Privilege, and Inequities. Culture change of this nature is iterative and collaborative, and for many organizations can be challenging—some DEI initiatives in the workplace can result in backlash of racial equity efforts and a tendency for some colleagues to respond defensively by denying, distancing, or distorting. Understanding why this backlash most often occurs can help to minimize its likelihood and allow colleagues to “cope with their discomfort by choosing a fourth responsive strategy that is more productive: embracing the urge to dismantle unjust systems. Critically, this response is most likely when people both acknowledge systemic racism and see a role for themselves in restoring justice.”

Currently, the Foundation is in the midst of a deep review and update of internal policies and procedures with an equity focus, conducting one-on-one interviews with all professional team members, multiple trainings facilitated by external facilitators for team members, and goal setting exercises by each functional team. We have ongoing monthly internal learning and discussion groups addressing DEI (what we call Diverse Voices and Perspectives), all of which inform language the Foundation uses and shapes our approaches to grantmaking and evaluation. Across the organization, we are committed to elevating and including diverse voices and perspectives both internally and in our external communications.

Throughout the two years with the Foundation, I have grown professionally and am excited for what’s ahead! In addition to grants management and operations, I’ve taken on the opportunity to co-lead the Foundation’s DEI efforts and goal setting for two functional teams. Former Senior Program Officer Jon Marker and I presented at the 2022 PEAK Grantmaking conference on a session titled, Engaging Diverse Voices and Perspectives Within Mission-Specific Organizations; we described the systems and internal practices implemented across the Foundation to promote shared responsibility in pursuit of a more equitable philanthropic environment.

The Foundation’s Diverse Voices and Perspectives DEI efforts are imbued into our work, into our culture. As at Sha’ar Zahav, I play an active role in shaping and sharing this work with the field. Why are culture and dedicated spaces so important? Designing a culture of belonging (or creating dedicated spaces) is an investment that has the potential to nurture the capacity of historically marginalized individuals, in a reciprocal and equitable way, thereby helping to build thriving organizations that are innovative and better equipped to solve problems, find creative solutions, and best meet the needs of their constituents. Who better to find solutions than the individuals experiencing the problems firsthand? To understand these needs, individuals (and both young and older generations) also need to be included in decision making conversations. I have been fortunate to work for two organizations that shared a genuine desire to transform the “traditional” ways in which we understand how foundations and synagogues operate. And, it is precisely for this reason, I decided to work for both organizations.

Funders are in the especially powerful position to play an active role in shaping their organization’s culture and that of grantee-partners. I value the opportunity to be part of culture building. In our Jewish tradition, we are consistently reminded of our obligation to care for those around us and raise our voices in the face of oppression. We each have a role to play, we have the ability to create opportunities that reciprocally nurture and empower others—we have the ability to design and shape culture. Together, we can make the (Jewish) future safe and equitable for the generations to come.

Heidy Zohar Ramirez is a Grants Operations Associate at the Foundation. 

We Can Always Learn More: Our Approach to Evaluation and Research

Evaluation and research are integral to the Jim Joseph Foundation’s strategic philanthropy. Since the foundation’s inception in 2006, our approach to evaluation and research has evolved. Today, learnings both from major studies and smaller ones yield benefits for the foundation, grantee-partners and the field of Jewish education and engagement. By continuing to share this aspect of our strategic philanthropy publicly, we hope other peer funders, practitioner organizations and the broader field can glean lessons learned that inform their own efforts toward evaluation and research.

Since the earliest foundation grants, strong support of program evaluation reflected the foundation’s values of data-informed decision-making, accountability and transparency. The Jim Joseph Foundation historically has invested about 2% to 3% of its annual spending in learning. Most foundation grants have a percentage of their budget, at times up to 10%, dedicated to evaluation usually by an independent contractor. Supporting program evaluation in this manner is integral to the foundation’s strategy to build the capacity of its grantee-partner organizations. Evaluators assist grantee-partners to define measurable outcomes, articulate logic models, design data collection instruments and ultimately make sense of findings so that future activities have more likelihood of reaching successful outcomes. These efforts are proven to help programs and entire organizations achieve sustainability and ultimately, greater impact and outcomes. The degree to which organizations eventually can conduct evaluation internally is a positive and desirable outcome for the foundation. As we do with all aspects of our approach to philanthropy, we share more about the foundation’s evaluation process here.

In addition to evaluation of individual programs, the foundation invests in applied research and, increasingly, cross-portfolio evaluation (evaluation that involves several grantees working toward similar outcomes or with similar populations or in similar settings). With research and cross-portfolio evaluation, the goal is less to build the capacity of grantees and more to support the field and to answer questions the foundation asks about our investments and strategies — such as what age cohorts are most influenced by certain interventions, what learning experiences and platforms are most meaningful, and many more. After more than 15 years of grantmaking, the foundation is working towards common measurements across grants that have related goals, objectives and desired outcomes; and towards conducting evaluations of cohorts of grants that have shared purposes and similar grant outcomes. The successful creation of shared outcomes and measures across the community-based teen initiatives of the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative created ripple effects across the field, and we have sought to build on lessons learned from that effort. Importantly, we know that this type of work cannot be done without the invaluable input, participation, and collaboration of the grantee-partners themselves.

Our research portfolio ranges from large to small and everything in between. Large, applied research studies include the recently completed CASJE study of the career trajectories of Jewish educators. This was a multi-strand, multiyear study that has the potential to impact the field for years to come. Other research studies are relatively small and quick, such as the Benenson Strategy Group market research survey of American Jews about their experiences of the High Holidays in 2020. Oftentimes the foundation invests in applied research in partnership with peer foundations to build on our collective knowledge gained from previous research efforts in both the Jewish and secular worlds.

Finally, the foundation has begun to gather more comparable information from grantee-partners directly. An annual survey of grantees provides aggregate information about participation rates (how many people were reached and how often), and to what extent these participants reflect the diversity of the Jewish community. For many in the field, these data collection methods are new and the language and questions themselves are appropriately evolving. But most important to us at this moment is whether our grantees are simply trying to collect important information about the diversity of their participants. If more and more say “yes, we know the answer to this question” instead of “we don’t know the answer because we don’t collect that information,” then we know that at least minimal progress toward a more inclusive Jewish community is occurring. At the same time, we understand that culture change, especially in areas such as DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), does not happen without a commitment by the organization’s leaders. To that end, we include additional questions on our survey about the diversity of boards and senior leadership teams.

In any research endeavor, determining which questions to seek answers to and what methods can best garner those answers heavily informs how rigorous and quick the research efforts can be. Interpreting and processing findings, making connections between different research projects, and figuring out what findings need to be elevated for the field — and perhaps acted upon — are also vital components of applied learning. We accept that we don’t always have the luxury of a full set of answers to every question before we move forward. But we are intent, as we have always been, on turning evaluation and research into action. We also hold ourselves accountable to always be learning — to be in a constant state of asking, finding answers in appropriately rigorous ways and reflecting and acting. We welcome your feedback and insights on our approach to evaluation and research shared here, and information on your own efforts in this area of work too.

Stacie Cherner is director of research and learning at the Jim Joseph Foundation.

Building Something Together: How Our New Grant Category Supports Organizations’ Growth and Sustainability

For 15 years, the Jim Joseph Foundation has worked closely with grantee-partners and independent evaluators to support compelling, effective Jewish learning experiences. Our current strategic approach reflects the foundation’s learning about grantmaking practices and the wide variety of Jewish experiences that are effective. By publicly “unpacking” our strategy, we hope to share insights about strategic philanthropy and our approaches toward desired outcomes. By no means do we have all the answers; we continue to learn and especially appreciate learning with peers in the field (please see below for a request for your feedback!).

Today, one of our three strategic priorities is investing in Powerful Jewish Learning Experiences (PJLE). In this priority, the foundation grows and strengthens Jewish learning by investing in program models with deep and enduring effects on participants. Within the PJLE strategy, a new grant category termed “Build Grants” supports organizations ready for what we consider to be dramatic growth. Build Grants are predominantly a breadth play, although depth is a prerequisite, which is most often achieved through ongoing and/or immersive experiences that deliver proven Jewish learning outcomes. Build Grants support organizations to invest in their capacity to expand their programs and operations, thus engaging more people at different life stages in meaningful Jewish life. And importantly, we utilize these grants, in part, to support offerings that engage new audiences of young Jews whom we are not reaching with our existing investments.

Our hypothesis is that organizations of a certain size, meeting certain criteria, can receive a one-time infusion of growth capital enabling them to achieve an increased and sustainable level of budget, reach and outcomes by the grant’s end and the foundation’s possible exit. If successful, these shorter and more targeted investments focused on sustainable growth will position the foundation to accelerate the growth of more organizations than we have previously. While we have not yet concluded a Build Grant, we are supporting grantee-partners throughout their grant periods to execute the work and plan for our exit. Given the experimental nature of this grantmaking category, we want to learn as much as possible about this process to adjust our approach as needed. We will soon contract with an external evaluator to help us better understand where these grants are working and where they aren’t.

Importantly, we think that our relational grantmaking approach creates an environment where grantee-partners are willing to take this journey with us. One of the many unknowns is what comes at a Build Grant’s conclusion. While we envision Build Grants as one-time infusions of growth capital, some of these grants may conclude without the foundation exiting. Some grantee-partners may be renewed for another round of growth capital or may receive a new grant that aligns elsewhere in our portfolio. Thus far, we have found that navigating these unknowns in close partnership with our grantee-partners actually strengthens already strong working relationships and deepens mutual trust.

While certain aspects of this grantmaking approach have been part of the foundation’s DNA since inception, doing this intentionally and on this scale is new. In just the first two years of testing this hypothesis, learnings have led to changes. For example, the eight criteria for these grants are not quite as rigid as initially outlined. Still, in general, when considering Build Grants, we look for organizations with national reach that have mission alignment, strong and stable leadership, financial health and stability, a growth plan, annual baseline numbers of 1,000 participants, diversity in the Foundation’s portfolio, demonstrated Jewish learning outcomes and a culture of learning. We also have learned that many promising Build Grant candidates lack one or more of these readiness factors. In select cases, and after robust due diligence, we have made smaller grants to help organizations fully prepare to absorb a Build Grant. This has included grants like supporting an external strategic planning or evaluation consultancy.

The foundation’s evolving understanding of Jewish learning warranted our two-year planning process to refine our foundation’s overall grantmaking strategy. That strategy captures our desire (and responsibility, we believe) to develop a strong, sustainable ecosystem of Jewish organizations that can offer meaningful Jewish learning experiences in an ongoing way. As we developed that strategy and learned more about the field, we recognized how impactful Build Grants could be. They are an opportunity for growth and sustainability that, over time, can build a more robust and diverse ecosystem of powerful Jewish learning experiences.

Again, we appreciate that structuring these investments as we have is an experiment. With that in mind, we welcome feedback, learnings, and general insights from others in the field who share a similar goal or approach.

Aaron Saxe is a senior program officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation.

originally published in eJewish Philanthropy.

Start by Asking: How One Funder Elevates Non-Grantmaking Support

As a funder supporting organizations that create and provide Jewish learning opportunities, the Jim Joseph Foundation is inherently in a position of power in the funder-grantee relationship. While we acknowledge this reality, we also try to minimize this “power dynamic” when possible. Talented, committed grantee-partners are vital to realizing our aspiration and, guided by a relational approach to grantmaking, we strive to offer them more than just grant support. This can mean offering technical support, supporting data gathering or other research efforts, or filling a void either in the field or in their organization specifically.

In fact, non-monetary grant assistance has been a staple of our successful grantmaking for decades. In the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) 2018 report, Strengthening Grantees: Foundation and Nonprofit Perspectives, researchers noted that 83% of foundation CEOs say that their staff provides direct assistance beyond the grant and 67% enlist a 3rd party consultant to provide that support. Even with those promising numbers, the report shares a stark disconnect between what foundation professionals are offering and what nonprofit CEOs say they actually need. According to the report:

Almost all foundation leaders say that their foundation: 

  • feels responsible for strengthening grantees;
  • cares about grantee organizations’ overall health; and
  • is aware of grantees’ needs.

In contrast, the majority of nonprofit CEOs say: 

  • their foundation funders feel no or little responsibility for strengthening their organization;
  • most foundation funders do not care about strengthening the overall health of their organization; and
  • most foundation funders do not ask about their organization’s needs beyond funding.

The report shared dichotomous perspectives about who makes decisions about consultancies, the nature of ancillary services provided, whether follow-up takes place to the interventions that are provided, and overall responsiveness to requests beyond the dollars granted. While some of this divide can be attributed to communications challenges, more can be attributed to succumbing to the power divide.

Undoubtedly, we have made some mistakes with our grantee-partners that are noted in this report. Operating from an office that in certain cases is thousands of miles away from these partners leaves plenty of room for error and assumption. We have discovered some of these through three different iterations of CEP’s Grantee Perception Report and recognize that there are grantee perspectives that remain un-shared due to the grantee-funder relationship.

Still, relational grantmaking is an attempt to ensure that knowledge-sharing and open communication are prioritized by both funder and grantee. This approach creates more meaningful and impactful investments. These last two pandemic years have shone an additional light on the disparities between the resources of the funders and the grantee-partners. They have also provided an opportunity to reflect and engage in new ways while many programs pivoted or halted, initially. During this time, we have heeded grantee-partners’ pleas for greater support in a few key non-grantmaking areas. This has included:

  • Developing and sharing a video series, Non-Profit Budgeting Best Practices: How Stories are Told and Partnerships are Strengthened Through Numbers in Spreadsheets. The series title captures the oft-overlooked role a budget can play in fostering a positive funder-grantee relationship. We do not offer a prescriptive methodology for how everyone should present their financial reports. Rather, the practices are intended to offer help in compiling budgets that articulate an organization’s priorities, ambitions, and story. In this regard, the descriptive videos cover areas and questions that grantee-partners have asked us during the Foundation’s years of grantmaking.
  • Providing support for scenario and contingency planning, offering evaluation and research support, and sharing a platform for grantee partners to have professional learning communities. The scenario and contingency planning included ongoing, one-on-one coaching with experts in addition to group learning sessions.
  • Revising our annual survey instruments to determine what other support is needed by our partners that may not have been solicited or voluntarily shared with us previously.

These examples build on some of the Foundation’s long-standing practices, in line with our belief in relational grantmaking. This includes:

Giving space for the grantee-partner to set meeting agendas

This includes opportunities to choose how often to share. Over the last two years in particular, some grantee-partners wanted to check-in with us more — to update us on developments, to think through a challenge together — while others wanted less frequent conversations. The “rate of communication” takes on greater importance when people’s time and energy are stretched thin. By asking how often grantee-partners wanted to connect with us and also by making those interactions as productive as possible, we could calibrate accordingly.

Showing vulnerability

We do not have all the answers, nor do we have to pretend that we do. Whether the grantmaking professional has been in the field for one year or 20, it is a fact that at this very moment, the person with the most information, context, and experience is the practitioner running the organization or specific program being funded. We have the benefit of regularly studying a broader picture than any singular organization can display, but we lack the understanding of the intricacies of every offering.

At the Jim Joseph Foundation, we aspire that Jewish youth, their families, and friends will lead lives filled with connection, meaning, and purpose. To achieve this, we must continue to ask questions of our funding and grantee partners alike: What knowledge and information is needed currently, what do you anticipate needing moving forward, and what has been most useful to your organization in the past? The above examples are just a few of many. We hear from grantee-partners about needs in evaluation, R&D, communication, and many other areas of technical and personnel-based assistance. The best way to learn more about these areas — and to identify others — is to start by asking.

Steven Green is Senior Director, Grants Management and Compliance for the Jim Joseph Foundation.

originally published by the Center for Effective Philanthropy

How Budgets Can Strengthen a Funder-Grantee Relationship

At the Jim Joseph Foundation, we aspire that Jewish youth, their families, and friends will lead lives filled with connection, meaning, and purpose. Talented, committed grantee-partners are vital to realizing this aspiration and, guided by a relational approach to grantmaking, we strive to offer them more than just grant support. This can be technical support, data gathering or other research efforts, or something else that fills a void either in the field or in their organization specifically. Today, we are responding to a need with a video series, Non-Profit Budgeting Best Practices: How Stories are Told and Partnerships are Strengthened Through Numbers in Spreadsheets.

The series title captures the oft-overlooked role a budget can play in fostering a positive funder-grantee relationship. To be clear, we do not offer a prescriptive methodology for how everyone should present their financial reports. Nor do we require a special budget format for every grant approved. The Jim Joseph Foundation employs a type of trust-based philanthropy that employs guidelines rather than red lines and gives the benefit of the doubt to our grantee-partners. They are the ones who actualize the initiatives the Foundation cares about. From a reporting perspective, we adjust our submission needs based on the amount requested (i.e. under $100k; $100k-$250k; $250k and up). We also only request formalized reporting annually since we have regular communications with grantee-partners at least once per quarter. This provides space to discuss a majority of the updates, successes, and challenges of the grant. 

With that in mind, the practices in these videos are intended to offer help in compiling budgets that articulate an organization’s priorities, ambitions, and story—while also helping organizations anticipate questions about financials from funders. It is our hope that these videos will provide a succinct illustration of what we have learned over the past fifteen years as best practices in the space. Organizations can select what makes sense for their needs. We offer what has worked for us and provide insight into why we think budgets prepared in this manner are effective. Even as we share these, we recognize that every situation has its own factors that inform the grant budget and application process. Over the last two years, for example, the Foundation took new steps to streamline a parallel application process through the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund (JCRIF). The Foundation understood that some grantee-partners were facing unprecedented challenges caused by the pandemic and did not have time or resources for a normal grant application process. They also needed support quickly. In this instance and others, we heard from our partners and did our best to respond accordingly while also continuing to help them be the best versions of themselves. 

Based on questions we received from grantee-partners, the series is comprised of five sections that can either be watched collectively or as independent videos:

  • Part 1: Welcome to Nonprofit Budgeting Best Practices
  • Part 2: Best Practices of an Organizational Budget
  • Part 3: Best Practices of a Program Budget
  • Part 4: Understanding Annual Budget Reporting and Variances
  • Part 5: Understanding Cumulative Cash Reserves

As a funder supporting organizations that create and provide Jewish learning opportunities, the Jim Joseph Foundation inherently is in a position of power in the funder-grantee relationship. While we acknowledge this reality, we also try to minimize this “power dynamic” when possible. So, when we produced the series, we tried to do so with great care and intention. In this regard, the descriptive videos cover areas and questions that our grantee-partners have asked us during the Foundation’s years of grantmaking. To ensure that we were responding directly and clearly to their needs, our development process included time for grantee partner review and input.

It’s important to note that we also saw an opportunity to help grantee-partners better reflect the full costs of their work into proposals. Many experts in our field have addressed the challenge of the Overhead Myth—the misnomer that intrinsically the less an organization spends on administration, the more efficient it is. We believe for an organization to function effectively with an extended time horizon, it needs to share its real costs. This requires the grantee-partner to trust that the funder will act in the best interest of the grantee-partner. The funder also needs to demonstrate flexibility about the levels and percentages of those costs.

Non-monetary grant assistance has been a staple in thinking around successful grantmaking for decades. In the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) 2018 report, Strengthening Grantees: Foundation and Nonprofit Perspectives, researchers noted that 83% of foundation CEOs say that their staff provides direct assistance beyond the grant and 67% enlist a 3rd party consultant to provide that support.  Even with those promising numbers, the report shares a stark disconnect between what foundation professionals are offering and what nonprofit CEOs say they actually need. According to the report:

Almost all foundation leaders say that their foundation:

  • feels responsible for strengthening grantees;
  • cares about grantee organizations’ overall health; and
  • is aware of grantees’ needs.

In contrast, the majority of nonprofit CEOs say: 

  • their foundation funders feel no or little responsibility for strengthening their organization;
  • most foundation funders do not care about strengthening the overall health of their organization; and
  • most foundation funders do not ask about their organization’s needs beyond funding.

The report shared dichotomous perspectives about who makes decisions about consultancies, the nature of ancillary services provided, whether follow-up takes place to the interventions that are provided, and overall responsiveness to requests beyond the dollars granted. While some of this divide can be attributed to communications challenges, more can be attributed to succumbing to the power divide.

Undoubtedly, we have made some mistakes with our grantee-partners that are noted in this report. Operating from an office that in certain cases is thousands of miles away from these partners leaves plenty of room for error and assumption, and we recognize that there are grantee perspectives that remain un-shared due to the nature of the grantee-funder relationship.

Still, relational grantmaking is an attempt to ensure that knowledge-sharing and open communication are prioritized by both funder and grantee. This approach creates more meaningful and impactful investments. Grantee partners expressed a desire for more support in budgeting. We do our best to respond. In the same way that we engaged grantee partners in the process, we want to continue to ask questions of our funding and grantee partners alike: What knowledge and information are needed currently, what do you anticipate needing moving forward, and what has been most useful to your organization in the past? The video series is only one of many areas that we think could be addressed. We hear from grantee partners about needs in evaluation, R&D, communication, and many other areas of technical and personnel-based assistance. The best way to learn more about these areas—and to identify others—is to start by asking.

originally published in Candid Learning for Funders

Jewish Wisdom and Strategic Decision Making Amid Changing Times

In recent years, my chevrutah (study partner) and I have enjoyed studying musar – a body of Jewish thought focused on human character development and the many middot / character traits an individual can cultivate throughout their lifetime. Menachem Mendel Lefin of Satanov dedicates an entire chapter of his book Cheshbon HaNefesh (1808) to the middah of charitzut / decisivenessHe states, “All your acts should be preceded by deliberation; when you have reached a decision, act without hesitation.” This important advice is meant to empower the learner to avoid the pitfalls of decision paralysis, inviting them to develop plans and stick with them.

But like many teachings in musar (and in life) there are equally compelling lessons that stand in opposition to Lefin’s teachings. One Talmudic source, in Taainit 20b, explains that a person should be rach k’kaneh, “soft like a reed, not be stiff like a cedar.” This text teaches that we need to bend our plans when new information challenges our assumptions.

So which is it? Be decisive or be flexible? Navigating paradoxes like this are at the core of musar practice—acknowledging contradictory truths and becoming adept at knowing when to rely on one or the other. Contemporary leadership theorists also explore this same notion using the language of “polarity thinking.” Doctors Valerie Erhlich and Brendan Newlon summarized this in their May 2019 report for the Jim Joseph Foundation stating:

Polarity thinking is about navigating a set of two qualities that are both beneficial, yet they exist in tension with one another… Managing that tension effectively can be challenging, because the most appropriate response to a specific circumstance might be an expression that favors one or another of the pair – maintaining a simple balance between the two might be impossible or undesirable.

At the Jim Joseph Foundation, we navigate these dynamics as we continuously shape, implement, and reflect on the Foundation’s grantmaking strategy. A persistent challenge in grantmaking work—especially these past two years—is to determine how and when should we stay firm and how and when should we be flexible amid constantly changing circumstances.

This piece explores our attempts to shape and re-shape our grantmaking plans in recent years—pre-pandemic, during the pandemic, and this current period of emerging (we hope) into a post-pandemic world. In examining our journey through the lens of this polarity—being firm and being flexible—we hope to offer insights on this ongoing internal decision-making process. We welcome a dialogue about whether this story sounds familiar, or not, as you reflect on how the organization you are connected to made its own decisions during this tumultuous time.

Chapter 1: Pre-pandemic
In 2017 the Jim Joseph Foundation entered a two-year process to develop a new strategic framework for its grantmaking. We began with fundamental questions:

  • What had we learned in the years since the Foundation began?
  • How has Jewish education in the United States (which is the core focus of our funding) evolved?
  • What could we uniquely contribute to this field during the next phase of our work?

These questions guided our dialogue with external partners, professional staff, and our board. Eventually, we arrived at a new theory of change that included core assumptions, guiding principles, long-term outcomes, and a set of three strategic priorities to invest in (1) powerful Jewish learning experiences, (2) exceptional Jewish leaders and educators, and (3) R&D for the future of Jewish learning. To accompany this Theory of Change, we also developed logic modelsgrant categories, and a detailed five year implementation plan. All of this was based on careful thinking, assumptions about where the sector was headed, and how we believed we could be a positive influence.

By January of 2020, after reviewing these plans with each of our key stakeholders, we were excited to implement our new strategies and to determine how to measure our progress. Yet, as the old Yiddish adage goes, “mann tracht, un Gott lacht”—we humans plan, and God laughs.

Chapter 2: During the Pandemic
When the world turned upside-down in March of 2020, like everyone, we recognized the need to be rach k’kaneh – soft like a reed – in the face of uncertainty:

Another important focus was taking a more proactive stance around learning and sharing about the pandemic’s effects on Jewish education.

  • We built our expertise in emerging areas of need: strategic restructuring, unemployment, stress and anxiety, increased interest in online learning/digital engagement, growing interest in home-based and do-it-yourself Judaism, and rising communal desire to address systemic racism within Jewish education.
  • We funded research to better understand how young Jewseducators, and funders were responding to the crisis; what solutions were and weren’t working; and what creative adaptations might be worth sustaining long-term.
  • We increased efforts to share these learnings through published reports, presentations, and small group conversations.

As we dedicated time and resources to these new priorities, we made difficult choices about scaling back in other areas. We postponed some of the new grantmaking programs from our pre-pandemic implementation plans, recognizing they would need to wait until we, and our grantee partners, had enough bandwidth to design and implement them. We also temporarily moved from multi-year to one-year grants to retain greater flexibility for the Foundation and our grantee partners. This was particularly difficult since we knew that it would introduce additional uncertainty for grantee partners who had previously planned for a longer-term commitment from the Foundation.

Working in this more flexible way was unfamiliar territory for the Jim Joseph Foundation team (and counter-cultural for many who work in institutional philanthropy) but we recognized the need and opportunity to practice being rach k’kaneh, soft like a reed.

Chapter 3: Emerging (we hope) into a post-pandemic world
In recent months, as the world is moving cautiously back to in-person gatherings, our team has begun to methodically revisit the long-term plans we designed prior to the pandemic. While the world has changed, we are encouraged that some of our previous assumptions about the evolution of Jewish education hold true, in some cases even more so than before.

Because our core strategies were built around fundamentals like building organizational capacity and investing in talent, the basic framework of our plans still serves us well. Similarly, the opportunity for increased investment in R&D remains unchanged and, within a context of such rapid change and possibilities, is perhaps more pronounced than ever.

At the same time, as we get into the details of the implementation plans we previously designed, we see the need to update them with a new grantmaking mindset and a new understanding of what is important to and needed by our beneficiaries. That in mind, we are:

  • Updating what was previously planned. As we begin to launch new programs mapped out in 2019, we are redesigning them for increased flexibility and new features such as integrated online and in-person learning, a greater emphasis on wellness, and centering more diverse voices and partners.
  • Returning to our best practices. Starting in April 2021, we gratefully returned to multi-year grantmaking, working with our grantee partners to make sure that their plans remain both relevant and flexible in the face of new realities and continued uncertainty. In some cases, we are continuing with shorter-term investments to support our grantee partners to spend additional time rewriting their multi-year plans.
  • Maintaining new collaborations. Working with the coalitions we joined to engage in emergency grantmaking, we are exploring ways to sustain new collaborative investing practices such as joint proposal invitations and coordinated, rapid response grantmaking.
  • Doubling down on what we know is needed. The pandemic has also sharpened our understanding of the importance of R&D as a strategy to address shifting societal and marketplace trends to guard against organizational stagnation and pursue new opportunities.

As much as our Foundation team always valued and found comfort in a highly structured framework for our work, we now have a deep appreciation of the need to balance our dedication to well-laid plans with a readiness to remain nimble as new opportunities and realities emerge.

Contemporary musar teachers advise learners to write their own “spiritual curriculum” – choosing middot to focus on based on their own unique circumstances and needs. Embedded in the whole musar framework is an ongoing process of hitlamdut – learning and reflection. This is one of our Foundation staff values, an acknowledgment that we will always have room to learn and improve. The goal is not perfection, the goal is to stay on the path.

Looking back with 20-20 hindsight we can always see our own imperfections – the moments over the years when the Foundation was unnecessarily inflexible, and other places where the opposite was true. As a result of the challenges of the past 18 months, we move forward as a team, better understanding when to embrace charitzut and when to be rach k’kaneh. This is wisdom we hope to apply in the future.

Josh Miller is Chief Program Officer of the Jim Joseph Foundation. 

A Perspective on Creative Connection, Community, and Collaboration in Physically Distant Times

More than a year into a devastating pandemic and multiple crises, Jewish communities continue to demonstrate resilience, strength, and togetherness that have resulted in powerful moments and experiences of connection, meaning, and purpose. As springtime moves forward and we prepare for the Hebrew month of Iyar, we are grateful to be able to see more light through this pandemic tunnel and to turn a hopeful corner. At the same time, people committed to building community and connection no matter the distance certainly will continue to build on learnings from this challenging period. Emergency, urgency and necessity invited people to discover new (and now tried and true) ways of coming together to learn, meet, grow, debate, sing, dance, pray, serve, eat, and play. Platforms and activities that once may have felt too futuristic, out of reach, or uncomfortable are, for many, now part of our comfort zones and daily lives.

In March 2019, one year before the pandemic, the Jim Joseph Foundation commissioned The Future of Jewish Learning is Here: How Digital Media Are Reshaping Jewish Education. Little did we know that just a year later, many of the insights and findings discussed in that report would become a part of nearly everyone’s life as Jewish education—and engagement, community-building, and so much more—were forced to move online. As we all consider what’s working best virtually, what still needs improvement, and acknowledge the many unknown unknowns still, we want to highlight bright spots of connection and content on virtual platforms that caught our attention over the last year. Below we share a limited* perspective on this from members of the Jim Joseph Foundation team, and call out how the characteristics of online Jewish learning and findings from The Future of Jewish Learning is Here in some ways foreshadowed the world we’re now living in. While the findings from that report speak to many facets of digital engagement today, we connect some specifically to certain platforms and experiences below (although the findings really speak to platforms across the board). The digital engagement we highlight here enable users to engage creatively, with community connection and collaboration at the center of the experience. The future is still bright.

Creative Conferencing Platforms

Key characteristic from The Future of Jewish Learning is Here: Platforms shape the learning experience.
Key finding from The Future of Jewish Learning is Here: Learners use different platforms for different ends.

We’ve seen dozens of platforms shape hundreds of diverse experiences. Two examples highlight how platforms brought users in and engaged them in creative, dynamic ways, based on the key goals and objectives of the gatherings. In some ways, we’ve seen how online platforms make learning and networking even more accessible for people who might not otherwise fully engage in person.

  1. BBYO’s International Convention (IC) on Hopin: BBYO’s IC is known for attracting thousands of teens from around the world every year. The conference is known for its “nonstop” content so choosing a platform that offered energy, connection and branded physical spaces was key. In February, the experience happened online with Hopin, reaching 2,000+ teens on the platform. Learn more about Hopin.
    BBYO’s International Convention (IC) on Hopin
  2. Jewish Funders Network (JFN) Conference on Lunchpool: A record-breaking 665 people from 13 countries around the world attended “Strong Bonds,” JFN’s first-ever all-virtual international conference in March, including 129 participants from Israel and 192 first-timers. Networking was a key goal for this conference so before daily sessions and during coffee breaks, participants moved around multiple floors to network around tables by interest area, in pairs and small groups. Learn more about Lunchpool and JFN’s conference concept and design here.

    Jewish Funders Network (JFN) Conference on Lunchpool

Newish Jewish Podcasts

Key characteristic from the report: Learning is both synchronous and asynchronous.
Key finding from the report: Learners learn in sync with the rhythms of the Jewish calendar.

During the pandemic, we’ve people choosing sometimes to engage in “live” content; other times they consume and engage what they want when they want. While the rhythms of the Jewish calendar still provided an anchor for much content, we saw significant new content and Jewish experiences offered around a range of topics, issues, learnings, and so much more, that was not connected to holidays. Two new podcasts (and one more launching soon) caught our attention for this exact reason.

  1. Schmaltzy Podcast: A podcast about storytelling, food and everything in between. Learn more and tune into Seasons 1 and 2 here.
    Schmaltzy Podcast
  2. Yeshivat Maharat’s MaharatCast: Building a mikvah, choosing joy, the big questions of end of life, and so much more. Hear from Maharat alumnae on the issues that matter most. The first half of the season is available online here, also on iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud.

    Yeshivat Maharat’s MaharatCast

  3. Just Leading Podcast: We’re anticipating the May 2021 launch of this 8-episode leadership series. This collaboration features Ilana Kaufman, Executive Director of Jews of Color Initiative, Elana Wein, Executive Director of SRE Network, and Gali Cooks, President & CEO of Leading Edge.

    Just Leading Podcast

Ready, Set, Play! Gaming Across Generations

Key characteristic from the report: Knowledge, expertise, and power are distributed.
Key finding from the report: Learners access Jewish knowledge beyond Jewish institutions.

Of all the insights discussed in the 2019 report, this characteristic and finding may have been most amplified—and perhaps the evolution of related content most accelerated—as a result of the pandemic. Gaming is just one example of how virtual engagement opens the playing field—everyone can be the teacher and everyone the student. The following examples show how anyone can create content and attract an audience through fun and creative learning experiences.

  1. Moishe House’s Expedition Nai: This global competition was a four-week battle where participants played with and against friends to win incredible prizes. Players could join teams of 1-5 people any time throughout the expedition and new challenges were released daily. No previous camp experience was required, no entry fee, and no age limit. Learn more here.
    Moishe House’s Expedition Nai
  2. Camp Ramah on Minecraft: When his 14th year at summer at camp was cancelled due to the pandemic, Jake Offenheim created a virtual copy of his actual camp on Minecraft. He downloaded a suite of tools for Minecraft on his computer, fashioned a re-creation of one cabin, then copied and pasted it across camp, changing the shape as necessary. Campers enjoyed an entirely virtual experience thanks to his creativity and technical skills. Read more about Jake Offenheim’s camp re-creation here.
    Camp Ramah on Minecraft
  3. Jewish Geography Zoom Racing / Who Knows One?: In this game launched in April 2020, contestants are given a name of a Jewish person they have never met, and they race to see who can get that person on the Zoom call the fastest, using only six degrees of (Zoom) separation. The game’s motto? “It’s not who you know, it’s who you know knows.” The seventh episode racked up a respectable 3,000-plus views ran on Facebook Live. Learn more here and follow on Facebook here.
    Jewish Geography Zoom Racing / Who Knows One?

On-Demand/Anytime Content and TV                                                     

Key characteristic from the report: Online learning is IRL (in real life), too.
Key finding from the report: Learners integrate online learning and offline practice.

“Recognizing that digital learning environments are not divorced from the physical world reframes the phenomenon from one that happens ‘out there’ in cyberspace to one that is deeply embedded in our everyday lives, both online and offline. The two spheres of learning and action are less distinct than they appear, and both benefit from engagement with the other.” This insight from The Future of Jewish Learning is Here undoubtedly came to fruition out of necessity during the pandemic. People continued to live their lives, pursuing their interests and learning new things—mostly all online. Here are some great experiences and events that engaged people’s interests and identities in meaningful and fun ways.

  1. Great Big Jewish Food Fest: This well-known Festival took place over 10 days featuring a variety of free events–workshops & conversations, happy hours, and Shabbat dinners, and so much more over Zoom, Instagram, and Facebook.  On-Demand access to Festival sessions, Anytime Content and Recipes shared by chefs and presenters were plentiful. Like many online experiences, the Festival was open to all: no experience or talent required. Learn more here.
    Great Big Jewish Food Fest
  2. Moishe House’s Expedition Maker: A reality show for Jewish artists, creatives, and innovators, this show featured ten “chosen makers” from around the world in weekly challenges where the audience votes to decide who moves to the finale. Learn more and tune in here.
    Moishe House’s Expedition Maker
  3. Bringing Israel Home TV Show: A partnership between the Jewish Food Society and Michael Solomonov, a 5-time James Beard Foundation award-winning chef. In this culinary web series, Solomonov shares Israel’s extraordinarily diverse and vibrant culinary landscape with viewers, via an interactive digital series. Each week, viewers discover the ingredients, spices and flavors that make up Israeli cuisine, alongside the stories of the communities who have brought these dishes to life for generations. Cook along with chef Solomonov and learn more here.
    Bringing Israel Home TV Show
  4. LUNAR videos: LUNAR aims to highlight the racial and cultural diversity of the Jewish community by celebrating and making visible the experiences of young adults (18-30) who exist at the intersection of Jewish and Asian American in a short-form video series. Check out eight videos, five 5-10 minute themed collective activities and discussion, and three 30-minute long in-depth interviews and learn more about the project here.
    LUNAR videos

Online/Mobile-Friendly Connection and Conversations

Key characteristic from the report: Learning is social.
Key finding from the report: Learners connect with others around Jewish learning.

Over the last year nearly everyone found new ways to connect online for all kinds of reasons, through different experiences, and in various group sizes. These connections not only helped people to maintain Jewish community during the pandemic, but also enabled people to build new community over shared interests and experiences, not beholden to geography.  Here are some great opportunities that offer ongoing connection:

  1. Keshet’s LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton Retreats: One of a kind Shabbat retreats for LGBTQ and ally Jewish teens, ages 13 – 18, to learn, grow, and celebrate who they are in a warm and vibrant community. Led by teens, for teens, the Shabbaton is a chance to engage in Jewish learning, activism, and self-care. Learn more about other upcoming programs and events on Keshet’s Youth page here and on Facebook here.

    Keshet’s LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton Retreats

  2. At the Well’s My Moon Message: This text campaign gives subscribers access to monthly spiritual teachings, Jewish wisdom and soulful inspiration sent right to your phone. Texts include reminders of each new moon with teachings from the upcoming Hebrew month, Jewish holidays, 49-day journey of teachings for The Counting of The Omer, and more. Learn more and sign up here.

    At the Well’s My Moon Message

  3. Clubhouse: “Clubhouse, a new audio-only social networking app, is quickly becoming the digital version of the Jewish conference circuit hallway. With in-person meetups on hold due to the novel coronavirus and Zoom broadcasts that take on a formal nature, Jewish conference circuit regulars had been searching for a digital duplicate of the informal conversations that are often the main draw of the offline gatherings” (Ryan Torok, from this article). At this time, users must be invited onto the app by an existing user. Sign up here to see if you have friends on Clubhouse who can extend an invite. Follow Clubs that interest you (like Value Culture, who recently hosted a Passover Seder on Clubhouse, Night Of 1,000 Jewish Stars, reaching 43,000 listeners) and People you know and admire to stay up-to-date on meaningful conversations, music, chatter, and more.

    Clubhouse, a new audio-only social networking app

Small Group Learning

Key characteristic from the report: Knowledge, expertise, and power are distributed.
Key finding from the report: Learners access Jewish knowledge beyond Jewish institutions.

The examples below come from a variety of Jewish institutions, representing a spectrum of legacy organizations and newer ones. Moreover, the learning experiences below show how distributed learning can be in the digital realm–nearly anyone can be a teacher when matched with the right student. Not only is knowledge a mere click away, but the person transmitting that knowledge can embody a diverse and varied background and skillset.  These digital offerings demonstrate more expansive and contextual thinking on the meaning of traditional terms like “teacher” and “student” today.

  1. Hadar’s Project Zug: An online havruta (one-on-one) learning program that provides participants with weekly learning for various lengths of time from five to eleven weeks long. Holiday-centered courses occur seasonally. Zug can help match you with a havruta or you can come ready with a learning partner. Each Zug/pair will schedule their online video conversation at a time convenient to their schedules. Check out this intro video on how it works and learn more here.
    Hadar’s Project Zug
  2. Hillel’s WinterFest: Hillel’s first-ever virtual winter festival was designed to bring light into students’ lives during the darkness of winter through small group learning, cool prizes and swag, and of course, Jewish wisdom. Nearly 1,500 students from 263 campuses in 9 countries around the world connected deeply with each other and Jewish wisdom. Read more about the winter festival here.
    Hillel’s WinterFest
  3. Sefaria’s new Chavruta Feature: Sefaria’s newest feature, Chavruta, allows users to connect with another Sefaria user to study a text face-to-face on the Sefaria platform. Check out the tutorial and learn more here.

    Sefaria’s new Chavruta Feature

  4. JIMENA’s Buddy System: This creative project by JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) pairs older adults and people of all ages with buddies to encourage ongoing and regular connection for weekly check-ins via Facetime, Zoom, or just the good old phone. As so many of us are alone with limited opportunities for social interaction, this matching program encourages new connections and relationship building. Learn more here and sign up to be a JIMENA Buddy via this quick survey.

    JIMENA’s Buddy System

  5. JDC Entwine’s Insider Connections: Global Virtual Service: Entwine, known for its impactful global travel and volunteer experiences, designed virtual programs that will evolve into a fully blended platform in the future. One program enables young adults to volunteer for an hour per week over three months with isolated JDC-supported elderly, teens, and children overseas. Participants receive pre-service training, regular check-ins and support as a cohort, and have flexibility in how and when they connect with their overseas “client” for company, conversation and/or practicing English. Learn more about volunteering here.

    JDC Entwine’s Insider Connections: Global Virtual Service

*Hundreds of individuals, teams, organizations, and collaboratives have worked tirelessly to keep their communities connected over the last year, despite enormous odds and innumerable challenges. This small list is a representation of some of what we’ve seen and by no means includes all of the incredible examples of creative projects, gatherings, and experiences that have made a daily impact on all of our lives. Please comment below with other examples to highlight and celebrate their impact!

A Growing Team in Jewish Philanthropy

Back in October 2019 I wrote about returning to the Jim Joseph Foundation after four and half years as CEO of Youth Leadership Institute (prior to that I was a program officer at the Foundation for two years). In that blog, I discussed some noticeable, positive progress in the field. Along with vital advancements to advance Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), I also noted:

….the eagerness of my colleagues from foundations across North America to reconnect and serve as partners working toward effective grantmaking and culture change in the Jewish organizational world.  Moreover, I notice a significant increase from five years ago in professional foundation staff and new foundations in general. Perhaps this observation also is a reflection of a more organized, networked field made up of more people who want to engage with and learn from each other. 

As we cautiously begin to sense a light at the end of the pandemic, I again reflect on our field, the people in it, and how we work together. Before discussing some welcome changes—and the benefits they could bring—I first must acknowledge how fortunate I am to simply have a job at this time, let alone a seat at a foundation. That is always an inherent position of privilege from which to work; it is amplified at this unique moment.

And through this 12 month and counting “moment,” the sense of Team—which is incorporated into the Foundation’s values under areivoot—across the field has manifested itself in new ways. This could have long-lasting, positive effects for all of us. While there are 11 Foundation team members who work with grantee-partners, my sense of team is much wider than that. The Foundation recently undertook a network mapping exercise of sorts to discover which colleagues at other foundations we correspond with, and how frequently that occurs. There are some colleagues at other foundations that I connect and strategize with more than internal team members. What does this say about our field? What opportunities does this communication present moving forward? How can this wider “team” most benefit grantees? Here are three possible answers to these questions.

  1. More individuals in the field are eager to learn and learn together.
    From more broadly sharing research and program evaluations, to best practices for virtual engagement, to lessons learned about philanthropy’s role in supporting Jewish life right now, there is a palpable sense among colleagues that we’re all learning in a new environment—often times failing forward, and often times with each other. This is a significant culture change in the field, perhaps accelerated over the last year. Colleagues, I included, are more open to meaningful and important feedback about grantmaking operations and how we support grantees. Some of this has been borne of necessity—we’re working in different ways through different types of interactions. We are more vulnerable and know that we need all of the help we can get. I see the benefit of this learning happening organically and want to be even more intentional about making space for it, including carving out at least two hours per week to talk with colleagues at organizations outside of the Foundation’s grantee-partners.
  2. Increased interactions among colleagues places greater importance on building trust and care.
    Beyond the learnings that result from broader, field-wide team engagement, colleagues are pushing each other to be better in different aspects of work. This results in important changes in how we approach interactions with each other. Recently, for example, a colleague and I were strategizing about a fieldwide initiative. As we exchanged perspectives, I shared how we could each show up in the work, including suggestions for how they could show up. I later heard from a different colleague that my communication was not received in a helpful way. In fact, I had offended my colleague, and had eroded elements of the foundation of our trust. This third colleague was inviting me to repair the damage, to say we are all part of the same team and to understand how my intentions differed from my impact—and to address it. A follow-up call with my colleague was not easy for me but was critically important. The interaction highlighted that these deep, meaningful relationships enable real challenges and vulnerabilities to be shared among professional peers. That’s a positive. This also means that we need to treat these relationships with the care and respect we would of any relationships we want to sustain and grow. I commit to further helping build this across our sector, with a particular attention to the challenges of this work across lines of positional power to the Foundation’s grantee-partners as well.
  3. Increased knowledge sharing among funder representatives can greatly help grantees.
    When the pandemic first hit, one of the earliest funder actions, the formation of the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund (JCRIF), was designed especially to be efficient for, and responsive to, potential grantees. From knowledge about what interventions are impactful, to what organizations need help in certain areas, to what potential grantees need to submit as part of a proposal, JCRIF is a systemic way for funders to share with each other. And JCRIF’s design to create a more efficient system for grantees reflects the power of a more connected, cohesive funder community. In this approach, grantees ultimately can more quickly be funneled to the right potential funders. One funder can more quickly aid another in helping a grantee maximize impact and/or overcome a challenge. Knowledge is power—and knowledge helps grantees.

In the spirit of a wider team, with more relationships among colleagues than ever before, and the trust that we all go further together than any one individual, the Foundation will soon share a major new report on networked leadership. This report lays the foundation for a new emphasis on the connections across our field and how to build programs that strengthen entire networks, rather than just developing specific individuals. As we continue to strengthen the network of professionals of Jewish engagement and education foundations, and secular foundations, we see more benefits, and can work to leverage this stronger, growing team for the betterment of all.

Jon Marker is a Senior Program Officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation.

Jon Marker - Senior Program Officer at The Jim Joseph Foundation