From the Professional Team

A Special Spirit at the Summit

– by Chip Edelsberg

March 2nd, 2016

As readers of this blog, you are likely aware that the Jim Joseph Foundation Board has selected Barry Finestone to be the Foundation’s President and CEO. I am excited for Barry; for the Foundation Board of Directors and staff; and for stakeholders in the excellence of Jewish education.

In preparation for the transition, I took a number of steps to bolster the organizational structure of the Foundation. Most important among these moves is expanded management responsibilities for various professional personnel: in supervising and talent management for Assistant Director Dawne Bear Novicoff; in Foundation strategizing for Josh Miller, promoted to Program Director; in grantmaking responsibilities for Stacie Cherner, promoted to Senior Program Director; and Steven Green, whose relations with grantees in a lead role has increased, resulting in a change in his title to Director of Grants Management/Program Officer. We are also accelerating the learning of Program Officers Aaron Saxe and Seth Linden and Program Associate Jeff Tiell to ensure all aspects of the Foundation’s philanthropy benefit from assiduous professional involvement and oversight.

With all the understandable excitement around the transition, I am proud that the Foundation professional team remains focused on and committed to its work. Last month, many members of the Foundation professional team participated in the Summit on Jewish Teens and BBYO’s International Convention. I was fortunate to attend as well, to be a part of these experiences that were remarkable both for their scale and for their substance of content.

At the Teen Summit, philanthropists, lay leaders, foundation and federation professionals, professional leaders, researchers, educators and—critically—teens joined together to learn, to strategize, and to hear about the latest developments in Jewish teen education and engagement. We spent concentrated time together charting a new path forward that essentially places teens at the center of the Jewish teen education and engagement experience. Teens rightfully so had a prominent place at the table in all of these conversations.

This atmosphere, and this emphasis, was completely different from teen engagement efforts of a generation ago. As a community, we are growing to understand the “whole” teen, recognizing that a Jewish journey does not take place in a vacuum; rather, a Jewish journey is part of a greater life’s voyage, replete with peer and parental influences, successes, challenges, hobbies, and all that life offers. Jewish experiences designed by teens, or deeply informed by their thinking, reflect this reality.

The Foundation’s funding partners in the Summit—Maimonides Fund, The Marcus Foundation, Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Awards Committee, and Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation—created an environment that looked towards the future from a big picture perspective. Summit participants were challenged, for example, to double the number of teens engaged in Jewish life over the next five years. Yet, we are careful to balance this “counting of heads” with a goal to continue to enrich Jewish teen engagement and to enhance Jewish learning as part of that interaction. Across the country, communities now offer teen experiences that blend Jewish learning with technology; new media; sports; and guided workplace experiences that teens find valuable.

A key to the effort emphasized at the Summit is the collaboration among different kinds of funders and organizations to enhance the quality and diversity of teen offerings around the country. While the Foundation certainly recognizes the challenges of collaboration, the benefits derived from co-planning, co-funding, and co-implementation we are confident emphatically validate working together. Increased collaboration by Summit participants and others will amplify the increasingly dynamic and diverse teen offerings.

As the Summit was winding down, BBYO’s International Convention (IC) began. For those who have attended IC, they understand how difficult it is to capture in words the exuberance of Jewish life that IC represents. More than 2,500 teens gathered to explore and joyfully express their Jewishness. They heard from world renowned speakers; they dedicated themselves to causes; they planned how to engage more peers. Through it all, just as we had emphasized at the Summit, teens were the leaders of these experiences. And they will be moving forward.

Teens today are smart, inquisitive and unapologetic. They will question, they will affirm, and they will call out those for not being authentic. Teens want to lead—and many are exceptional leaders.

For the Jim Joseph Foundation, which has placed such a high priority on Jewish teen education and engagement, we returned from the Summit and IC with a sense of affirmation in our work—and with a renewed commitment to it. As the Foundation undergoes leadership transition, we will continue to work with our valued grantees, funding partners, and evaluators to foster effective and dynamic Jewish learning experiences.