From the Professional Team

The Enjoyably Unexpected “Ah-Ha” Moments of Site Visits

– by Aaron Saxe

November 2nd, 2015

Leaving the confines of the Jim Joseph Foundation offices for an on-the-ground visit with grantees is both an important and genuinely enjoyable part of the job as a program officer. I credit these “site visits” for playing a significant part in my continued growth at the Foundation over the last six months. They have strengthened my relationship with grantees and greatly improved my understanding of a grant program or organization in which the Foundation invested.

Yet, the lessons learned from a site visit are not always immediately obvious or what one might expect. Sometimes this learning occurs in surprising ways and at surprising times. Moreover, what has crystalized for me is the idea that both the formal and informal parts of site visits have profound effects on how foundation staff and grantees interact with each other and approach their work together.

Traveling Between Sites is as Productive as the Site Visit Itself
This summer, on behalf of the Foundation, I visited three camps as part of the Foundation’s Specialty Camp Incubator II grant. Dynamic directors Greg Kellner at 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy and Isaac Mamaysky at Camp Zeke hosted my east coast visit, and Josh Steinharter at JCC Maccabi Sports Camp hosted here in California. Certainly, seeing first-hand the enthusiasm of campers—whether at a “Boker Big Bang” or an all-camp song session—and the dedication of talented camp staff, brings to life the Incubators’ impressive outcomes: 3,000 unique campers for the first cohort of camps, and year-over-year increase in enrollment for the second.

Beyond seeing these immersive camp experiences, Michele Friedman, Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Director of New Camp Initiatives and director of the Specialty Camp Incubator, spent three full days traveling with me by car across five states. This time with Michele ended up being as productive and valuable as visiting the camps themselves.

Michele is a true expert in the field of Jewish camping. While I have a significant understanding of Jewish camping from both my personal and professional experience, one-on-one time with Michele was an unparalleled opportunity to meaningfully enhance my knowledge. She shared stories of decades of successes, challenges, and lessons learned. We talked about the evolution of the field of Jewish camping and what it may need next. Of course, I also grew to know Michele much better—more than I could from any phone call—as I absorbed some of her significant experiences in the field. Our interactions since have been more productive as a direct result of the time we spent together.

Seeing a Database Beyond the Computer
While on the east coast, I also had an opportunity to visit JData, housed at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. JData is the only comprehensive census of Jewish day schools, overnight camps, day camps, part-time schools, and early childhood centers in North America. For those who work in Jewish education, JData sounds impressive. And it is. Yet, at the same time, envisioning the day-to-day work of JData and its strategic approach can be difficult.  Meeting with every member of JData’s small but mighty team changed this equation for me. From strategic conversations with Len Saxe, Director of the Cohen Center, and Amy Sales, Director of JData, to detailed conversations with members of the operations team I grew to better understand the integral role of JData in the context of the Foundation’s strategic philanthropy. JData is the realization of detailed, data gathering and analysis that contributes to one of the Foundation’s three strategic grantmaking priorities of strengthening the field of Jewish education. Funder-grantee relationships, and the field at large, benefit when a grant initiative is understood within the big picture of the Foundation’s overall mission.

 

Understanding a Grantee’s Important Strategies
The Foundation has awarded multiple grants to the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, supporting various initiatives that train and support some of Jewish education’s most dynamic, skilled leaders. As I began to work with Pardes’s talented team, I quickly learned that Pardes’s open Beit Midrash provides a unique experience, integral to the development of these educators. It also is a defining element of the institution. On Pardes’s website, the open Beit Midrash is described as the place where:

we spend most of our time; it is where we study in an open, embracing and challenging environment. There, we come into direct contact with the text as we wrestle with its meaning for us personally and for our people and the world. Working with our havruta in the Beit Midrash, we sharpen our text skills, acquire content knowledge and deepen our understanding of ourselves as learners and as future educators.

Undoubtedly, this sounds inspiring as a highly effective way to share knowledge and to develop educators. Yet only after I spent time at Pardes in Israel—meeting with various staff, faculty, and students—did I actually understand why the open Beit Midrash was such a defining and important part of Pardes. At a table in the back of the Beit Midrash, meeting with two members of the faculty, I couldn’t help but shift my focus at times to what surrounded me. Every seat was filled with students huddled around Jewish texts, deep in conversation with their peers. I had to strain to hear my own conversation because of the energy and the learning in the room.

What Site Visits Mean for the Big Picture
Monitoring the progress of the Jim Joseph Foundation’s investments is an important part of the professional teams’ work. Complementing phone check-ins and reports with site visits is critical. And sometimes, a professional team member’s “ah-ha moment” about a grant will occur when least expected. The same is true regarding deepening a relationship with a grantee. Who really knows exactly when these important developments will happen? I am fortunate that I have experienced a number of site visits in my short time at the Foundation, and I am better positioned to support Foundation grantees and carry-out future Foundation awards as a result of these face-to-face interactions.