From the Foundation Team

The More Things Change: Returning to Our Field After Five Years

– by Jon Marker

October 25th, 2019

As we enter 5780, it is a time to take stock of what we have been in the past and what we choose to bring into the future.  I find myself in an interesting and unique role, returning to a team at the Jim Joseph Foundation that I was a part of five years ago. Over the last two months I’ve re-settled into my role here. And I wonder: what of me has changed, what about the roles and fields of Jewish philanthropy/education/engagement has changed, what do I want to hold onto from first time at the Foundation, and where am I eager to grow beyond the limits I had previously set for myself?

For the past four and half years, I served as CEO of Youth Leadership Institute (YLI). I gained new perspective both about the work of a foundation professional and a profound expanded empathy for those who lead nonprofits. While one can study about leading an organization, holding true to a vision and workplan while also needing to meet payroll and manage HR issues—all in an unpredictable and tension-filled world—was critical experiential learning that has informed my leadership and view of the unique roles we each play in our sector.

I deepened my appreciation for the power of support systems and of social networks comprised of people working toward similar visions and goals. I would not have helped YLI achieve the successes we had during my time there without the network of professionals I could reach out to with questions, challenges, and other issues I faced nearly daily. Importantly, some of the most influential and helpful people in my network included partners who invested in the work that our young people led every day. Because of this experience, I am especially excited to stand side-by-side with the grantee-partners with whom I am privileged to work and to be present as a thought partner and mentor. I can now connect them to resources that informed and inspired my own growth as a leader beyond my previous relational work in grantmaking.

In the past few months since returning to the Foundation and focusing on Jewish education, engagement, and leadership development, I have observed a marked and positive development: the seamless inclusion of the voices of a next generation of leaders. As just one example, the initial plenary of the JPRO conference allowed our field to celebrate the work, vision, and passion of Kate Belza O’Bannon and Arya Marvazy, co-recipients of the Young Professional Award.  They spoke proudly about how critical their personal narratives and identities are to unlocking the potential of Judaism as a component of leading a connected, meaningful, and purposeful life.  The authenticity they presented was in reflection of our community’s ancient wisdom (presented through a study session by Rabba Yaffa Epstein) as she challenged all of us present to think about the nuances of leading by example and living our values.

I also have been deeply appreciative of 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. Whether due to an increase in professionals or an increase in engaged professionals—or both—this is a welcome development. These people are entrusted by their foundations’ leadership to carry out their respective missions and visions, and they are doing it with integrity.

This growth of the field is in part a testament to the generation of leaders who I learned from five years ago as the Foundation seeded various programs and cohorts.  And I am particularly delighted that many of these emerging leaders speak less about Jewish survival for survival’s sake as a people, and more about building inclusive environments where Jewish people and their peers can find connection, meaning, and purpose.

Surely this work building inclusive environment has always occurred to varying degrees, and we need to give credit to those who pushed the issues before they were in fashion. These efforts required emotional labor and were often left to those who were least proximate to power. These people were courageous in pushing for basic acknowledgement of their lived experiences and an equal space in our communal conversations, let alone equity, from a field predominantly populated by leaders who were white, male, able bodied, Ashkenormative, cis gendered, straight, and of class privilege, to name a not all-encompassing list. Because of the work of the individuals, communities, and organizations least proximate to power, I notice a significant evolution from five years ago in how the field looks to engage and talk with Jews of Color and non-Ashkenormative members of the Sephardi and Mizrahi communities. Engaging these communities is now seen by many in our field as critical to building a thriving, larger Jewish community. In addition, our field speaks more openly about the need to change workplace culture—with the #MeToo movement top of mind—to ensure we are a field in which people are treated respectfully, are heard, and want to continue to work.

With all of this, I am excited to bring a new version of myself to 5780—one that stands on the shoulders of those who came before and who sees my work as interwoven with my colleagues in new and influential ways.

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