Foundation Cutting Wide Path Through Jewish Life

With huge outlays, Jim Joseph Foundation can be a ‘game-changer.’ But its officials admit identity-building focus can be hard to measure.

07/14/10
Associate Editor
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 When Interland Corporation Founder Jim Joseph died in 2003, at the age of 68, few people outside San Francisco and the real estate field had heard of him.

Today, less than a decade later, the words “Jim Joseph” are among the most frequently uttered syllables in the American Jewish education world, at least among those responsible for fundraising.

Since restructuring in 2006, the Jim Joseph Foundation, the recipient of the bulk of Joseph’s estate, has committed a whopping $240 million to Jewish education, much of it in massive, multi-year gifts focused on recruitment and training of educators. In the last few months alone it has announced $33 million (to be paid out over five years) for educator training at the three major seminaries and $12 million to establish a Jewish education doctoral program at Stanford University.

Perhaps more than any other single player, the San Francisco-based foundation — which according to its website seeks to foster “compelling, effective Jewish learning experiences for young Jews,” and have “more young Jews engage in ongoing Jewish learning and choose to live vibrant Jewish lives” — is in a position to shape American Jewish life in the coming decades. 

“They are potentially game-changers in Jewish education,” says Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Charles and Andrea Bronfman Philanthropies, one of the founding organizations of Birthright Israel.

And with record numbers of American Jews lacking in basic Jewish literacy and largely disengaged from institutional life — as well as little consensus about just what defines a “vibrant Jewish life” — the foundation has its work cut out for it.

With a corpus, much of it in real estate holdings, estimated at $750 million, Jim Joseph is believed to be the second-largest private Jewish foundation in the country (after Baltimore’s Weinberg Foundation). 

And while its beneficiaries range from Jewish summer camps (including a “specialty Jewish camp” incubator that birthed five new programs enrolling over 600 kids this summer) to Jewish day schools to Hillel’s “senior educator” program to Israel education, the foundation’s greatest investment so far has been in training Jewish educators and professionals.

Since 2008, the foundation has paid for 35 staff members at the youth group BBYO to earn MBAs with a focus on nonprofit management and certificates in Jewish studies. BBYO officials say the grants have not only helped it to recruit and retain employees, but have enabled it to reach out to 25 percent more teens and offer a higher caliber of programs.

On an even more ambitious scale, the $33 million grant to Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion aims to produce 1,000 new educators within the next five years, through a variety of master’s, doctoral and certificate programs.

Why the focus on training?

The shortage of “well-prepared educators” has been documented in several studies, including a 2008 one by the Jewish Education Service of North America’s Berman Center for Research and Evaluation, and has for decades been a “chronic refrain from the field,” the foundation’s executive director, Charles “Chip” Edelsberg, explains.

“There has been a different reality since the recession, but that doesn’t obviate for us the premise on which we’re doing this: the belief that the educator — whether in a youth group, on an Israel trip, teaching in a day school, holding a book salon or leading a Shabbat service — is a person who is likely to have a chance to motivate and inspire others to opt into Jewish life,” he says. “You get a lot of leverage out of a qualified educator.” 

The YU-JTS-HUC grant, which Edelsberg says will “bolster existing programs and add new degree programs,” places particular emphasis on early childhood education and informal/experiential education.

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Not everyone in Jewish education shares the foundation’s priorities.

Last month, in a weekly paid advertisement in The Jewish Week, Marvin Schick, who has done extensive research on enrollment and finances in the Jewish day school world, lashed out at the foundation for investing so heavily in graduate institutions and what he called “a train to nowhere” rather than addressing the “severe financial stress” of the day school movement. With day schools facing declining enrollment and congregational schools cutting hours, Schick asked, “What exactly are educators being trained for when dozens of talented Jewish teachers have been laid off?” 

Similarly, shortly after Jim Joseph announced its $12 million gift to Stanford, one commenter on the eJewishPhilanthropy website criticized the foundation for devoting such a large sum to funding “two Doctoral students,” rather than spending the money on scholarships for Birthright, day schools, summer camps or various other communal needs. Another commenter chimed in, “…anyone with their right mind knows that $12m for Day School, Camps and Israel scholarships would do a lot more for Jewish continuity than creating some more ‘scholarly research.’” 

Lee Shulman, a professor emeritus at Stanford and former president of the Carnegie Foundation, added his own comments to the site, saying the Jim Joseph gift will, within 20 years, produce “a couple of dozen new Ph.D’s to lead research in this field.”

“Experts in evaluation and policy analysis will be prepared to staff leadership roles in the Jewish world,” he continued, adding later “You may believe that our field needs no research … but no one in the world of general education believes that to be true. From teacher preparation and professional development to the education of principals and clergy, a knowledge base is desperately needed for our field.”

As for the suggestion that day schools need cash and scholarship funds more than they need teachers, Edelsberg and foundation president Al Levitt note that the foundation has provided various types of funding to day schools (including $11 million this year in “emergency funding” divided among five communities). But they also emphasize that day schools are just one piece of a much larger picture and that a core of highly educated professionals is needed to reach and engage unaffiliated Jews in a wide variety of settings, from Hillels to Birthright Israel trips to the growing summer camp sector, to congregational schools to Moishe Houses.

Says Jonathan Woocher, chief ideas officer (and former executive vice president) of the Jewish Education Service of North America: “Part of what will grow the field is having attractive, talented new educators.” 

While acknowledging that the “problems of Jewish education go beyond” the areas that Jim Joseph has focused on so far, in particular the day schools’ tuition/affordability crises, Steven Bayme, director of the American Jewish Life department at the American Jewish Committee says that if the foundation “chewed off what it has and said they’ve done their part, I’d say that’s fine, dayenu.”

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In addition to the heavy focus on training and informal/experiential education, other emerging hallmarks of the Jim Joseph Foundation are its financial transparency, hands-on approach with grantees, minimal spending on overhead and strong emphasis on evaluation and measurement.

The foundation also appears determined to work with a diverse cross-section of the Jewish community, from Orthodox (albeit not haredi) to unaffiliated, while encouraging inter-movement collaboration and having an impact on as many individual end users as possible. 

But in Jewish education/identity-building and outreach, specific goals are often fuzzy and the relative success of programs difficult to measure.

Just how does one go about evaluating whether programs have strengthened participants’ Jewish identity — especially when the old measurements like ritual observance and commitment to marry within the faith have fallen out of vogue among many liberal Jews?

Acknowledging that Jewish identity is “not the easiest thing to assess,” Edelsberg, the foundation’s director, says, “If we waited until we had exact measurements” to determine the relative success of various strategies, “it would be too late.”

“You have to take measured risks,” he adds.  

Asked to explain the foundation’s approach to evaluation, Edelsberg says it hires independent evaluators, such as sociologist Steven M. Cohen and Jack Ukeles, a management and organizational consultant, and also relies on existing research, like recent Brandeis studies measuring the long-term impact of Birthright Israel and summer camps. 

(The Foundation for Jewish Camp, which has received over $20 million from Jim Joseph so far, is about to release a new study that it claims proves the long-term impact camping experiences have on Jewish identity). 

“We can tell you right now that our camping initiatives, in terms of sheer numbers, are off-the-charts successful,” Edelsberg says, noting the numbers of children using “incentive grants” to attend Jewish summer camps for the first time and the hundreds of first-time campers registering for the new specialty camps created with Jim Joseph funding.

“In cases where it’s a question of counting the numbers of those who attend camps or participate in Birthright experiences, we don’t have to prove it has an effect,” Edelsberg says, explaining that existing research already proves this. 

“It’s more complicated with things like Birthright NEXT [Birthright alumni programs], Moishe House [group houses/Jewish activity hubs for 20-somethings] and the Hillel Senior Educators program [an outreach program to engage college students in text study]” — relatively new initiatives that lack the track record of a Birthright or a day school. For these programs “we’re looking to make a difference in the number of young Jews who engage in ongoing Jewish learning, and that tells you that we have to follow them over a period of time,” Edelsberg says.

Whether success is measured in ritual practice or “using Jewish text to guide one’s daily decisions,” Edelsberg says, “demonstrating that this is occurring is not easy.”

Nonetheless, he adds, “It’s what Jim would expect of us. He was a very astute businessperson, and we’re trying to honor his memory and intent by being very rigorous in this regard.” 

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As a private foundation, one that, unlike a government agency or communal organization is not answerable to the public, the Jim Joseph Foundation is, provided it follows IRS regulations, free to spend its money however it likes, without seeking the approval of the broader Jewish community.

Nonetheless, most observers credit the foundation with seeking broad communal input as it makes its decisions, and with, as one professional put it, “playing nicely” with other foundations.

Indeed, while some quibble with specific funding decisions and others grumble about the heavy demands it makes of grantees, most of the buzz about Jim Joseph has been overwhelmingly positive. When The Jewish Week approached Jim Joseph’s peers and beneficiaries, along with experts on Jewish education and philanthropy (and even organizations that have so far been unsuccessful in winning grants), the praise was consistently effusive, even when people were given the opportunity to speak off the record and not for attribution. 

“They’re going about things in a smart way,” observes Yossi Prager, executive director of the Avi Chai Foundation, another major funder of Jewish education, praising the foundation for its focus on project sustainability, its thorough data collection and its investments in “important institutions of the Jewish community.”

Matthew Grossman, executive director of grantee BBYO, says the foundation has “a genuine desire to see the Jewish community changed” and to see grantees “succeed at a very high level.”

Citing the foundation’s role as a convener of various stakeholders, and the fact that it shares its expertise with grantees, Grossman added, “They put much more than money into making that success happen.” 

JESNA’s Woocher commends the foundation for its willingness “to put significant money behind their commitments.”

That’s important, says Woocher, because “often funders put in too little and for too short a time.”

Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, of which Jim Joseph is a member, says the foundation’s long-range approach is “a much better approach [than funding on a year-to-year basis] if you really want to effect change,” but not without its downsides.

“If you’re looking to do some good this year, then at the end of the year you can see if you’ve done good,” he says. “If you’re looking at 10 years, then it could take longer to see if you’re going in the wrong direction.”

Long-term investments like the recruiting and training of professionals are important, but might not pan out, he says, noting that new professionals might not stay in the field or they may not “make a tangible difference in the quality of experience of the end user, or the number of end users who are benefiting.”

“It’s not like sending kids on Birthright, when you know immediately that 1,000 kids who wouldn’t go to Israel have gone to Israel.”

Several observers caution that private foundation giving, even by mega-foundations like Jim Joseph, represents just a small portion of overall spending in the multi-billion dollar world of Jewish education — and can hardly solve all the field’s problems.

Even if the foundation spent $100 million annually, “it would still be only 2-3 percent of the total expenditures on Jewish education,” says Woocher, noting that the bulk of revenues in the field come from tuition, fees, dues and individual donations.

Avi Chai’s Prager notes that large foundations can be “catalysts, thought leaders and, with their dollars, allow initiatives that wouldn’t otherwise have happened.” But “on the whole,” he says, “there’s a risk of making national foundations seem like the answers to major financial challenges across the country.”

“The needs of schools dwarf what a national foundation can do,” he adds. 

Next week: With the Jim Joseph Foundation focusing on a wide swath of Jewish youth, where is the major funding going to come from to keep day schools relevant as alternatives gain traction?

 

Last Update:

07/14/2010 - 14:06

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