Giving’s All In The Family
Tue, 11/08/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
Becca Linden established her family’s philanthropic foundation after realizing, at a family reunion, “We’ve been blessed.”
Becca Linden established her family’s philanthropic foundation after realizing, at a family reunion, “We’ve been blessed.”

In June, Becca Linden’s extended family gathered at the Chicago Inn in Illinois. Some 80 relatives attended the weekend soiree, flying in from places like California, Toronto, Arizona, Colorado, and New York. The family reunion featured a sumptuous Shabbat dinner, family videos on Saturday night, and games like “two truths and a lie” (wherein players attempt to separate truth from fiction about each other’s lives).

Also on the agenda was an update on the family’s collective philanthropic effort: the Lifchitz Family Fund. In its inaugural year, the fund raised $17,000 from family members and distributed nearly $5,000 each to Yad Eliezer, Pardes and AVODAH — Jewish nonprofit organizations that are dedicated to the extended family’s three core values: Israel, education and social justice.

The idea for the Lifchitz Family Fund (http://lifchitzfamilyphilanthropy.weebly.com/), an extended giving circle composed of nearly 100 relatives, came to Linden nearly four years ago, at the previous family reunion in San Francisco. “Wow, we’ve been blessed,” she thought to herself, as she looked around the room. She thought about instituting a service project as part of the family reunion. She later scrapped that idea in lieu of a family-giving fund, in which a majority of family members would donate to a collective pot and then, as a group, decided how to allocate the charitable funds.

“Communal giving is really a part of our family legacy,” Linden, 27, told The Jewish Week. Several family members gave gifts to the fund to honor Linden’s wedding a year-and-a-half ago to Ari Hart (a Jewish Week 36 Under 36er and co-founder of Uri L’Tzedek, the Orthodox social justice organization).

The fund, a rarity in the Jewish philanthropic world, honors her great-grandparents, Yacov and Rifka Lifchitz, who immigrated to Detroit in the early 1900s from Russia. They quickly became pillars of the community there, with Rifka launching the first Hebrew Free Loan Society in Detroit and Jacob serving as principal of the community’s first Jewish high school. (Linden’s grandfather, one of seven children, changed his last name from Lifchitz to Linden).

Linden, who is named for her great-grandmother and is currently pursuing a master’s in public administration at NYU, wanted to involve as many family members as possible, despite their differing religious and political outlooks. “We wanted the fund to unite the whole family,” she says.

While some family members weren’t interested (“I’ll give money to the charities I want to” some cousins said), the idea caught on, particularly for family members who were excited to pool their resources and give a larger gift. “People feel disempowered; ‘I’m not a Bronfman — what is my $100 going to do?’” Linden says. “This helps to alleviate that.”

To enhance inclusiveness, every family member was allowed to vote on which charities should get the funds — even if they did not donate.

Linden spent the summer of 2008 at the PresenTense Institute, where she researched other giving circle models and, with the help of her brother, Josh, crafted a business plan. “When she first told me about it, I kind of looked at her incredulously and said, ‘Our huge family?’ recalls Josh Linden. “The mechanics of this … it was a huge, unwieldy type of thing.”

But Linden managed to persuade her brother — and dozens of other family members — that it could be done. Relatives describe Linden as passionate, a doer, and someone who bulldozed the idea into actuality.

The two Linden siblings recruited other family members to join the board of the Lifchitz Family Fund. Their dad, Russell, who sends out a family newsletter, lent his support, as well. They also formed an independent grant-making committee, which established the criteria for nominating a charity to fund. The committee also conducted due diligence on all the charities that family members submitted. The charities that ultimately received the funds were chosen via a family-wide vote, conducted using a Google Doc form.

The family is now in the process of soliciting nominations for nonprofits that will receive money from the second annual fundraising cycle. The process, family members say, helps connect them to cousins they did not know very well — particularly among the younger generation.

“It’s been great fun,” says Nina Bruder, a second cousin to Linden who serves as the executive director of the nonprofit incubator Bikkurim and is on the board of the Lifchitz Family Fund. “I’ve grown closer with cousins who have wide-ranging expertise” — from a philanthropist in Chicago to an attorney to a collaboration expert who consults to governments and nonprofits, she says.

“If there were a family that could pull this off, it was this one,” says Laurie Rappaport, a cousin who now lives in Tzfat, Israel. (“We used to have minutes from our family meetings,” said another cousin, Vicki Goldwyn).

This year, Rappaport plans to nominate the organization that she works for, Livnot U’Lehibanot (www.livnot.com), an Israel experience program for the post-Birthright set.

To avoid conflicts, the Lifchitz Family Fund does not accept nominations for political action committees (PACs), such as AIPAC or J Street, because doing so would alienate relatives with very different political views. “We put aside personal beliefs for the common good,” Rappaport says. “I don’t know if you would find that in every family, but I think that’s pretty special.”