Tuesday, March 3, was the day the American-Jewish community began to confront the immediate threat of the deadly coronavirus.
It was the last day of the annual AIPAC national policy conference in Washington, attended by more than 18,000 pro-Israel Americans from around the country. Mark Charendoff, president of the Maimonides Fund, was on his way home to New Jersey from the conference when he received a call from his daughter, a student at SAR High School in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. She told him that the father of a fellow student had tested positive for the virus the previous day, one of the first known cases in the region. The school, following the advice of state authorities, decided to close.
Realizing the growing severity of the situation, Charendoff and two colleagues who had become trusted friends, Lisa Eisen, co-president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and Barry Finestone, president and CEO of the Jim Joseph Foundation, initiated a series of intense discussions, agreeing on the need for swift and radical action.
Collectively, the three foundations — with Schusterman based in D.C. and Tulsa, Okla., Maimonides in New York, and Jim Joseph in San Francisco — operate on a national level and provide hundreds of millions of dollars a year in grants to a wide range of recipients.
Over the next few days, Charendoff, Eisen, and Finestone were bombarded with frantic calls from grantees fearful of the pandemic’s economic impact.
Consultations among the three funders’ execs soon led to the creation of the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund (JCRIF), sometimes referred to as the Jewish super fund, which has grown to represent eight foundations and a pot of more than $90 million.
Recently, JCRIF finalized millions of dollars in initial grants to several nonprofits, including the Foundation for Jewish Camp, which partners with hundreds of day and overnight camps; Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools; and Repair the World, a service and social justice group that plans to launch a national service initiative geared to include camp counselors who have been sidelined this summer by the extensive closures due to the coronavirus.
“This is just the beginning,” one funder noted. “Much more to come.”
As the largest collective Jewish response to the pandemic, JCRIF is being heralded as an exemplary example of communal tzedakah, committed to sustaining key elements of Jewish organizational life.
Based on interviews and conversations — most of them off the record — with more than a dozen funders, Jewish professionals, lay leaders, and close observers of the community, it seems clear that the JCRIF is a uniquely generous, selfless, and all-important attempt to stabilize and advance the core infrastructure of Jewish life.
But it has also raised questions about who gets to determine the fate and composition of the American-Jewish ecosystem for years to come.
Some have expressed concern that these weighty decisions are being determined by a relative handful of wealthy “machers” and their professional staffs. Lila Corwin Berman, an American-Jewish history professor at Temple University whose specialty is philanthropy, believes the funders’ approach “privileges establishment groups and concentrates power in the foundations funding the initiative,” according to a JTA report.
How it came to be, what its leaders hope to accomplish — and how they are going about it — will have a major impact for decades.
‘We are with you’
The project took shape when Charendoff, Eisen, and Finestone committed their foundations to each contribute $15 million to a collective pool and make joint decisions on how the funds are spent.
Thousands of Jewish nonprofits — synagogues, schools, camps, JCCs, Hillels, human services organizations, and others — were faced with cutting back projects, laying off staff, pivoting to online programming, and confronting the very real prospect of shutting down, perhaps permanently.
“We recognized that the need for funds was great — more than any of us could provide — and that we needed to reach out to other foundations to join us,” Charendoff recalled. The goal was to come up with a creative, flexible triage approach to deal with the flood of requests for aid, fully aware that the needs far exceeded the funding available in the Jewish philanthropic world.
The idea of a collective pool marked a major change in Jewish philanthropy.
“Those of us in the foundation world coordinate with each other all the time. But we had never collaborated like this before — in the sense of pooling our collective resources as we are now” and making joint decisions, Finestone noted.
Those interviewed stressed a common commitment, in the face of the pandemic and financial crisis, to support key institutional networks that frame Jewish life, including schools, camps, and the religious movements.
“We’re each willing, for the greater good, to fund things we don’t normally fund,” said Finestone.
The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), which represents some 146 federations, has been a key partner of the funders’ group in this endeavor. Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of JFNA, cited the group’s “selflessness” in putting aside their own foundations’ priorities — often concentrating on support for start-ups and youth engagement — to shore up the communal infrastructure.
“JCRIF’s help in sustaining core institutions in the community has been admirable and absolutely essential,” he observed.
Charendoff, Eisen, and Finestone drafted a statement to reassure their current grantees of continued support and to expand the effort by asking other Jewish foundations to sign on as well.
Within days several more major foundations signed on, each committed to contributing either $5 million or $10 million to the collective pool. They include the Aviv Foundation, the Mandel Foundation, The Glazer Foundation, the Wilf Family Foundation, and the Paul E. Singer Foundation.
The initial pool of $70 million has grown, at last count, to $91 million.
The foundation leaders grappled with the enormity of the challenge, including which groups should receive funds, and how those decisions should be determined and distributed.
“We have tried to approach this task with humility, knowing we can’t come close to meeting all the needs,” Eisen explained. “We sought advice from those in the field because it was important for us to be as inclusive as possible. In the end, this program is just one slice of the pie.”
From the outset the foundations chose to work in partnership with JFNA, which had launched its own major effort to seek government aid for qualifying organizations.
In addition, it should be noted, other major Jewish foundations stepped up with their own efforts. For example, The Harold Grinspoon Foundation launched a $10 million matching grant program for Jewish overnight camps.
Locally, Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ has “raised and given away almost $6 million in emergency support” to agencies and programs in New Jersey, Israel, and around the world, according to Jessica Mehlman, federation’s chief planning officer. The monies came from private donations and emergency reserves of the annual campaign. Executive vice president and CEO Dov Ben-Shimon said federation is “committed to further investment of dollars and other resources to help our community recover and become stronger.”
A group experiment
While the JCRIF pot grew, its funders grappled with how best to distribute the dollars.
They recognized that it was impractical to receive proposals from hundreds, if not thousands, of individual organizations. And they knew that leaders in each segment of the nonprofit world — schools, camps, synagogues, youth programs, social services, etc. — best understood the needs of their constituents. So the funders’ professional execs sought out key leaders in those fields to serve as advisers, advocates, and intermediaries.
Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, said he and his team work closely with JCRIF, “serving as a resource and advocate on both sides, providing the data and knowledge we have of the world of camps.” This allows the funders to make thoughtful decisions, he said.
The representatives of the funders decided early on that it would be most effective to offer interest-free loans to qualified beneficiaries, with up to four years for the recipients to pay back. The intent was to invest in “healthy institutions” that are being hit hard now but were fundamentally sound, one insider explained. “We want to help them weather the storm.”
They soon realized, though, that some vital institutions needed immediate help to survive. So JCRIF agreed to set aside about 20 percent of its funds for outright grants.
In practice, the funders make collective decisions on the loans; for the grants, they are “aligned” in their investigation but can make separate decisions about whether or not to fund, and for how much.
Felicia Herman, executive director of the Natan Fund, was chosen to direct the JCRIF grants program. Shira Hutt, JFNA’s chief of staff, is heading up the loans effort. Both counsel potential beneficiaries and screen applications for the funders to review and make decisions.
Several key foundation representatives said they favored proposals that focus on innovation, cost savings, and other efficiencies that could lead to a healthier, more engaged, and less duplicative institutional structure. Partnerships, shared services, and collaboration, if not actual mergers, are welcomed as signs of recognizing the reality of the moment.
Leaders of the religious denominations were pleased to be included in the process. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Reform movement, said that sitting together with the funders’ teams and a wide range of communal representatives has increased his appreciation of “klal Yisrael [Jewish togetherness], people sharing ideas and resources.”
He added, “the coronavirus is forcing us all to transform in a good way. If you can’t deliver something impactful, move along.”
While some critics of the Jewish establishment have called on the funders to seize this opportunity to reshape the Jewish environment, that is not the goal of JCRIF.
“We don’t necessarily want to see establishment organizations go away,” one key funder said. “We’re looking at the Jewish community in terms of assets rather than institutions. Assets like leadership, talent, and ideas. We’re asking ourselves, ‘How can we preserve our best assets?’”
“We’ll make some good and some bad decisions, no doubt,” another core funder said, “but we’re doing the best we can and hope that others will step up and do their share as well. We’re living in a new reality, and we’re all in this together.”
Gary Rosenblatt is editor at large at The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. He can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org.