In 1984, the investor and philanthropist Zalman Bernstein set up a foundation committed to “the perpetuation of the Jewish people, Judaism, and the centrality of the State of Israel to the Jewish people.”
Within a few years it began to focus most on sustaining and strengthening Jewish day schools and residential summer camps. Continuing after Bernstein’s death in 1999, the Avi Chai Foundation, under the chairmanship of his widow, Mem Bernstein, and the tireless assistance of board member Arthur Fried and North American executive director Yossi Prager, was an unmatched force in Jewish education and Israel advocacy. It contributed more than $350 million over 35 years for research, schools, and institutions devoted to the idea of “best practices” and to understanding what works and what doesn’t when it comes to engaging the next generation of committed Jews.
On Dec. 31, by design, Avi Chai closed shop, having spent down its assets in order to avoid the fate of other private and family foundations that have suffered “mission drift” over time. But the $1.2 billion in total grants it disbursed assured that its legacy will continue — including here at NJJN and its sister publication, The New York Jewish Week, where initiatives supported by Avi Chai helped make possible a number of our educational projects, including Fresh Ink for Teens, our online site whose content is written for and by high school students; The Conversation, an annual retreat for a wide variety of thoughtful and accomplished Jewish men and women; and most especially Write On For Israel, a two-year leadership training and educational program for high school juniors and seniors that Avi Chai founded with us in 2002. Thanks in part to its crucial support, the program continues and more than 750 students have taken part in seminars here and in Israel, gaining the tools they need to be effective leaders in the pro-Israel movements on campus.
We are forever grateful for the support Avi Chai provided to our educational projects over the years. One begins to realize the scope of the foundation’s reach and effectiveness in considering the hundreds of institutions and countless numbers of students and others who benefited from its generosity and commitment.
In all of its endeavors, Avi Chai functioned as a “venture philanthropy,” funding programs and studies meant to have an impact not just through the next fiscal year, but well into the future. Its commitment to the generations that will outlive it is captured in a verse from the Talmud: “Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants.”