Normally it’s rare for Jewish organizations to make quick decisions. And usually it’s next to impossible for a mass of Jewish people to arrive at any kind of consensus. Normal and usual, however, have not been seen in some time.
With multiple Jewish institutions in desperate need of capital just to stay afloat during the Covid-19 crisis, the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks was able to raise over $100,000 (which includes a federation match of $50,000) in one month by adapting established procedures and infrastructure, and by enlisting the assistance of the entire Jewish community. A week-and-a-half after the funds were in, grants had already been allocated and distributed to community organizations in distress because of the pandemic.
The fund is now at about $105,000 and is still increasing in size. Out of the 195 donors to date, between 25 and 30 percent of the gifts to federation were from first-time contributors.
Fund marketing guru Daniel Herscovici, who is co-chair of the fundraising committee with Don Lebowitz and also a member of the allocations committee, spearheaded the strategy that brought together key agencies and synagogues to raise money as a community. And rather than federation reaching out to individuals to solicit donations, the fundraising
committee requested that each synagogue impress upon their members the importance of giving to the fund for the sake of the larger community.
“Instead of competing for dollars, the idea was to encourage everyone to come together and unify our efforts,” Herscovici told NJJN.
Funds would be distributed based on needs in four areas: health, education and social services, food insecurity, and economic assistance.
“Because of the immediate, urgent need, almost everything was distributed,” Herscovici said. That said, he added, “the monies we raised were a fraction of what was needed and requested by these agencies.”
Ultimately the three major recipients were Greenwood House, which experienced illness and death from Covid-19 despite major efforts and expenditures to keep the disease at bay; Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County, whose Meals on Wheels program delivers food to homebound seniors; and various rabbis’ discretionary funds, determined to be an effective vehicle for helping individuals with rent, health insurance, and household needs.
“It was a dire situation; internal resources for agencies and synagogues were tapped out,” according to Lisa Tobias, who co-chaired the allocations committee with Eliot Freeman.
Federation withheld a modest sum so they would have funds available should other needs arise after the first distribution, Tobias said. For example, when the JCC/Abrams Camp submitted their application, they did not know yet whether they would be open this summer. Once they made the decision to open (camp starts July 13), Tobias said, “we had funds that we could use to fund their PPE [personal protective equipment] needs as they were opening camp.”
Because of the urgency of the situation, the application was purposely kept simple. But even though the allocations committee knew they wouldn’t be keeping to federation’s usually detailed system of determining where and how much money to distribute, the process turned out to be different than they expected. At the beginning of the process the committee created a rubric of what they were looking for: a strong statement of need, project goals within the organization that effectively met needs generated by the pandemic, the organization’s plans for distributing grant monies, and a well-defined project design. But things quickly changed.
“All of a sudden very subjective factors started to enter into our judgment,” Tobias said. “Under normal allocations, we take a good look at the budget, but budget didn’t even factor into this, and we weren’t looking at project planning. We were looking at dire need.”
They shifted gears and began asking different kinds of questions: Did an organization have to lay off or furlough employees, or create a hiring freeze? How much were they impacted by a lack of revenue? What is the organization’s value to the community? How likely are they to recover from the pandemic? Can they survive without receiving the grant?
Federation president Jerry Neumann told NJJN he was most impressed by “the outpouring of generosity from the community, how quickly things were able to be mobilized, and how quickly we broke through $100,000.”
The request for proposals went to the agencies and synagogues they thought needed immediate help: Adath Israel Congregation, Congregation Beth Chaim, Beth El Synagogue, Har Sinai Temple, and the Jewish Center, as well as Abrams Hebrew Academy, Greenwood House, JCC Abrams Camps, Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County, and the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Mercer. (Abrams Hebrew Academy and Beth El declined to apply, and Har Sinai did not respond to the proposal request.)
Neumann said that the federation expects there to be increasing demand for allocations in the coming months.
“The fund is still available,” he said. “It is fair to say that the economic dislocation from this virus is not going to simply reverse itself in a matter of days or weeks; it could take months and therefore these needs will continue.
“We are very nimble, very flexible, and prepared … for that eventuality.”
For both Tobias and Herscovici, the effectiveness of the fund-raising and allocations process were evidence of why a Jewish community federation is critical. Tobias, a decades-long participant in federation allocations, said she has “never seen as efficient a response to an emergency situation as I have to this.”
“I know that a lot of people have questioned the need for an umbrella organization to oversee something in our community when people can give directly to agencies and synagogues,” Tobias said. “But it is in situations like this where the value of a federation gets to really show itself.”
Said Herscovici, “I think it was a defining moment for the community at large and the federation in particular,” adding, “It is our hope to grow and evolve as an agency whose mission is to serve the community.”
To donate to the Jewish Community COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund of Greater Mercer, visit jewishpmb.org/COVID-19FUND.