Area anti-poverty group gets boost from Soros funding

Financier and philanthropist George Soros has boosted the bank balance of the national Jewish Fund for Justice by $1.3 million — his second-ever gift to a Jewish organization.

As a result, the JFJ, a philanthropy that supports the fight against poverty in the United States, will increase its grant-making by more than 50 percent. It will grant $900,000 in the 1998 fiscal year.

Several local groups will reap the fruits of that sum, including the Poverty Action Alliance of the regional American Jewish Congress. The alliance will again receive a $15,000 grant, including a matching $7,500 grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, to pursue its work in educating and advocating on behalf of poverty issues.

The renewed grant will allow the alliance to continue expanding, says Ilana Schatz, the project's director. Last year's $15,000 from JFJ allowed her to expand from working one to three days a week.

"To build community, to build relationships, takes time," she says. "Those extra two days have allowed us to increase the number of people in the community involved in the project."

Other local recipients of JFJ grants include the Coalition for Ethical Welfare Reform in San Francisco and the Contra Costa Interfaith Sponsoring Committee in Richmond. Two Los Angeles groups will also get grants, bringing the California total to $52,000, or 12 percent of the funds distributed.

Soros, a Hungarian-born Jew, earned his fortune managing hedge funds, which are high-risk, high-yield investments. He has distributed millions of dollars around the globe to support everything from pro-democracy work in former communist countries to groups lobbying for the decriminalization of marijuana.

Last year, he attracted national media attention when he pledged $50 million to help legal immigrants in the United States, through his foundation, The Open Society Institute. He named the fund after Emma Lazarus, the Jewish poet whose words grace the Statue of Liberty.

In August, the Emma Lazarus Fund gave $1.3 million to the Council of Jewish Federations to fund naturalization programs for immigrants, primarily Jews from the former Soviet Union.

The gift of the same amount to the JFJ is by far the largest the fund has received, said Marlene Provizer, the JFJ's executive director.

The fund raises money in the Jewish community and distributes it to community organizations across the United States. Founded in 1984, the group began making grants the following year. It has awarded $4.3 million to more than 400 community-based groups.

The bulk of Soros' gift to the JFJ — $1 million — has been awarded in the form of a challenge grant. This means the JFJ must match the $1 million over the next three years. The fund has already raised about $300,000 of the matching funds it needs, the group said in a statement.

"The grant-making philosophy of the Jewish Fund for Justice meshes with OSI's concern for building a civil society," Soros said.