Jewish trust is edgy, new, different, head says here

Of the 40 largest Jewish federations in the country, only one is headed by a woman: Rhode Island's.

And in its first major initiative since its inception, the Trust for Jewish Philanthropy is trying to change that.

"Why don't women reach the top very often? What kind of workplace do we have in Jewish life and how does it relate to the values we espouse?" asked David Altshuler, president of the trust, in town this month for a board seminar.

With a $1 million grant from New Yorkers Barbara and Eric Dobkin, who have long supported Jewish women's causes, the trust launched Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community (AWP), a project aimed at achieving greater gender balance in Jewish communal organizations.

The AWF is precisely the kind of project the trust is looking to fund because it could attract money that might not otherwise go to Jewish organizations, he said. "It's not your grandpa's UJA; it's edgy and new and a little different."

That is only one of the projects the trust plans to see through. Founded in January 2000 by United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group that is a merger of United Jewish Appeal and Federations of North America, the trust was established as an independent foundation. It specializes in venture philanthropy and donor-directed giving.

While based in New York, the trust has board members from around the country, including Jon Friedenberg, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose, and Laura Lauder, a board and executive committee member of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

The hope is that Jewish philanthropists "could invest in projects and follow the money," as is the practice among donors to the S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund, Altshuler said.

Jewish family foundations give huge sums to universities and other secular institutions, according to Altshuler. "People who are generous are broadly generous. The trust would like to make the case why some of that money should go to Jewish causes.

"We're trying to engage these people in Jewish philanthropy as well, and often the best way to do that is to make an investment they can follow," he said.

Altshuler hopes the trust will foster new relationships and partnerships between donors and existing institutions, citing the Birthright Israel program as an example. That program brought two philanthropists — Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt — together with the national Jewish federations and the Jewish Agency for Israel to provide free trips to Israel for American Jewish young adults.

This revolutionary partnership, Altshuler said, sent a message that "the whole is more than the sum of its parts."

He hopes that the trust will serve as a kind of shadchen, or matchmaker, between various philanthropists with an interest in Jewish causes.

The trust does not intend to try and replace the work already being done by local federations. "We're an outgrowth, an extra story," he said. "A complement to that."

The trust is looking into several other initiatives, among them:

*Building Jewish summer camps.

"One of the universally acclaimed ways to heighten Jewish identity is through Jewish camping," Altshuler said. The trust hopes to raise capital to build new camps, raising the number of beds in Jewish camps around the country.

*Promoting philanthropy in Israel by Israelis.

*Furthering research into genetic diseases.

"If we could screen widely across the Jewish world, we could put these diseases out of business," he said.

*Creating a partnership with humanitarian social service organizations, such as American Jewish World Service, which sends volunteers into non-Jewish communities around the world. AJWS "is a model of how Jews can give both to Jews in distress and to the world at large," he said.

Phyllis Cook, executive director of the JCEF, said the organization would be working closely with the trust, but it's still early to determine exactly how, as the trust is still in its exploratory phase.

"The trust is part of United Jewish Communities, which is our parent organization," she said. "We've created it. I expect to work in complete partnership with them."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."