A different kind of tzedakah &mdash investing in disadvantaged areas

No one would be surprised to learn that the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay supports, say, Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito or the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville.

But some might be surprised to learn that the federation is supporting affordable housing initiatives and such services in West Oakland, a neighborhood with no Jewish institutions or presence to speak of.

Investing in Oakland’s poorer neighborhoods is part of the East Bay JCF’s Community Investing Initiative.

The idea first came to Ilana Schatz, who was then the director of the federation’s Volunteer Action Center. She heard about such a program from the Shefa Fund, a progressive Jewish foundation based in Philadelphia.

The East Bay federation is the first in the country to initiate such a program itself. Schatz put together a committee of people who might be interested in starting a program here, and Amy Utstein was one of them.

Utstein had volunteered for the Shefa Fund in Los Angeles, where she had seen the program in action. She was eager to see such a program start here, and served on that pilot committee. When Schatz announced she was leaving her job, Utstein took her place, specifically for this reason. “There’s nothing I’m more passionate about,” she said.

Utstein explained that until four years ago, no banks would open a branch in West Oakland, a poor, primarily African-American neighborhood.

“The only kind [of financial institutions] in West Oakland were those check-cashing places, or predatory lenders,” she said. Comparing that to affluent areas where there’s almost a bank on every block, she said, “It’s certainly not like that in low-income communities.”

Enter the People’s Community Partnership Federal Credit Union. Unlike traditional banks that can sometimes require a minimum of hundreds or even thousands of dollars in deposits to receive a free checking account, one needs only a minimum of $25 to open an account here, with a one-time fee of $5. Membership is open to those who live or work in the neighborhood.

When people invest their money in an institution like this, it goes to help the surrounding neighborhood. “This is a different kind of tzedakah, in which you put your money for a definite period of time in an institution where you might make slightly less interest, but not much less,” Utstein said. “But while there, all of it is being used for micro-loans for small businesses, affordable housing, educational facilities, and other vital services that are needed in a low-income community.”

The board began fund-raising for the initiative two years ago, and hopes to reach its goal of $1 million invested by the end of this year.

All it takes is convincing someone not only that their money is safe, but that it will be helping to do good. “It’s a wonderful way of giving,” said Utstein. “When we go out and talk to people about it, people say ‘I can’t believe I didn’t know about it.’ It’s the easiest sell in the world.” She hopes not only to get individuals involved, but synagogues and other nonprofits as well.

Larry Grossman, formerly of Walnut Creek and now living in Benicia, is chairing the board.

Some people who think Jewish money should always be going to help Jews have been skeptical of the initiative at first, Grossman said. But “after hearing more, they think that it is appropriate for the Jewish community to help the greater community — by helping people help themselves.”

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."