Innovative projects have matured into mainstays of local Jewish life

On any given day, one might find a group of movers and shakers, average age 38, with their sleeves rolled up, gathered around a conference table at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, studying a proposal.

But it’s not a business venture they’re appraising. They’re reviewing proposals from Jewish organizations for new programs to engage their peers in Jewish life. In due course, the committee of 30 volunteers, co-chaired by Josh Smith and Jeff Zlot, will distribute a pot of $1 million from the federation’s endowment fund to seed-fund six to 10 projects.

Mark Reisbaum

This is the Impact Grant Initiative, a new model of grant-making, based on social-venture philanthropy. It upholds the JCF’s commitment to support innovative ideas in the local community, while also providing increased opportunities for donors to engage in proactive, outcome-focused grantmaking.

“Federations around the country are struggling with how to have greater impact and how to engage young people in a way that leverages their personal and professional lives, and ultimately builds future philanthropic leadership in the community,” explained Mark Reisbaum, chief endowment officer. This approach, he believes, is a step in that direction.

The federation’s endowment fund has a decades-long history of backing pioneering initiatives to ensure that Bay Area Jewish life is strong and vibrant, meets the needs of community members and enhances Jewish identity and connections. Jewish Vocational Service, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the Israel Center and the LGBT Alliance, for example, today are core institutions or programs. But when launched, they were groundbreaking, forward-thinking ventures created for a specific purpose, said Phyllis Cook, who was executive director of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund for 25 years.

JVS came about, she recalled, in the early 1970s, when middle-class Jews were having trouble finding jobs. In prior years, jobs were plentiful, but when federation leadership became aware that many people were having trouble finding work, they seed-funded an agency that could help.

In the early 1980s, another concern was voiced: Jews were not choosing to work in Jewish nonprofits. The endowment fund again stepped up, creating the Kohn internship program for college students, to familiarize them with Jewish communial agencies and encourage them to work or volunteer with the organizations after college graduation. The program, which is administered by JVS, can boast countless successes and has been replicated in other communities, said Cook.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum was seed-funded by the endowment as the Jewish Museum. Housed on the first floor of the federation’s San Francisco building on Steuart Street, the goal was to provide a home for more contemporary Jewish art than could be found at the Judah Magnes Museum in Berkeley. Today’s CJM, one of the Bay Area’s major cultural institutions, continues that tradition.

JCF seed-funded the Contemporary Jewish Musuem, whose roots were in the small Jewish museum (above), located in the federation building on Steuart Street in S.F.

Federation’s sister-city relationship with Israel gave rise to a need to develop a closer relationship with the people, and thus the Amuta was formed. An independent group of Israelis who served as a parallel to the federation’s board, it was the first such group of any Jewish community in the country. The relationship deepened bonds and enabled the funding of programs that strengthened democracy, women’s rights and religious pluralism, matching the values of the Bay Area community. In the 1990s, the federation’s Israel Center was created to present Israel beyond the politics and to provide a touch-point for the large community of Israelis who have made the Bay Area their home. The goal, maintained today, is to showcase Israel as a dynamic and inspired country.

The federation was the first in the nation to reach out to the LGBT community. Many gay Jews came to the Bay Area and excelled in their careers, but felt disenfranchised from the general Jewish community. The JCF’s high-profile LGBT Alliance was created to welcome and engage them. 

In the last few years, the federation has developed a new partnership with synagogues in its service area of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma counties. Through its Synagogue Initiative, under the leadership of Rabbi Marvin Goodman, the federation’s rabbi-in-residence, Rabbi Nat Ezray and other lay leaders, groups have found areas of mutual interest to address together as partners.

“This has made a tremendous impact in how federation works with congregations,” Reisbaum said. It also has resulted in JCF’s Community Legacy Project, a funding partnership that provides training, tools and support to build membership and endowments in synagogues and community agencies.

“Ultimately, it’s about engaging people in Jewish life,” Reisbaum concluded. “In working together, we strengthen the Jewish community long term.”