New initiatives goal: increasing access to Jewish life

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Cheryl Lazar of San Rafael needed help to send her teens, Sam and Sarah, to Jewish summer camp this year. After all, the tuition for both was about $8,000 for two weeks. So she turned to the Affordability Project.

With a $75,000 block grant awarded earlier this year to Camp Newman in Santa Rosa from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Affordability Project, the money was there for the Lazar kids — several thousand dollars.

“It’s meant everything,” Lazar says. “We would never have been able to do it without their help. The kids know that we’re fortunate in that we get help. Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to go. They feel very grateful.”

Rachel Martin hikes in Ein Gedi National Park during her four-month stint in Israel.

The Affordability Project is the cornerstone of the federation’s Reducing Barriers and Increasing Access to Jewish Life Initiative, a large-scale grant-making enterprise launched in April that will run over multiple years.

In addition to the Affordability Project, another aspect of the initiative is giving grants to early childhood education providers (19 local Jewish preschools in all) to help parents offset tuition costs. Also, the initiative is helping make camp affordable to Jewish kids with special needs.

The Affordability Project’s role in the initiative is to provide need-based financial assistance to families, much of it directly. So far, 4,500 scholarships have been awarded, totaling nearly $1.3 million for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2013.

The money — most of which has been disbursed for the current fiscal year — came from restricted endowed funds managed by the federation and from annual campaign donations.

Overnight camps made up 25 percent of the Affordability Project funding, at $321,000, with day schools right behind at $261,500, or 21 percent. The rest of the pie went largely to 10 local day camps, 27 religious schools (to support Hebrew classes) and 19 local Jewish preschools. Some money also went for college assistance and first-time Israel trips.

“We have two goals,” says Laura Mason, the federation’s senior program officer and point person for the Affordability Project. “To make Jewish life more affordable for lower- and middle-income families, and to grow involvement in the Jewish community, in overall numbers and also diversity.”

Mason says one goal is to cut down on bureaucracy. For example, the federation gave block grants to camps and schools because the institutions already have scholarship mechanisms in place. Families that need financial help apply for scholarships through the camps or schools.

But for those applying for Israel trip scholarships, or for financial assistance to participate in out-of-town JCC Maccabi Games (which is counted as an overnight camp experience), parents apply directly to the federation.

Giving away money is one thing that federations do. And supporting scholarships has always been part of the mission in the areas it serves: San Francisco, the Peninsula, and Marin and Sonoma counties.

However, in the past, the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education (recently renamed Jewish LearningWorks) played middleman, administering and disbursing these types of individual grants.

Now, as Mason explains, the federation is doing it more hands-on. As far as she knows, no other federation is making grants in this manner.

“As [scholarships] became more prominent in federation work, the program came in-house to foster more growth,” she notes, adding that the impetus for the project came “in response to continued demand over years and the economic downturn. Many families are still struggling to meet these expenses.”

One of the biggest, as Lazar learned, is overnight Jewish summer camps. In fact, because families have so much difficulty meeting that expense, providing scholarships has emerged as the biggest needs-based program in the Bay Area Jewish community, according to Tracey Klapow, business manager at URJ Camp Newman.

Those who work in that business understand that parents need help and are glad that programs like the Affordability Project want to provide it.

“There is so much research about camping and Jewish identity, and we see how much camp impacts [kids’] daily life and how they can’t wait to come back the next

summer,” Klapow says.

Of the Affordability Project and programs like it, Klapow says, “We have big  support from the Jewish community for Jewish camping. It’s an amazing thing we can work so closely [with the federation] to make sure it happens for all these kids.”

While Camp Tawonga near Yosemite and Camp Newman near Santa Rosa account for 80 percent of the overnight campers in the federation’s service area, according to Mason, Bay Area Jewish families have applied for, and received, Affordability Project scholarships for 38 camps nationwide.

Israel trip scholarships, which are awarded throughout the year as needed, so far have amounted to $89,000. At 7 percent of the budget for this fiscal year, that’s not a big slice, but it sure made a difference to Rachel Martin.

When the 17-year-old Aptos resident decided to visit Israel for the first time, she didn’t want to play tourist. She wanted to go as a pilgrim, so she enrolled in Eisendrath International Exchange; the four-month Israel immersion experience for Reform Jewish high school students includes Hebrew-language instruction, community service projects, a taste of army life and a side trip to Poland.

There was only one problem: the $15,000 price tag. At that cost, EIE would have been out of the question for Martin.

So she turned to Jewish organizations for help, among them the Affordability Project, which contributed $1,950 toward her tuition.

“Israel is a part of me now,” Martin says, five months after her return. “Because of that [trip], I got to find out who I am, what my Jewish identity means to me.”

Martin now calls Israel her “second home” and says, “I came in knowing only one person, and came out of it having so many best friends. I talk to them every day on Skype.”

As for the scholarship that helped her do it, she says, “As a Jewish teen you’re not always financially supported. To have these organizations help you out to become the person you want to become really means a lot to me.”


The Affordability Project has information on how to apply for scholarships at

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.