JLens puts a focus on investing with Jewish values in mind

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For sage financial wisdom, Julie Hammerman doesn’t turn only to someone with a proven track record like investor Warren Buffett. She also turns to Maimonides.

As founder of the new nonprofit JLens Investor Network (www.jlensnetwork.org), Hammerman helps individuals and institutions — such as Jewish federations and foundations — meet investment goals while simultaneously honoring the Jewish values they espouse.

Doing well by doing good?  The former investment banker says it’s doable.

“The fear of losing financial return has been used for decades to scare people away from investing in a socially responsible way,” Hammerman says. “Studies show you can have the same performance. You don’t have to sacrifice return.”

The JLens team, from left: Josh Langenthal, Julie Hammerman and Rachel Heitler

Hammerman, 37, would know. She studied socially responsible investing (SRI) at Harvard Business School, and sustained her interest while working as a Wall Street investment banker and, later, as a consultant for a small-cap, SRI-oriented mutual fund.

Also thrown into the mix was Hammerman completing a prestigious two-year fellowship with the Wexner Foundation for Jewish Leadership last year.

Inspired by the Jewish texts she studied during those two years, Hammerman decided to blend her passions for SRI and Jewish values — and the JLens Investor Network was born last year.

In June, the not-for-profit enterprise was selected to be in the new cohort at UpStart, the S.F.-based Jewish social innovation incubator and consulting firm.

JLens sits down with individuals and institutions to establish their financial goals and then analyze their current portfolios for “disconnects” with their values. Then they adjust and invest accordingly.

To do so, Hammerman takes the SRI concept a step further into what she calls Jewish impact investing, which factors the Jewish values of social justice, environmental preservation and Israel when it comes to her clients’ investments.

“I started calling federations, foundations and endowments just to learn how they were bringing their Jewish values into their investment portfolio,” she says. “Beyond Israel Bonds, they were doing very little, but they were very receptive.”

The global investing community picture has grown increasingly receptive. Hammerman cites statistics that show the 12 percent — some $3.74 trillion — of U.S. assets are held in socially responsible or sustainable investments. Globally, that figure balloons to $13.6 trillion, or 22 percent.

In other words, SRI has hit the tipping point.

“It used to be a lot of negative screening,” she says, “meaning if you don’t want to invest in tobacco, we’d take that out. Now there is more focus on positive screening, supporting education, health care, women’s issues.”

She says she and other SRI experts also consider a “best in sector” approach, meaning if an oil company has made a serious commitment to renewable energy research, its stock may get her attention as much as a hot green-tech stock.

To help with the JLens rollout, Hammerman conducted a survey of 158 rabbis nationwide, asking them questions about Jewish values and investment decisions.

Not surprisingly, 95 percent felt social and environmental impacts should be considered, and a nearly unanimous 97 percent believed investors should strive to make a positive impact on society with their investments.

Long before she launched JLens, Hammerman cared about both her Jewish identity and making a social impact. The Maryland native earned an MBA from Harvard, and worked for JP Morgan on Wall Street. But she spent her weekends tutoring underprivileged kids in Harlem.

After several years in New York and Boston, Hammerman and her husband moved to the Bay Area six years ago. The couple has three young children and belongs to Temple Isaiah in Lafayette.

To further develop JLens, Hammerman not only connected with UpStart locally, but also with Jumpstart, another Jewish entrepreneurial incubator based in Los Angeles.

In the months ahead, Hammerman hopes to build a strong client base for JLens, and eventually she expects to launch a few mutual funds that reflect Jewish values.

Currently, she says, there are more than 100 faith-based funds, but none specifically aligned with Jewish values.

“The whole premise of impact investing is there is not enough philanthropy in the world to solve all the social and environmental problems,” she says. “If you can move a portion of the trillions of investment capital in that direction, you meet investment goals, help alleviate poverty and do good work.”

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.