David Levine and Laurel Zien (Photo/Marcus Photography)
David Levine and Laurel Zien (Photo/Marcus Photography)

Spreading the word about legacy gifts

“The time is now” for legacy giving, says Steve Brown, director of legacy development for the Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Foundation of the East Bay. The good news is, his message is getting out and people are responding. More than 800 families have already committed to helping sustain Jewish life in their communities through the foundation’s Create a Jewish Legacy program.

The national program Life & Legacy is a supporting partner, providing training and financial incentives to Jewish organizations across the country to promote after-life bequeathals.

In the Bay Area, Life & Legacy is an extension of a philanthropy program that the Jewish Community Foundation of the East Bay launched in 2010. The foundation works with 19 local Jewish organizations, including synagogues, JCCs, day schools and social service agencies, to help them educate donors about legacy giving.

“Organizations talk about legacy giving programs next year, next year,” said Brown, a legacy donor himself. “What we wanted to do was say the time is now.”

The East Bay Federation and Foundation reports that 782 legacy gifts have been recorded, with an estimated value of approximately $42.8 million in future endowment dollars, according to the Federation website.

The foundation organizes communitywide events to acknowledge legacy donors and to invite them to write a message in the East Bay Book of Life, a collection of personal statements that reflect their values and future hopes for their community.

Legacy donor Laurel Zien wrote: “Our fondest wish through our Legacy gift is that [these organizations] continue to provide the backbone of support, caring and enrichment for others in our community for many years to come.” Zien and her husband, David Levine, are legacy donors to Jewish Family & Community Services and Kehilla Community Synagogue.

Zien, a Richmond resident, has a long history with JFCS. “We struggled,” she says of growing up in a single-parent household in her hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “Jewish Family and Children’s Services basically provided my mom and me and my younger brother with employment counseling, vocational training, financial counseling, and advice about how to get to college. They were there for us. I will never forget it. I get emotional just thinking about it.”

Zien also reached out to JFCS in the East Bay in 1980, when her mother-in-law suddenly passed away and her father, who was living in Florida, broke his hip. “We became long-distance caregivers,” she said of that difficult period. “JFCS had a long-distance support group meeting in Albany that we joined. People go in and out but we went for four years.”

The experience spurred Zien to begin a similar support group at Kehilla Community Synagogue, which she joined in 1984. The group has been ongoing for nearly seven years.

Nat and Bernadette Bitton (Photo/Marcus Photography)
Nat and Bernadette Bitton (Photo/Marcus Photography)

Bernadette Bitton, a child of Holocaust survivors who is a legacy donor along with her husband, Nat, noted: “We’ve come to this point in our Jewish history because of who came before us and what they did for us. If we don’t continue as Jews, it’s our fault.”

The Bittons both credit their parents for instilling in them a sense of obligation to sustaining the Jewish community. “We were shown by people we loved,” said Bernadette Bitton. “We aren’t only takers in life. We have to give something, too. It’s not an option.”

Four years ago the couple began attending programs at the JCC East Bay with Bernadette’s mother, who was then showing signs of dementia. The couple thought the JCC would provide her an opportunity to meet other Jews. The couple ended up joining an adult education group and Nat eventually joined the JCC board. Now Nat, who serves as a legacy co-team leader for the JCC, speaks to others about legacy giving, which can be a difficult conversation.

“We don’t want to think about when we die,” the 72-year-old admits. “I speak to people about the importance of continuance. It is necessary to preserve who we are and what we are and to preserve organizations that give back so much to their communities.”

Although Zien and Levine already had named JFCS and Kehilla as beneficiaries in their trust, they formalized their intentions through the Life & Legacy program.

“Going public is a way for us to say how much difference these two organizations have made in our lives,” said Zien, who was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in 2011 and was greatly cared for by her congregation. “For us, taking care of our community that has taken amazing care of us is important. It’s formalizing our gratitude.”

Brown believes the Life & Legacy program is changing philanthropic culture, especially for organizations that have been marketing their efforts.

“People are beginning to think about legacy giving as another way of giving,” he says. “They give so organizations they love can continue their work, out of gratitude for what an organization did for them, out of a desire to ‘pay it forward’ to future generations.”

Dispelling the misconception that individuals need to have a lot of money to leave a legacy gift, Zien said, “You’re leaving a legacy from your heart. A little bit of money now will be a lot in the future. These organizations gave us so much. I hope people are inspired to think about making a gift. These are hard times so give them some security.”

Through tears, Bernadette Bitton said, “I came from people who showed me it’s just what you did. If you were lucky enough to have something, you helped. It wasn’t taught. It was shown to us. It was part of being Jewish.

“If you see something enough, it becomes second nature. It is about the gesture. My grandmother said, ‘One person giving $1 million is good, but one million people giving $1 is even better.’ ”

Life & Legacy is a program of the Massachusetts-based Harold Grinspoon Foundation that teams up with Jewish federations and foundations across the country, including the East Bay Federation and foundation and Sacramento’s Jewish Community Foundation of the West.

To learn more about Jewish Community Foundation of the East Bay’s Life & Legacy program, email [email protected].

Elissa Einhorn
Elissa Einhorn

Elissa Einhorn began her writing career in the Bronx at the age of 8. She earned a master’s degree in communications and journalism 20 years later. While Elissa worked for non-profits her entire career, including as a Jewish communal professional, she now enjoys working for herself as a freelance writer. Still, her most treasured role is that of ima (mom) to twin daughters who she is (finally) happy to count among her friends.