Joy Sisisky will serve as the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund's interim CEO starting Dec. 31, 2021.
Joy Sisisky will serve as the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund's interim CEO starting Dec. 31, 2021.

In a time of global suffering, Federation sees growth in Jewish giving

Joy Sisisky built a career around her love of kehillah (Hebrew for Jewish community). But in the early, disquieting days of the Covid pandemic, she wondered whether normally generous Bay Area Jews might adopt a “scarcity mindset,” causing them to cut back on their charitable donations.

She needn’t have worried.

“People were more generous than ever,” said Sisisky, 45, who since 2016 has served as chief philanthropy officer for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund. “They saw the suffering around the community and they wanted to participate. Year-over-year giving has gone up.”

The numbers bear her out. In 2020, Federation-managed donor-advised funds and supporting foundations issued 11,838 grants, totaling $180.8 million, up more than $5 million from the year before.

The Federation’s pandemic response to date includes $25 million in grants, pro-bono support, and advocacy from multiple sources. Among them are community fundraising; endowed, restricted funds; donor-advised funds; supporting foundations; and the unrestricted endowment. This includes $2.3 million to 37Jewish and nonsectarian organizations to meet urgent needs, $1.5 million granted to JCCs, Jewish camps, schools and other organizations to cope with lost revenue and assist with the resumption of operations, and $2.2 million in preschool, day school and overnight camp scholarships.

“Through all of our channels of giving — the Endowment, donor-advised funds — we gave away nearly $200 million in grants,” Sisisky added.

To explain the generosity, she points to the Jewish values that undergird the Federation. “There is a rallying around the community that happens in times of crisis,” Sisisky said. “We happen to be one of the larger Jewish communities in the United States, but we’re still small, so we have an ability to move quickly. Tzedakah, justice and lovingkindness: We rally around these values.”

Some $17 million has been committed through the Federation’s impact loan program, including $5.6 million in recoverable grants to Hebrew Free Loan to provide zero-interest loans to hundreds of borrowers. “There is an appetite for innovative, forward-thinking models of philanthropy,” she said.

There is a rallying around the community that happens in times of crisis.

Solving problems in the Jewish community has been in Sisisky’s wheelhouse from a young age. A native of Richmond, Virginia, she looks back fondly on her hometown’s flourishing Jewish life. Her grandfather was the first Jew from Virginia to serve in Congress, and her parents were active with their synagogue and local JCC.

An early turning point came when she was a child and participated in the 1987 Washington, D.C., march to free Soviet Jews. A quarter of a million people took part, and the young Joy never forgot it.

She went on to earn a B.A. from Brandeis University in Near East and Judaic studies and politics, and later two master’s degrees, including one in Jewish communal service from Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. It was good preparation for the career to follow.

She got her professional start at AIPAC and later worked for the Joint Distribution Committee, which aids far-flung Jewish communities. As a fellow with the JDC’s Ralph I. Goldman Fellowship in International Jewish Communal Service, she lived and worked in Ukraine and Ethiopia, experiences she calls “transformational and life-changing.”

Sisisky also worked for the Jewish Federations of North America (then known as United Jewish Communities) running the Lion of Judah endowment, through which philanthropists establish $100,000-plus charities aiding the Jewish community. Before joining the S.F. Federation, she served for eight years as executive director of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, which funds efforts to empower women and girls in New York, Israel and around the world.

The role of chief philanthropy officer is a “reimagined position,” she said, adding that “the idea was to focus on integration of philanthropy across the institution. In that capacity I essentially serve as chief development officer on campaigns and endowment.”

Though her work by definition focuses primarily on the needs of the Bay Area, Sisisky benefited from her deep dive into Jewish communities around the world. It’s a perspective she’s never lost as she does the work of the Federation.

“One of the greatest things I feel is I’m part of a global Jewish community,” she said. “I feel equally at home in New York, San Francisco and Ukraine. It’s amazing to see how you can put your money to work to solve complex issues.”

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.