Anything Grants give a little boost to big ideas

Anything Grants from the Staenberg Family Foundation funded the creation of an accessible bimah at Traditional Congregation.  

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

When the backyard at the Next Dor house was in a bit of disarray, leadership at the organization had a vision for renovations: fresh lighting, a new deck, redoing the lawn and planting a fruit and vegetable garden, for starters.

But funding, as always, was an issue. 

Then a Staenberg Family Foundation grant program jumped in to fill the gap.

“What’s neat about it is that it really lets you do anything,” said Nathaniel Rosenblum, vice president of programming at Next Dor, which provides a space for young Jewish adults to congregate. “A lot of grants come with significant stipulations and guidelines and terms. I think it is really neat that it allows people to really do what they need to do.”

In fact, that ethos is baked right into the name: Anything Grants. The program is in its second year and will back at least 18 projects with a total of $60,000 for this funding cycle. Using grant money, Neve Shalom will hire an advocate to research housing options for mentally ill Jews, Aish HaTorah will install a new heating system and the St. Louis Kollel will offer networking opportunities to local professionals.

The rules are simple. Groups seeking grants must be Jewish, locally based and hold federal 501c3 tax status — that is, be a nonprofit organization involved in charitable, religious, educational or similar activities. Anything Grants criteria encourage one-time needs, although ongoing concepts can be accepted if they have a sustainability plan.

Rob Bertman, a committee member for the grant program, said the idea began with a plan to give away $50,000 but soon began to expand.

“We’ve gotten infrastructure requests for HVAC systems,” he said. “We’ve gotten a new program geared toward a certain event that was going to reach people. We’ve had Jewish day schools request things, synagogues request things.” 

Bertman said the foundation’s generosity could create a model for younger philanthropists. 

“They’ve really set a wonderful example and blazed a trail for others to follow,” he said.

Bertman is one of a number of young professionals who were appointed to the committee that founder Michael Staenberg made sure consisted of Jews in their 20s, 30s or 40s.

“One of the things is that they wanted to get young people involved in understanding the landscape of the community and where the needs are in giving,” Bertman said.

The program is designed to match funds raised by grant seekers, who are expected to raise half of the cash needed for each project.

“They are going to provide half of the gift, and that might jump-start other people to get involved and contribute to the cause as well,” Bertman said. “It also gives the agency directors and development staff a little bit of incentive. If the need is really worthwhile, they should be able to go out and raise the additional 50 percent of the funds.”

Grants range only from $1,000 to $5,000. 

“A small amount of money can make a big change,” Staenberg said. “We can make a difference in a lot of lives.”

Staenberg said $125,000 has been committed since the beginning of the program, which has already affected thousands of people.

“I’ve seen great results, and we’re going to continue it next year,” he said.

At Next Dor, Rosenblum agreed that the Anything Grants is getting the job done. He said the $5,000 that the organization received is vital.

“It is (for) a new programming space that will bring in new young adults who have never been there before,” he said. “When donors come to see the house, I think they’ll be more likely to support it because it looks like a place young adults would want to be.”

Rosenblum likes the idea that Next Dor must raise the other half of the cash.

“It encourages organizations to get out there and meet donors,” he said. “It helps you make the case that the Staenberg Foundation is supporting you.”

For Galit Lev-Harir, Anything Grants were instrumental in helping the St. Louis branch of the Friends of Israel Scouts. The group, which conducts Zionist-themed activities in Hebrew for members in grades 3 through 12, received $1,500 to purchase special wood poles called senadot that can be used by scouts in building activities.

“Part of the grant will be used to purchase the poles themselves,” she said. “Part of it will be used for our older kids, the 10th– through 12th-graders, to get trained in how you build and use these in projects.”

About 50 poles will be purchased along with ropes and harnesses to put them together.

“The whole process of building is really a team-building experience and very much a leadership experience,” Lev-Harir said. “When you think about it, if you’ve got a group of kids and they are going to build something, you have to plan it, you have to organize it, you have to give out different jobs.”

The activities will help 30 to 40 children in the group. However, the temporary structures that are built may also be shared with youngsters at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, which operates on the same campus at Congregation B’nai Amoona.

Lev-Harir said the projects would help connect children to other youngsters, a concept the grant program encourages.

“We couldn’t do an idea that would only benefit our kids,” she said. “We had to think of an idea that was going to bring our kids closer to the other kids in the St. Louis Jewish community. What makes the Anything Grant different is the need to connect it with other parts of the Jewish community.”

At United Hebrew, blocks rather than poles are on the agenda. Called the Imagination Playground, two large crates of blue foam blocks were purchased in May thanks to a $1,200 Anything Grant.

Rabbi Roxanne Shapiro, director of lifelong learning for the temple, said the indoor/outdoor units can be used by preschoolers to build anything from a wheel to a fort.

“A group of our campers actually created a boat,” she said. “Anytime they are able to use their imagination is growth and development for their brain. It helps the mind to really function and to grow. They are able to express themselves.”

She said similar blocks are in use at the Magic House, so many of the children were already familiar with the concept.

Cyndee Levy, president of Traditional Congregation, said her synagogue received an Anything Grant last year to make its bimah and reader’s table accessible for the disabled. A $5,000 grant assisted with the effort, with the remainder being made up by congregants.

“Before we did this project, there was no ramping system for someone to be able to get up to that platform to be able to either say the blessings or read from the Torah,” she said. “For some of our older members who were on walkers or a little less sure on their feet, there were no railings or guardrails to help them make that step up, either.” 

Levy said putting in the new facilities has meant a great deal to those who attend services. Last year, a wheelchair-bound congregant was able to be called up to the Torah to say the blessing on Yom Kippur.

“There really wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” she said. “The specialness of that wasn’t lost on a single person in the congregation.”