Philanthropists share ideas, concerns at Jewish Funders Network conference


Jewish funders from around the world were happy to gather again in person at the 2022 JFN International Conference (Photo courtesy of Jewish Funders Network)

TOBY TABACHNICK, Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle

PALM BEACH, Fla.— For the 500 attendees of the first in-person Jewish Funders Network conference since the pandemic, philanthropy is much more than just writing a check.

It’s collaborative, strategic and data-driven.

From March 27-29, representatives of private foundations and individual philanthropists gathered at the PGA National Resort in Palm Beach to learn about trends in charitable giving, gain inspiration from Jewish thought leaders and connect with other like-minded humanitarians in their ongoing effort to support Jewish life and effect positive change to better society and the planet.

It’s a very intentional undertaking.

Morreen Rukin, a trustee and board member of the Michael B. Rukin Charitable Foundation headquartered near Philadelphia, is a conference regular. The Rukin Foundation, started by her late father, she said, focuses on Jewish philanthropy “from the perspective of interfaith education, inclusion and acceptance.” It also funds a program in Ukraine for Jewish teens that helps them develop leadership skills and learn about their Jewish identity.

“I like to come to talk to other funders who are in similar and different spaces to hear what the issues are that people are trying to tackle,” Rukin said. “Being someone who doesn’t have an education in philanthropy — I just always had it in my heart because of the way my parents raised me — I learn from people about how they go about running their foundations. I always leave here with lots of tidbits on how to do it better.”

The conference began with a plenary session Sunday afternoon introduced by comedian Benji Lovitt. Those few minutes of levity were followed by a somber address by JFN President and CEO Andrés Spokoiny, who urged the crowd to take bold actions in a world marked by uncertainty and offered a big-picture view of the fundamental challenges facing Jews today.

‘Dramatic urgency’

The pandemic, Spokoiny said, strained Jewish relationships — on both an individual level and a communal level — and challenged the Jewish people’s relationship with the world at large.

Jewish funders from around the world were happy to gather again in person at the 2022 JFN International Conference (Photo courtesy of Jewish Funders Network)

The fragility of those relationships, he said, has created “a crisis of potentially devastating consequences. To be sure, the pandemic didn’t create those crises but accelerated them and gave them dramatic urgency.”

While the Jewish people has always been “fractious and divided,” he said, today’s level of discourse and “the demonization of each other has reached extremely dangerous levels.”

Spokoiny lamented the strain in relationships between Israeli and Diaspora Jews, compounded by the pandemic preventing travel to Israel for almost two years. He noted that Jews are failing to build an inclusive community even within North America. Jews of color, Haredim, Mizrahi Jews, Russian-speaking Jews and others are not well represented in mainstream organizations, he said.

“In sum, we don’t have a ‘Jewish public square.’”

Moreover, the rise of antisemitism — from various sectors — has created a sense of fear and mistrust in Jews’ relationship to society at large, Spokoiny said.

“Let’s face it, our record on fighting antisemitism is not great,” he said. “I’m the first to say that eliminating antisemitism is impossible, but even the little progress we can achieve, we fail to attain.

“And that’s because, regardless of where we stand politically, we look at antisemitism through a lens of ideological rigidity,” he continued. “We are more interested in being right than in being successful. We can’t — and we don’t — resist the allure of politicizing antisemitism and get into pissing matches about ‘which antisemitism is worse, right or left’ and use antisemitism as a club with which to hit our political opponents, and also to attack other Jews.”

Another relationship in crisis, Spokoiny said, is between Jews and Judaism.

Historically, following a pandemic, people have engaged in a quest for meaning, he said, and “if Judaism isn’t relevant, compelling and accessible, Jews will look elsewhere.”

Finally, Spokoiny pointed to a “crisis” in the relationships Jews have with Jewish institutions.

“We are stuck with 19th- and 20th- century models, models that worked well in times of low volatility and slow change but are woefully inadequate for times of uncertainty,” he said.

He urged conference attendees to adopt a mindset of “intellectual humility” to enable difficult conversations and build coalitions and “boldness.”

“There is indeed a time for small steps and incremental approaches, but now is not that time,” Spokoiny said.

“COVID saw the finest hours of the philanthropic community,” he said. “We stepped up and literally kept the community afloat during the worst crisis in a generation. But we also fell short because we failed to dream big, to use the pandemic as a moment to reimagine the community and make bold bets.”

Philanthropists’ concerns

The crisis in Ukraine loomed large at the conference, with several sessions dedicated to sharing facts and strategizing responses. Other topics of the plenaries and workshops included: antisemitism; the preservation of democracy; diversity, justice and gender; environmentalism; the Abraham Accords; poverty; Jewish-Arab relations in Israel; and involving younger generations in philanthropy.

Bringing the next generation into the philanthropic fold is a top priority for Wayne Green, executive director of Honeycomb, a partner of JFN, which provides educational resources to help professionals and parents engage youth in strategic grantmaking. For him, the conference was about making connections with peers in the world of philanthropy and an opportunity to “explore collaborations,” he said, with other funders who are thinking about the next generation.

“When we think about giving, we need to make sure that having the greatest impact is an incredible responsibility that comes with the access to having wealth and finances,” Green said. “I think, as Jews today, we want to be represented by our actions and doing good for the world. So for me, philanthropy is like a perfect way that represents that.”

Cindy Shapira, president of the Pittsburgh-based David S. and Karen A. Shapira Foundation, said she was attending the conference to reconnect with others she knows through philanthropy and other work in the Jewish world, “in person, under one roof,” to talk about issues vital to Jewish continuity. Shapira spoke on a panel about organizational mergers; Onward Israel — an internship program in Israel conceived by Shapira — recently merged with Birthright.

It’s the sort of collaboration that is fostered through JFN networking.

Engaging young people with Israel continues to be a priority for the Shapira Foundation, Shapira said. And like many Jewish philanthropies, the foundation is “very concerned about humanitarian relief, and whatever we can do as philanthropists, for the people of Ukraine.”

Philanthropic foundations face a host of challenges in addition to ensuring charitable continuity and finding collaborators.

One challenge is “trying to fine-tune our strategy around giving and figuring out how to give both meaningfully and impactfully,” said Jennie Schaff, CEO of the Farash Charitable Foundation based in Rochester, New York, which focuses half of its giving on Jewish Rochester and the other half mostly on local K-12 education — with some smaller giving categories of arts and culture, entrepreneurship and community response.

There’s a tension between the pull to fund established Jewish legacy organizations while “wanting to promote innovation,” recognizing “the changing community and how we’re adapting to the evolving community.”

“Another challenge,” Schaff said, “is recognizing that there are lots of trends in philanthropy, in particular, the utilization of the voice of the people who the dollars are ultimately going to serve. Also having a really dedicated board of trustees who certainly are more grounded in philanthropy and how it’s been done for so, so many years up until this point, and recognizing that it’s an evolving field; how do you meaningfully bring a group of really bright well-intentioned incredible trustees along for the ride — recognizing that they’re well-grounded in philanthropy as they know it.”

For Schaff, the JFN conference — her first — was an opportunity to “meet other people in the same sphere or the same space where they’re trying to give intentionally and Jewishly and in meaningful ways.”

“To be able to come to a space where other people are wrestling with those same issues, and trying to do so in meaningful ways, to me was just something I didn’t want to miss. It definitely has felt very empowering to be here with other thought partners who are wrestling with this, too.”