Endeavor to Repair

Credit: Elsa Sjunneson-Henry. Used with permission.

One of my best friends went dark when Hurricane Sandy crashed into the States. I kept her Twitter and Facebook open, vainly hoping for an update. Pushing refresh on her pages. Checking my text messages, voicemail, e-mail. Anything. I couldn’t think of a good prayer. I said the Sh’ma, to reassure myself. To remind myself of holiness even in a very scary, terrible, fearsome time. When she called Wednesday, I cried. She was unharmed during the storm, but had been without power and any way to contact the outside world.

 


The aftermath of Sandy is everywhere, including the Jewish press. JTA’s been liveblogging Hurricane Sandy and the aftermath. JD Forward’s done some stuff already. Torah scrolls have been damaged, mezuzot retrieved from who knows how many doorways already. And only G-d knows how many have been destroyed or lost in the storm.

Homes were destroyed. Places of worship. New York and New Jersey and Staten Island and Coney Island are just a few of the places that got hit. A part of the places the dead of Hurricane Sandy called home.

I’ve never been to Haiti,Jaimaca, Cuba, the Bahamas. They were hit. Death tolls and damage numbers are things that stretch—and they never seem to go down. Only up.

I know you’re aware of places you can donate money. That you are smart enough to vet relief funds on a basic level so you know your money is going to where the need is.

I know not all of us are on east coast. Or even in the States. But giving aid, comforting the sick and dying, doing right by the people around us. Those are Jewish values. I’m a big believer in prayer, and hope. In doing what you are able to, and to the best of your ability. I expect no one to give more than they can, and if you look at the tradition of charity, we are not to give so much of ourselves, particularly monetarily, as to beggar ourselves. But we live in a modern era.

Money is not the only thing we have to give.

Ask other people to give a shit—and to get together with you to help.

Write an e-mail. Send a text. Pick up a phone. Follow an east coast newspaper on Twitter, or Facebook, and keep up with what is going on right now, on what is going on months from now—and  how much or little has changed. Join the conversation and become knowledgeable about the scientific, fiscal, and cultural issues that must be faced.

Do whatever it is you are good at, that you can give of yourself, to help the people left in devastation’s wake. Most importantly, do not harden your heart to this. Don’t just let Hurricane relief become something you let go of, like a trend.

Do one thing, one real thing, to help.

You start in whatever way you can, in the Jewish community, outside of it, whatever place you can take the first step to act with compassion. Ask for donations, cook meals, give blood, find ways to put people with money or resources in touch with the people who need them so much right now.

And after that first step, you don’t stop walking. If you have never been involved with tikkun olam, or if you think it’s dumb to say hurricane relief helps repair the world, I’m asking you to consider something.

When we rebuild a city, we rebuild the spirit and hearts of its inhabitants. If we aid them rebuild, and do not harden our hearts to their voices, we have started to understand what it truly is to repair the world.

On generosity and justice

So what else is there to say about Mitt Romney’s tax returns? I would suggest that we could learn at least two things from them. First, on a personal level, it seems that Mitt and Ann Romney are very generous people. They donated $4.02 million in charity in 2011 (out of $13.7 million of income) and $3 million in 2010 (out of $21.7 million in income). If these figures are accurate (and there is no reason to doubt them) the Romneys donated almost 30 percent of their 2011 income to charity, and 14 percent of their income in 2010. That is a sizeable chunk of their income donated to charity.

A large percentage of that money went to the Mormon church, which supports political activities that I think are appalling, however, giving that large a percentage of one’s income to charities is still a laudable thing.

The second thing that we can learn is that this display of personal largesse and philanthropy reinforces the wisdom of the Rabbinic tradition which demands that poverty relief should be a function also of municipal institutions. continue reading here and then come back and comment.

The real reason the right keeps doing things that encourage the ongoing situation

And now we know. The real reason that we are not permitted to change any policy in a way that might discourage violence. I feel at ease, now that I know. It’s because its all part of our mission as the suffering servant of Isaiah.

Gotcher money quote right here:

There is an untold, sad reason for Israel’s ability to offer such help. For the Jewish State, terrorism has always been an involuntary master of speed, precision and caring. There is an amazing quantity of research, inventions and new techniques for helping the disabled and the paralyzed return to normal life after terrorist destruction.

Now we know. It’s for the good of the world. The right wants Israel to continue to be attacked by terrorists so that we can lovingly give of ourselves our scientific inventions that save everyone else. What a bunch of loving people! Generously sacrificing us for the benefit of the world!
*sarcasm off*

The fire in Carmel — and should the Diaspora donate to help?

Carmel fire, photo courtesy of University of Haifa

The 5,000-hectare blaze near Haifa in Israel through the Carmel national forest sparked controversy inside and outside Israel this past week. Emergency funds were set up by New Israel Fund (with J Street offering a $10K matching gift), the Joint Distribution Committee, UJA-Federation of NY and the Jewish National Fund.

But nothing is simple when it comes to Israel. Correspondent for The Atlantic Jeffrey Goldberg, not known for being a stringent critic of Israel, dropped a surprising post titled “Don’t give to the Jewish National Fund.” Israel’s failure to contain the blaze shouldn’t be enabled by coddling Diaspora donors who treat Israel as a “charity case,” he says:

Israel’s per capita GDP is nearly $30,000. Israel is a rich country. The fact that it doesn’t possess adequate firefighting equipment is its own fault. [...]

My sympathy is with the people who lost their lives, their families, and those still in danger. It is not with a government that appears to be negligent. And I’m not going to contribute funds that might serve to paper-over the government’s inadequacies.

Goldberg shares the predictable outrage he receives in response alongside a JNF fundraising letter detailing all the fire trucks that donations would buy. Ouch. (Note that he donated to the UJA’s resettlement fund.)

To this, I only partly agree. (And I’m not known to agree with Goldberg often either.) I agree that most of American Jewry views Israel at a charity case. And this should stop. Diaspora dollars fund, according to professional estimates, 90% of Israel’s nonprofit sector. The country nearly lacks a philanthropic culture, instead looking to the (albeit wealthy) easily-guilted foreign relatives. The federation system provides $1 billion a year, often to quasi-governmental agencies like the JNF, to provide services governments should independently. These enable an Israeli government that already neglects social needs in favor of defense. (Or at least uses security threats to dodge pressing civil strife over internal divisions on such services.) More »

Fress. Kvetch. Shtup.

Your life is a mess. You’re tired of the routine, you’re constantly craving more of what you’ve already attained, and you find true satisfaction in nothing and in no one. Well here’s the quick fix:
1. Plan an expensive get-away.
2. No, actually, scratch that—plan three expensive get-aways.
3. But it’s not just the location that’s getting to you. You’re also sick of your significant other. So dump the schlub, give no real reason for your decision to break-up, and then…
4. Swear with almost-compelling adamancy that you’re not looking to be in a relationship—
5. then sleep with a string of people who look nearly indistinguishable from your former sig-o. The key here is that they all must be young, virile, and totally whipped.
6. All the while, make sure not to deny yourself any culinary pleasure.
7. Gleefully declare your independence from weight concerns, as you claim to gourmandize your way around the world, eat more—while still fitting magically into your ever-expanding wardrobe of size 2 sartorial splendor.
8. Seek counsel from at least two oppressed Third World women who are visibly ‘ethnically Other.’
9. But in the end, make sure that it is you who gives them advice. After all, what are you if not the paragon of discipline, self-control, and loving-kindness?
10. Find yourself…in the arms of a ruggedly handsome Brazilian.

Summarized  (in case we’ve lost you already): Eat without gaining weight, pray without believing, and love without…well, loving. In case you have not sacrificed 133 minutes of your life watching the film adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling Eat Pray Love (which I have not read), the 10 rules outlined above will help you attain enlightenment, according to the film’s impeccable logic. Writing a review of this film, pointing to its almost laughably offensive hypocrisy and disturbingly classist, racist, and sexist messages, is like shooting fish in a barrel, and many have beat me to this task already. Instead, I want to reflect on the larger trends that this film and the book upon which it is based represent and how we can use Judaism to deal with some of these cosmic issues that the EPL cult supposedly tackles and resolves.

In this month of Elul, leading up the earlier-than-usual battery of Jewish holidays this year, we are charged with the task of intensive cheshbon nefesh, a kind of introspective reflection on our actions over the past year.   In the current climate of crassly classist and gender-coded self-help quick-fixes, traditional Judaism offers us a much-needed antidote to the kind of ‘me first’ mentality of NSA new-agey spirituality that this film so strikinglyeat-pray-love-02 emblematizes. EPL has to be one of the least Jewish films  out there: despite the protagonist Liz’s insensitive and exploitative treatment of most of the other characters in the film, never once does our well-fed world-traveler express any genuine remorse for her cavalier treatment and attitude towards others.  Perhaps most notable in Liz’s string of careless actions towards others is her bizarrely under-explained, sudden, seemingly arbitrary abandonment of her spouse at the very outset of the film. While classically “Jewish guilt” can be stretched to unhealthy limits, at the very least it affirms that which is most essentially human about us—our ability to feel, our ability to be accountable to others.

In Avot d’Rabbi Natan, chapter 41, we are told that we should regard even the slightest wrong we commit against another with utmost seriousness; whereas we should not dwell on the good deeds we have performed for others.  This is a near 180 reversal of the EPL approach which dangerously conflates boundless personal enlightenment with boundless self-entitlement.  In the EPL film, protagonist Liz Gilbert’s single outward act of kindness to others –the scene in which she ‘selflessly’ emails her friends, appealing to them for donations to help a natural healer and her daughter build a house in Bali—is piously prefaced by Gilbert’s self-righteous declaration that this request comes in lieu of her annual birthday celebration. The dramatic montage that follows of her friends receiving the email appeal signals to us that this Liz’s ultimate moment of enlightenment; this is her defining moment of ‘giving,’ Beyond the obviously paternalistic quality of the rich-white-woman-saves-the-struggling-natives, this scene smacks of the kind of  crass, self-congratulatory armchair philanthropy that lulls people into self-righteous complacency:  ‘I’ve written the check; I am now absolved of further responsibility towards my fellow humans.’

Real loving-kindness involves a long-term investment in the sanctity of the Other.  And no, not just that supposedly ‘significant Other’—rather, the acknowledgement of all other people as significant, and the realization that we must invest in them not only materially, but also personally. The way to grow with others is to take responsibility by being present in their lives. What Liz lacks is a sense of rootedness, the sense of unity upon which community is based.  All of Gilbert’s globetrotting points to an inability and lack of desire to commit to other human beings and forge authentic relationships.
Again, it is entirely unclear what exactly propels Liz to leave her husband at the outset of the film—all we’re told is that ‘things can’t continue this way,’ although we see nothing particularly alarming onscreen. In fact, what we see is all fairly typical and benign; Liz and her adoring husband are engaging in light banter.  All we know is that Liz cannot handle her life as it is any longer. What present-day in-vogue spirituality misses is the point that one can actually discover boundless meaning in the routine of real, mundane life. Patience and forbearance might be considered passé, but it’s the real deal.

Case in point: even the National Geographic-quality cinematography, with its wide lens doting lovingly on EPL’s glamorously sun-soaked characters and sweeping, exotic landscapes and, bursting with exuberantly lush colour, still fails to make us love the film or the figures portrayed therein.  In this film, everything—and everyone—is relegated to the status of ambient scenery…a Potemkin village populated by poorly developed stereotypes. Despite a good chunk of the film taking place in India and Indonesia, we are basically spared any unpleasant and ‘unpalatable’ scenes of actual poverty and suffering.

It’s 133 minutes of tantalizing culinary, spiritual, and pseudo-sexual foreplay. Nothingeat-pray-love-03 ever really materializes, except for the sheer ubiquity of the material forces driving the ‘action’ (if you can even call it that). Set against only the most breathtaking of landscapes, we watch Robert’s character shamelessly indulging in an endless parade of epicurean delights, nearly interchangeable, conventionally attractive young men, and more generally, snorting up the cocaine of petty affirmation through the regurgitation of self-help platitudes.  EPL, with its ‘money and men can cure all’ approach is panglossian at best, and is inhumanely narcissistic at worst.  In this past week’s Parasha, Parashat Ki Tetse, we read towards the beginning of the portion of the sin of gluttony (Deut. 21:20-21); a gluttonous son technically qualifies for death by stoning. Indeed, death by stoning would have made the film considerably more interesting.

One of the more amusing points of the film, which is replete with instances of consoling consumption and too many delightful moments of conspicuous product-placement to mention, is when Liz seeks “whatever” (let’s just call it that, since her Self seems like a lost cause) at an Ashram, and is told she can purchase a “silence” tag at the bookstore. Even the choice to remain silent must be purchased!  Indeed, instead of appealing the Master of the Universe, we are advised to whip out our MasterCard.

Interestingly, God is never really mentioned in the film. Only at one point, when Liz first decides to “pray,” does she sort of address ‘God,’ but,  like everything else in the film, “God” here functions ornamentally, much in the same way as all of her beaus blend into the landscape as figures she uses instrumentally, solely for the purpose of her immediate personal edification and comfort.  Clearly, Liz’s ‘prayer’ is more a signifying act than a genuine appeal or promise for anything. Indeed, that very brief ‘prayer’ scene typifies today’s NSA spirituality.

According to an April 2010 article in USA Today, a whopping 72% of the members of generation Y in the U.S. self-identify as “more spiritual than religious”: a diffuse, general sense of “spirituality” seems to prevail among the younger generation. Exactly what such figures mean is an interesting question.  Perhaps young people, jaded by the perceived hypocrisy of societal institutions involved in questionable military adventures abroad and eat-pray-love-04failed economic and social policies at home, wish to avoid the stuffiness of institutional structure as they seek personal meaning.  This avoidance of established institutions, while perhaps explainable, is, nevertheless, regrettable.  While more structured and specifically religious forms of meaning-making can be stifling, this is not the time to abandon all forms of committed/practice-oriented devotion.  If anything, the young have the potential to infuse these older traditions with a new, updated kind of meaning and help build a form of worship and practice that is better attuned to the needs and desires of today’s meaning seeker.  But practice-based, community-oriented religion has received an unnecessarily bad rap these days.

Don’t get me wrong—spirituality is a beautiful thing in its genuine form. But every intention needs a structure—a calendar and a location—and most importantly, a community.  As social animals, even the seemingly solitary act of self-improvement relies heavily on our interaction with others.  Admittedly, at a certain point, it is difficult to draw a line separating ‘religion’ and spirituality.’ Ideally the two converge to create the ultimate meaningful devotional experience. In a way, the two share many of the same potential dangers: exploitative leadership, false promises, extortion of money, and so on. But in today’s cult of “take time for You,” these dangers seem to proliferate with the false comfort of ‘all you can eat’ spirituality that cuts you off from any real sense of empathy, participation and activism.

EAT PRAY LOVE
Is Javier Bardem holding a banana? Really??

Getting back to the film for a moment though: even in her supposedly most vulnerable moments in the film, there is something decidedly smug about Liz’s spiritual odyssey, which culminates in a neatly-resolved scene where she pursues a relationship with yet another attractive man.  Having found ‘love’ (or at least lust), Liz’s journey comes to a eminently photogenic close. As we move through the month of Elul, it is critical for us to keep in mind that true seeking never finishes in a Hollywood ending, but rather, is more challenging and also more beautiful and infinitely more subtle.

As we reflect on the past year and plan how we can create more genuine religious (or spiritual, if you like) experiences in the year to come, remember the words of André Gide who said, “”Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.”

Give away your money part 2 – Tithing this Tax Season

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how we as a community can step up our tzedaka game. After following the fascinating comment thread, with highlights from Shoshana, Avigdor, David A.M. Wilensky, ML, and others, I decided to look into some of the questions about what counts for tzedaka, what doesn’t, how to calculate it, etc. This piece I wrote for Ha’aretz was the result. It focuses on the practice of ma’aser kesafim, tithing one tenth of all income to the poor. Is this a mitzvah that the progressive Jewish community could take on in serious ways?

Does Jack know Jack?

In a rather redundant article in Commentary, Jack Wertheimer makes another set of his sweeping – and entirely annoying – statements about how the young folks, they’re just so dumb.

He starts out with a perfectly fine, if not particularly new or startling, laying out of the observation about how expensive it is to live a Jewish life. He then veers off into a bizarre, and only tangentially related, screed about how it’s organizations that encourage young Jews to do “Tikkun Olam” who are to blame for the state of affairs in which young Jews don’t contribute to the Jewish people, and somehow links that to why no one can afford to educate Jewish children adequately.

Now normally I’d just be happy to agree with another Jewschooler who commented offblog that, “Really, the only thing more consistently wrong in American Jewish life than Commentary Magazine is Jack Wertheimer.” In fact, I find his sweeping statements about how women are to blame, young people are to blame, anyone is to blame except people like him doing what he thinks they ought to do at all times so wrong that really I just ignore anything that comes from him nowadays. Normally, I think that he’s just irrelevant. Or perhaps just apoplectic to the point of being unable to do anything but bluster.
More »

A Helping Hand for Haiti

As we have seen plastered across TV, the Internet and newspapers, Haiti was rocked by a devastating earthquake, killing upwards of 100,000 people and leaving millions more without food, water, shelter or medical supplies. Please do your part (despite what Michael Steinhardt says) and donate whatever you can to help the island nation dig itself out and begin the painful rebuilding process. Below are just a few opportunities for you donate through a Jewish organization to help the survivors of this disaster.

American Jewish Committee
American Jewish World Service
Combined Jewish Philanthropies
Joint Distribution Committee
Mazon
Union for Reform Judaism

You can also Text “HAITI” to 90999 to donate $10 to relief efforts in Haiti through the Red Cross.

Thank you for your help,

Jewschool.com

If you know of other Jewish organizations accepting donations or otherwise organizing to help the people of Haiti, please leave a comment with the necessary information.

Jewish People in Trees

pesEditor’s note: The following is a guest post from Yoni Stadlin, founding director of Eden Village Camp. Many of you celebrated at this summer’s Bereishit Festival or you may have just heard of them through the grapevine. As we look toward our next Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, we invite you to hear Stadlin’s inspiring story. Oh yeah, and thanks to three huge Jewish organizations for investing millions in such an awesome project!

My name is Yoni Stadlin, and I am a redwood-tree-sitter. Redwoods are the tallest trees in the world, can grow up to 300 feet tall, and can live for two thousand years! I lived aloft in redwood trees for two months of my life. Tree-sitters are people who live up in trees that are slated to be cut down, on the wager that no one would cut down a tree with a person in it.

russTree-sitting has been effective in protecting huge groves and helping change many policies, but many of these ancient beauties have been logged nonetheless. Ninety-five percent of coastal redwoods in the northwest U.S. have been logged for making things like decks, playgrounds and tools. The practice of clear-cutting – leaving no trees standing – has turned huge, lush, vibrant and ancient redwood forests into eroded wastelands, destroying habitats, contaminating water, and massively increasing our species’ footprint on this planet.

Imagine, people in trees! One person, name Julia Butterfly, lived aloft for two and a half years on a suspended platform in a tree named Luna. Imagine where you were two and a half years ago, and imagine being held by a gigantic tree from then until now. Imagine seeing no doors, not one building, road or florescent light, and your feet never touching the ground. This is what I did for two months, and I loved it.
More »

The New Jews of Philanthropy

After years of folks asking: “Should a partnership of philanthropists, Jewish federations and the Israeli government be squandering money sending middle-class and rich kids to Israel when needs were so pressing at Jewish day schools and for various Israeli social service programs?”, blogger Noah Lederman reports on one of the first efforts of young adults taking on Birthright Israel fundaising.

28477This past Thursday, beneath the section of the High Line yet to be refurbished, Taglit-Birthright Israel alumni gathered for what was the kickoff party to the “I am Birthright Israel” campaign. It was to celebrate ten years of sending Jews aged 18 to 26 to Israel, and to fundraise.

As I passed beneath the shadow of the High Line it felt like the perfect symbol for the state of Jewish philanthropy. That eyesore running through Chelsea was at one point like many Jewish charities after Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme—in serious jeopardy. But those who couldn’t let a landmark die transformed the elevated wasteland into a beautified respite from the city, similar to how a bunch of young Jews—mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, who had traveled to Israel on Birthright—are trying to breathe new life into Jewish fundraising.

Taglit-Birthright Israel was in need of assistance. Although Birthright had never invested with Bernie Madoff, they most certainly felt his impact (check out Business Insider’s list for your favorite Jewish organization burned by Bernie). Not to mention, our crumbling economy isn’t helping. In 2008, Birthright sent 42,000 Jews to the Holy Land, but had to cut that number back to about 25,000 in 2009.

Once I arrived inside the M2 nightclub on 28th street, I watched as the event organizers, most of whom donated months of time to plan this fundraiser, sprinted around in their cocktail attire, clutching envelopes of raffle tickets. (The grand prize: a trip back to Israel). The goal for the campaign is $130,000, just enough to send one busload of Jews to Israel. (You can go to Birthright’s website to watch the windows of the bus graphic change from grey to blue as money trickles in—at the time of posting, the campaign had raised $47,891).

As the congregation swelled to seven hundred, everyone seemed to be enjoying the open bar and the music of past Birthright participant, DJ Gatsby, who played funky grooves and even mashed up forgotten Israeli tunes with modern American pop.

“What do you think this is?” a girl asked me as we stood by the food table. “It’s not crab cakes, is it?”

It did taste like crab cakes.

“It’s definitely not crab cakes,” a guy interrupted. “Do you think they’d serve crab cakes? There are rabbis here.”

Then the organizers spoke. They were so passionate about the project that I was half-expecting one of them to slip in some blame on the villain of the story, Madoff. Were they going to whisper his name like old Jewish ladies mouthing cancer? Or was Madoff the Haman of the 21st Century? Where was my grogger?
More »

Requiem for PLP

Yesterday, I received an e-mail with the urgent subject line “Of Utmost Importance Concerning PLP!” I assumed it was a final reminder to pay the registration fee for their upcoming ThinkTank4 conference. When I opened the e-mail, I was instead greeted with notice that Professional Leaders Project would be phasing out operations by the end of the month. (For full text of the e-mail, check out The Fundermentalist.) Let me first say that my immediate reaction was sadness for the professionals working for the organization who have now lost their jobs. JewishJournal.com reports that the shutdown is a side-effect of the death of primary funder William Davidson. PLP’s Executive Director Rhoda Weisman has expressed hopes that once his estate is sorted out, funding will resume and the program will be revived, but frankly, that would shock me. (Ironically, the Spider-Man Broadway musical is experiencing a similar shut-down and facing similar skepticism right now. Frankly, if one of these projects is going to rise from the dead, my money’s on the wall-crawler.)

But let’s face it, most of us don’t come to Jewschool for the same kind of reporting you can get from the JTA. So I thought the interesting side to this story that no one seems to be writing yet is to consider whether PLP was worth the millions of dollars invested in the organization over the past five years.

You may recall that I’ve had mixed feelings about the usefulness of PLP. On the one hand, I’ve met a lot of great people doing interesting and important things in the Jewish world. On the other hand, many people involved with PLP have felt its goals were unclear and its promises unfulfilled. There’s been a sense among some of my peers that pet projects (both in terms of programs and people) have been nurtured by PLP but others have been treated as the unfavored step-child. As someone participating in a NY-based network despite living in Boston, I’ve been disappointed that PLP hasn’t connected me to the other PLP-affiliated people in the Boston area, which is at least in part a side-effect of the various PLP programs operating in separate orbits.

I reached out to my Facebook friends and friends-of-friends to see if anyone would be willing to share some thoughts on PLP at this time. I got a range of responses, from those grateful to PLP to some quite venomous. You’ll note that of the quotes I compiled below, none come from Academic Fellows. It’s not that I don’t know anyone who’s been a PLP Academic Fellow, but my experience rarely brought me into contact with that cohort, which I believe is symptomatic of some of the problems with the way the organization operated. But enough out of me, let’s see what others had to say.
More »

Fasting and Charity on 17 Tammuz

It being 17 Tammuz, a fast day, Yeshivat Hadar was learning about fasting.

We learned the story from Ketubot 67b:

In Mar Ukba’s neighbourhood there lived a poor guy, and every day Mar Ukba used to leave a dollar in his mailbox. One day, the poor guy decided to find out who was leaving these dollars, so he kept a look out. Now, that day Mar Ukba stayed late at the beit midrash, and his wife came to find him. They went home together via the poor guy’s mailbox, and the guy spotted them and came out! Mar Ukba and Mrs Ukba ran away fast fast fast, and hid [naturally] in a conveniently-empty communal oven. But it was still hot, and Mar Ukba’s legs got burned, ouch. But his wife’s legs were fine.

More »

“The Changing Culture of Jewish Leadership”

Professional Leadership ProjectI got involved with PLP (“The Professional Leaders Project”) for one reason and one reason only. Their signature event is a conference held in California, and attendance (including travel) is heavily subsidized. A nearly-free trip to Santa Monica in autumn? Sign me up!
More »

Art Objects

The saga of the Rose Museum at Brandeis continues today, as the Rose Family makes a public statement that can be summed up in the two-word refrain peppered throughout their two-page document: We Object.

The family’s objects are surprisingly measured. They point out that the University is going forward on a certain path despite ongoing deliberation in the courts about whether that path is legal. Although the family is clear that, in their view, “the museum is not closing. The art is not for sale,” at the very least, they are demanding that the museum stays open and fully staffed until the Attorney General (“or any court”) makes a ruling. They point out that they endowed three funds specifically set up for the ongoing operation of the museum. This isn’t simply rebudgeting on the part of the university, this is a massive repurposing of money that had a clear and distinct purpose.

I’m of two minds on this particular showdown. On the one hand, I believe wholeheartedly in the importance of the arts, and in particular the importance of the arts in academia. On the other hand, if the university is really fighting for its life, President Reinharz needs to be the mama bear who will do anything for her cubs. Ultimately, though, the Rose family is right in criticizing the university for moving forward without seeking the permission of the proper channels.

With so many members of the family alive and objecting, I’d imagine Reinharz will have a difficult time convincing the AG to unlock these funds. But whether he likes it or not, that’s part of the bargain in accepting targeted donations.

Tales From the Family Attic

I’ve been hearing stories of people losing jobs, having trouble finding jobs, stealing massive amounts of money from Jewish institutions, and generally getting very worried. It’s troubling, painful, and can be hard to listen to.

But during the great depression one Jewish man, calling himself B. Virdot to conceal his true identity, placed an advertisement offering to pay people to share their stories with him.  The people who wrote to him had no idea who he was, and his grandson, who had heard the story, had no idea it was his own grandfather until this past summer, when he found a suitcase of their letters in the attic.

His grandson, Ted Gup, wrote an article in the NY Times about his grandfather and the letters he found. Searching for an explanation for this act of kindness- he comes up with this one:

So why had my grandfather done this? Because he had known what it was to be down and out. In 1902, when he was 15, he and his family had fled Romania, where they had been persecuted and stripped of the right to work because they were Jews. They settled into an immigrant ghetto in Pittsburgh. His father forced him to roll cigars with his six other siblings in the attic, hiding his shoes so he could not go to school.

My grandfather later worked on a barge and in a coal mine, swabbed out dirty soda bottles until the acid ate at his fingers and was even duped into being a strike breaker, an episode that left him bloodied by nightsticks. He had been robbed at night and swindled in daylight. Midlife, he had been driven to the brink of bankruptcy, almost losing his clothing store and his home.

By the time the Depression hit, he had worked his way out of poverty, owning a small chain of clothing stores and living in comfort. But his good fortune carried with it a weight when so many around him had so little.

If his grandson is right, Samuel Stone (a.k.a. B. Virdot)  was able to listen to all these stories because he had not forgotten his own. Perhaps our daily obligation, as Jews, to remember our own story- of slavery and oppression, can help us listen to the stories of others, however painful and troubling they might be, and reach out in times of need.

Good Deeds, Good Doers

JGoodersLast month saw the launch of a new venture in the Jewish neighborhood of the web, JGooders. The site aims to make it easier for donors & volunteers to connect with non-profit organizations doing meaningful work in the worldwide Jewish community through attractive and well-organized information with a dash of social networking thrown in for good measure. It’s free for us regular folk to use, although non-proft orgs pay an annual fee to participate. (This fee, it seems, helps pay for outside monitoring of the NPOs.)

The organizations founders describe themselves on the site:

JGooders founders: Ronit Dolev, Smadar Fogel, Judith Stern Peck and Jaap Meijers have been involved, together and separately, in the Israeli and Jewish world for more than 2 decades as social entrepreneurs, leaders and philanthropists: from leading Project Renewal to initiating the incredibly successful Partnership 2000 project. They sit on many boards and consult to many foundations and non-profit organizations. Based on their broad knowledge and experience JGooders was founded, offering a web based platform that can upgrade knowledge, create connections and enrich this rapidly growing marketplace of good deeds and good doers.

Because we live in the future, there’s a requisite blog, facebook group, and online contest (although in a nice twist, the contest winner’s prize is the ability to designate where $1,000 will be donated).

At first glance, it looks like most of the NPOs currently listed are based in Israel, but the site makes it clear that it aims to include organizations from all over the world. Since the organization that runs JGooders is in Israel, I suppose this makes sense.

I’m struggling a little bit to understand who the audience for this website is supposed to be. Those of us who have grown up with the internet presumably know how to find tzedakot online if we’re looking for new ways to give away our money. From the perspective of the NPOs, I’m wondering if the fee structure might be a barrier for smaller organizations (i.e., those who would most benefit from the exposure the site could lend them):

Posting projects costs a minimal yearly fee: $144-180 per project. The fee per project drops as the number of projects posted by the same NPO increases. There is a 1% administrative charge on money transactions (not including the credit card fee).

BTW, if I’m decoding the organization’s lingo correctly, NPOs can’t simply list themselves, they must list particular “projects,” each with its own fee. So, to use an example from the organization I’m closest with, if Keshet wants to raise money for both our education project as well as our proposed poster series of famous queer Jews, we’d have to pay $144-180 twice. Since our last appeal letter listed five different projects we’re trying to support at the moment, those fees could add up quickly. On the other hand, I’m not sure this is the sort of venture that should be advertiser-supported or corporately-sponsored, so maybe this fee structure is the way to go. Personally, I might be more comfortable without the fees and with a slightly larger percentage skimmed from the donations, since then organizations are paying relative to their benefit and there’s less of a barrier to populating the options available to potential donors.

But, the site’s still in Beta mode, so one can imagine that the organization might be as well. At any rate, this came to my attention via someone whose opinion I trust – Tova Serkin, who left her position as Executive Director of Kol Dor to head up business development for JGooders. So at the very least, it’s a site to watch.

End of the Machers?

539wWith every passing day it becomes abundantly clear that the Madoff scandal is having seismic financial reverberations for the Jewish community at large. The Jerusalem Report recently reported that at least $600 million in Jewish charitable funds has been lost by the collapse of Madoff’s investment firm. However, this doesn’t include billions of dollars in losses to individual and family investors who have been the primary donors to Jewish institutions.

For the Jewish community the scale of this financial crisis is staggering and almost incomprehensible to contemplate. Though it is much to early to predict what the long term implications will be, it is clear the impact will be significant. The JPost article included an interesting analysis by American Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna, from Brandeis, who suggests that the era of the “big macher” may now be officially over:

More »

Ever Dreamed About Opening a Jewish Specialty Summer Camp?

If you have ever dreamed of opening a nonprofit, Jewish specialty camp, now is your chance! The Foundation for Jewish Camp is proud to announce its newest initiative: The Specialty Camps Incubator.

Through an $8.4 million grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Specialty Camps Incubator will provide consulting and financial support over five years to four entrepreneurs, organizations or camp professionals as they develop and open their new camps in non-traditional settings such as school or college campuses. The Incubator will launch in November 2008.

Recent studies estimate that there are hundreds of thousands of Jewish children between the ages of 11-16 in the United States who are currently not attending Jewish summer camp, but are increasingly attracted to secular specialty summer programs. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to provide an exciting Jewish alternative.

What are you waiting for? Your great idea could be the “hottest” new Jewish specialty camp, and the Foundation for Jewish Camp is ready to help!

Your Letter of Intent is due by May 1st, so apply today.

Find out more about the Incubator and the application process at www.jewishcamping.org/incubator. Please email incubator-at-jewishcamping-dot-org with any questions.