Remarks by Yossi Prager at Prizmah 2019 Conference

 Posted by on March 14, 2019 at 8:57 am  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
Mar 142019

Zalman Bernstein, z”l

Thank you, Paul, and our dear friends who have toasted us, for the beautiful and heartwarming words. I am flooded with warm memories, and I will cherish this event for a long time. I would be speechless, but fortunately I prepared a speech in advance!

In fact, I prepared two speeches. First, I was going to talk about AVI CHAI’s founder, Zalman Chaim Bernstein zichrono livracha, his amazing business success, his Jewish journey from ignorance to observance, and his desire to have AVI CHAI spend his money in the lifetime of the Trustees he knew. You can read about Zalman in our letter in the program book.

Second I was going to describe the ways in which AVI CHAI invested $350 million in day school education in North America, part of $1.2 billion spent by the foundation globally. For that, you can see our exhibit in the Dream Lab.

Instead of telling you facts and details you can learn elsewhere, I want to share with you why I feel incredibly blessed in my work over the past 25 years and why I am so optimistic about the future. Hopefully, this will interest you, because you all play a starring role.

I have had far more than my share of extraordinary mentors and colleagues at AVI CHAI. I started at the foundation at 28 years old, just wet behind the ears in my legal career, knowing little about the fields of Jewish education or philanthropy. I will be forever grateful to Zalman Bernstein, for taking a risk on me, and to Buddy Silberman z”l, a Trustee who became my teacher, advisor and best advocate.

Fortunately, from the outset I had two amazing partners and lots of help from educators in the field. First the partners: Dr. Marvin Schick and Lauren Merkin. Marvin is a distinguished day school president and communal leader, who had prepared a book-length report for the foundation on day school needs. Lauren, a new Trustee and publishing executive, was ready to throw herself into the work. To give you a sense of Lauren’s creative and caring personality, she is the one who suggested more than 20 years ago that AVI CHAI send to every student who joins the day school system in high school a starter Jewish library – a box of Jewish books. We have now sent out more than 6,000 libraries.

Marvin, Lauren and I figured that the best way to learn would be to visit schools and gain information about needs and opportunities. Over two years, we visited somewhere between 100-150 of your schools across the country, in the metropolitan NY area and also in LA, Chicago, Florida, Atlanta, Columbus and more. The programmatic agenda we built, with the support of the Trustees headed by Arthur Fried and Mem Bernstein, was based on this learning from you.

I am happy to tell you that in addition to being educational, the school visits were often spiritual experiences. I remember one visit to a poorly-funded school in Brooklyn for students from the former Soviet Union. Rising above all of the financial and educational obstacles we learned about during the visit, we sensed – we experienced – a purity of purpose that gave us chills.

My personal inspiration continued as we got deeper into the work. I have been blessed to become colleagues and chevrutot (study partners) with Jewish educators and volunteers driven by a covenantal vision based on love of Hashem, love of children, love of Israel, love of Torah, and love of teaching. Let me tell you a story about the first time I cried on the job. Just a few of the people here were in the room then.

It was 2002, a year of terrible terrorism in Israel. AVI CHAI was funding an educator training program at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem that continues today. The program involves two years of Torah and pedagogy study followed by at least three years of teaching in North America. Two students in the second cohort of the program – Marla Bennet and Ben Blutstein – were killed in a suicide bombing in the Hebrew University cafeteria. Another student was injured. I didn’t cry then, even though my heart stopped when I first heard the news.

A few months later, I spoke at the program’s graduation in June. As I began, it hit me, suddenly and deeply, that every student in the program remained at Pardes after the bombing, committed to being in the State of Israel and committed to a career in Jewish education. That’s when I started crying – tears of hope and catharsis.

Over and over again in the past 25 years, I have been moved by your commitment and love. I have been inspired by the dreams you have shared; to paraphrase Dr. Erica Brown from last night, they are big dreams, about ascending a ladder to the heavens. You, in this room and beyond, have made it deeply meaningful for me to come to work, and you are my heroes. Please stand and give yourselves a round of applause.

I have also been blessed to see a paradigm shift in Jewish education in North America, which is now more professional, leading-edge, and child-friendly than many of the schools I visited in the 1990s. The changes have been driven by you: passionate and innovative educators, program directors, school leaders, teachers, volunteers and funders who believe that our students deserve the best.

I want to mention three areas of change:

1. In the past 25 years, thousands of principals and teachers have participated in training and mentoring programs that didn’t exist in 1994. On the curricular side, Jewish studies and Hebrew is no longer the poor stepchild. Today there is even competition among providers, enabling schools to select attractive materials most appropriate for them. These programs and options have been game changers.

By the way, our subsidy for principals to attend a Harvard summer program for principals emerged directly from our school visits in the mid 1990s, after we saw a certificate from the program on the wall of a principal. The next year we sent a few other principals as a pilot, and last summer the number of participants passed 500.

2. Second, facilities. In my time at AVI CHAI, over 200 schools have been constructed or renovated, giving tens of thousands of students each year more attractive, better-lit, happier school buildings. And with a groundswell of schools created in the 1990s, families today have more day school options than ever.

3. We all want not only learning but joy. When I visit schools today, in most cases I see smiling children deeply engaged in learning with one another and in small groups. Sometimes the students are actually teaching one another. Children in younger grades have access to fun software that supports their learning, and older students can retrieve much of the Jewish library online, hyperlinked to make the sources accessible in ways unimaginable when I started at AVI CHAI.

When I see the combined effect of the changes in training, curricula facilities and pedagogy, I see a field transformed.

As I count my blessings, I also count Prizmah. There is now a national day school organization providing conferences, services, networking and programs to the impressive range of schools represented here. Prizmah is still in its early stages, benefiting from the experience of predecessor organizations and their leaders: Pardes, PEJE, RAVSAK, the Solomon Schechter Day School Network and the YU School Partnership. Impressively, Prizmah has attracted an extraordinary board of directors committed to their local day schools and the national day school system; stellar professionals who pulled off this amazing conference and so much else; and a strategic plan that sets an exciting direction going forward.

I feel truly privileged to be on Prizmah’s board. I am so grateful to Ann Pava, founding chair Kathy Manning, Paul Bernstein and the whole team!

I also want to express my deep appreciation to the funders in the room who will continue to support the day school field in years to come. Day schools raise approximately $500 million annually to support their own operations. A much smaller sum is contributed to cross-school or national efforts, and the number of foundations involved in the regional and national work has grown considerably. I feel fortunate to see new programs and prizes develop, and I have been truly blessed to learn with and from thoughtful philanthropic partners passionately dedicated to the Jewish people.

And one sentence to my fellow staff members at AC, with more to come on a private occasion: I am so enormously grateful to you for being my partners and teachers, friends and family.

With friends, teachers and colleagues such as you all, inside and outside the foundation, is it any wonder that I have loved my work for the past 25 years?!

At AVI CHAI, we talk about our commitment to Jewish literacy, religious practice and the State of Israel. We know that these are commitments you share, even as you face daily cultural headwinds that we may not fully appreciate at the Foundation’s offices. You became Jewish educators not because it is easy but because it is hard – and very important. We know that you have the courage to be counter-cultural and the drive to compellingly interpret Jewish values and practices for modern ears. We know that you will persevere, and we have faith that in the long-term you will triumph.

Some observers of philanthropy argue that the most important legacy of a foundation is the organizations and programs that will survive and continue to benefit the community in future years. We are proud of many programs that will continue, but we consider our greatest legacy to be the thousands of leaders and educators who have participated in and benefited from our programs, ones who dream of ladders ascending to the heavens. We have confidence in the future, because we have confidence in you.

Next year at this time, you might paraphrase Yosef’s question in Genesisand ask “Ha’od AVI CHAI chai (“does AVI CHAI still live”)? The practical answer will be no. But the truest answer will be yes. The Foundation’s values and principles will survive through the continuing work of our grantees, through innovations not yet imagined that will be supported by funders here now and those who will come forward later, and through your dedication and perseverance.

We will always be grateful.

Thank you Prizmah for giving us this platform to celebrate together and for offering me the opportunity to deeply and sincerely expressing my gratitude to all of you!

Yossi Prager is Executive Director – North America for The AVI CHAI Foundation.

Jul 052018

Since the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy last week, the media discussion has centered on the possible impact of a new justice on a series of polarizing judicial questions. Unfortunately, today the focus always seems to be on the polarizing. However, some issues that at first appear polarizing become less so when examined with a nuanced lens. Take, for example, the Jewish community’s perspective on government funding for parochial schools, on which there a growing consensus among Jewish communal organizations. And, given sufficient will, our Jewish community could help to dramatically increase funding for Jewish day schools in consensus-building ways, helping to make Jewish education affordable and contributing to a new generation of young Jews who energize and serve American Jewish communities.

Say “school choice,” or “government funding for parochial schools” and people think about state support for religious education, a clear constitutional violation. Or they think about voucher programs, which have been upheld by the Supreme Court but remain politically divisive because of a fear of harm to public schools. However, U.S. day schools today already receive several hundred million dollars annually in government funding for a range of non-religious purposes and in 17 states benefit from incentives created by state tax-credit programs.

Here’s a quick list of federal and state programs that benefit day schools:

• Title I services for economically disadvantaged students and services for children with disabilities, and state programs for special education
• Title II professional development resources
• Free and reduced meals program administered by the US Department of Agriculture
• Grants to strengthen security
• General studies textbook loans
• School transportation
• Nursing
• Classroom technology (not for religious studies)
• Energy efficiency
• STEM teachers

Most of these programs are long-standing and all are consistent with Supreme Court precedent. They also have not come at the expense of public schools.

More recently, 17 states have adopted programs that offer state tax credits for contributions to scholarship funds for non-public schools. In these programs, states do not allocate funds to parochial schools but forego tax revenue in order to incentivize taxpayers to help other families afford private education. Programs in Pennsylvania, Florida and elsewhere have brought significant new scholarship dollars into Jewish day schools. These programs were found constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, similar to the tax deductions that donors have always received for contributions to charitable organizations.

These kinds of programs have also generated the support of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). Last year, JFNA convened a work group that focused on school choice issues and “achieved consensus on federal tax policy and other incentives to make day school education more affordable while continuing to sustain public education.” (Read it here.) This consensus included, “JFNA promotes the expansion of federal tax incentives that can reduce the cost of day school education.” While the work group took no position on school vouchers, JFNA has endorsed the multitude of funding streams described above as consistent with the Jewish communities’ commitment to church-state separation and public education. Not everyone in the Jewish community agrees, of course, but it is remarkable that the Federation umbrella organization found a broad consensus among its constituents.

The real question at this point is whether the Jewish community will muster the growing political consensus toward greater advocacy work for additional funding to lower the cost of day school education. Federations in many communities devote some staff time to this, and the Orthodox Union has been leading the charge for public funding in key states by creating coalitions of day schools from across the religious spectrum. Much more remains to be done – and can be done – if we talk in a nuanced way that permits a focus on what unites us rather than the issues that divide us.

And, to return to the new Supreme Court member, the next Court will likely decide whether states can discriminate against religious schools in otherwise neutral and secular funding programs. By a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court last year overturned a decision by the State of Missouri to exclude a church school from a program that funded the purchase of recycled tires to improve the safety of school playgrounds. The Court left open the question of whether this precedent extended to funding programs beyond the safety of children. At some point, the newly-reconstituted Supreme Court will have to address whether governments can discriminate against religious schools in other funding areas. Perhaps this will be a case in which the Jewish community can also build consensus.

Yossi Prager is Executive Director – North America for The AVI CHAI Foundation.

Mar 292017
Cross-posted from eJewishPhilanthropy 

By Yossi Prager

The AVI CHAI Foundation is delighted to release a new research report by Dr. Alex Pomson and Dr. Jack Wertheimer on the teaching of Hebrew language in Jewish day schools. As a foundation that has devoted significant energy and tens of millions of dollars toward Hebrew teaching and learning, we see a number of opportunities for future action emerging from the report. We hope that the reflections below will be helpful to others who share a passion for producing a new generation fluent in the texts and language of the Jewish people.

School communities could work together to develop the case (or cases) for schools prioritizing the study of classic and modern Hebrew language. Drs. Pomson and Wertheimer asked students, parents and teachers to rank the importance of 11 reasons for students to learn Hebrew. The responses differed among streams of schools, and, within streams, among students, parents and teachers. In some schools, a significant number of parents support Hebrew because “learning a second language contributes to my child’s brain development.” While this is supported by current educational research, brain development does not make the case for Hebrew as opposed to Mandarin Chinese or Spanish. Also, many parents – albeit a minority in all schools – dismissed the value of Hebrew language study. Taken together, the data show an urgent need to make a clear, eloquent and multi-faceted case(s) to students, parents and teachers from across disciplines for why day school students need to develop fluency in classical and modern Hebrew.

There is a need to define realistic outcomes in both classic and modern Hebrew. It is clear that different schools prioritize Hebrew for text study/prayer and Hebrew for modern communication differently. Whatever the prioritization, it would be useful for schools to make their decisions against a backdrop that would enable a school’s leadership to say, for example, “We want our graduates to be fluent at level three in classical Hebrew and level two in modern Hebrew.” In order for school leaders to make this kind of informed decision, there would need to be accessible benchmarks and assessment tools for the different levels of classical and modern Hebrew. At the high school level, schools could even empower students to thoughtfully choose the level of Hebrew they would like to achieve in classical and modern Hebrew. Empowering students could be one response to a key finding from the study, that the high satisfaction level of students, parents and teachers with Hebrew study in the elementary grades dips significantly by high school.

Hebrew language teachers should be trained in second language acquisition. The report finds that most of the Hebrew language teachers, whether from Israel or North America, are trained in pedagogy (good news!). However, few are trained in teaching Hebrew as a second language, which may be one reason that satisfaction levels drop as students move from an integrated Hebrew/Jewish studies class in elementary school to discipline-specific classes in middle school and beyond. Funders can help develop programs that will provide such training and can partner with local day school donors to support participation in these programs. Educational research has consistently found that the quality of teaching in the classroom is the most significant factor in student learning. It may be that different programs are needed: programs for native Hebrew speakers that focus on second-language pedagogy and the culture of North American day schools, and programs for non-native speakers that also raise the teachers’ level of fluency.

Schools are most successful when they raise the bar at the wholeschool level. The researchers identified six schools that were exceptions to the rule: in these schools, a larger share of older students expressed enthusiasm for their Hebrew language study. These schools do not share a curricular or pedagogic approach, nor do they all employ similar numbers of Israeli shlichim. Rather, what they have in common is strong and visible leadership who ensure and communicate that Hebrew matters and who invest resources in staff development. These schools have a clarity of mission and a culture that supports implementation of the mission. This kind of school culture cannot be developed by sending teachers or leaders to outside programs. However, funders can develop programs that support school leaders (lay and professional) within schools to shape a holistic commitment to Hebrew with the help of consultants and content experts. An AVI CHAI-supported program in Israel, Ma’arag (now operated by KIACH) is an example of such a program (focused on a different subject area – excellence in Jewish, Zionist and civic education).

The new report from Drs. Pomson and Wertheimer encourages us that much is right about Hebrew language education in America. However, the report also provides troubling data that serve as a call to action, coupled with the beginnings of a roadmap for that action. The four ideas we have outlined require differing levels of investment, in time and money. As a spend-down foundation, AVI CHAI cannot set all of these ideas into motion. We would be happy to serve as conveners of the conversation about “Why Hebrew?” and stand ready to assist and potentially partner with other philanthropists who seek to elevate and improve Hebrew teaching and learning at Jewish day schools. If these ideas interest you, please write to us. We look forward to hearing from you!

Yossi Prager is the Executive Director – North America of The AVI CHAI Foundation.

Ancient Jewish Wisdom for the Health of the Jewish Nonprofit Field in 5776

 Posted by on September 9, 2015 at 11:32 am  No Responses »  Tagged with: ,  Categories:
Sep 092015

Cross posted from eJewishPhilanthropy

By Yossi Prager

star and tallitThe Jewish nonprofit world has been my professional home for over 20 years. I am proud to have as colleagues very many passionate and talented professionals serving the Jewish community. And yet, as I look back on 5775, I remember a year punctuated by scandals that raised troubling questions about ethics and professionalism in our field. Both CEOs and rabbis provided headlines that tarnished the reputations of community leaders and organizations. As we look forward to great success in 5776, I’d like to suggest for your consideration a Jewish text that offers a paradigm that could elevate our work and protect it from scandal. The story, and the text, date back almost 2,000 years to the management practices at the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Beit HaMikdash (the Temple in Jerusalem) was the spiritual center of the Jewish people until its destruction in 70 CE. But the Temple had another side – it was also the largest Jewish nonprofit organization of its era. In addition to providing religious services, staff had multiple responsibilities: upkeep of the majestic building of Jerusalem stone and gilt; maintaining hospitable roads, including wells to provide drinking water for travelers to the Temple; and operating a huge store in which visitors could purchase the animals, birds, flour, wine and oil needed for their offerings.

This kind of major financial operation required significant revenues. Temple operations were funded from multiple sources – voluntary capital and operating gifts, revenues from sales, and a mandatory half-shekel “tax” on each Jew over 20. The half-shekel tax was collected and brought to Jerusalem, where the money was kept in a treasury room. The Mishnayot in Tractate Shekalim report on practices and policies related to fundraising, investing and business operations related to these half-shekels. A couple of these Mishnayot became sources for aspects of modern Jewish charity law. An even larger number of them, by reporting on ancient Jewish practices, clue us into a value system that can inform contemporary thinking about nonprofit operations.

This brings us to our text, a Mishnah in the third chapter of Tractate Shekalim (Mishnah 2):

He did not enter the chamber wearing either a bordered cloak or shoes or sandals or tefillin or an amulet, lest if he became poor people might say that he became poor because of an iniquity committed in the treasury; or if he became rich people might say that he became rich from the treasury.

For it is a man’s duty to be free of blame before men as before God, as it is said: “And be guiltless towards the Lord and towards Israel” (Numbers 32:22), and again it says: “So shall thou find favor and good understanding in the sight of God and man” (Proverbs 3:4).

The words may be a bit obscure, but the meaning is clear: staff members who entered the Temple treasury did not wear clothing with pockets or a hem, shoes, an amulet or even a religious article that could be used to conceal coins stolen from the treasury room. The really interesting point is that this extreme safeguard was not enacted to prevent staff from stealing but to protect the reputation of the staff. The concern was that one of the staff might suffer economic hardship, provoking talk that this was punishment for stealing from the treasury; or, the reverse, a staff member might become wealthy, and people would say that he stole from the treasury. If there is no opportunity for theft, the staff’s reputations remain pristine. The Mishnah cites two verses to prove that just as we are commanded to be blameless before God – acting with absolutely honesty – we must also avoid any appearance of impropriety that could cause people to suspect our integrity.

Consider the implications of this approach to contemporary Jewish organizations. What would be different if our policies and procedures were intended to maximize public confidence in the integrity of our professionals? Let me just open the conversation. Not only would financial oversight be strong – double-signatures on checks would be routine and independent auditors would be asked to seek out anomalies that could signal trouble – but organizational cultures would welcome whistle-blowing on all kinds of bad behavior. Everyone in the Jewish community would know that our professionals are committed to the highest ethical standards.

In addition, our organizations would model financial transparency. Nonprofits are required to disclose some information on IRS Form 990s, which can be found at guidestar.org, but this obligation does not apply to organizations connected to churches and synagogues. Even where Form 990s are available, they often do not provide sufficient or sufficiently-clear information. Beyond financials, policies related to employee benefits, travel and annual reviews would be disclosed. Reliable full disclosure would protect employees as well as the public. Recently, an article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy tainted the reputation of a retiring employee and a nonprofit institution by making it seem as if the employee had received unreasonable compensation. In fact, the information from the Form 990 – a blunt instrument – unfairly combined salary and deferred compensation that had accumulated during the employee’s long tenure. The Chronicle footnoted this, but the large print did the damage. Thus, full disclosure by organizations would both restrict abuse and protect the reputations of nonprofit staff.

Now, back to the Mishnah. The concern about avoiding the appearance of the possibility of theft from the Temple treasury seems to be entirely prudential – how, as a practical matter, do we maintain reputations for high integrity. In this modern world, where litigation and leaks have the potential to make all emails public, and with social media carrying rumors to and from all ends of the earth, the Mishnah’s teaching seems almost self-evident (even if insufficiently practiced). However, from the perspective of Jewish thought, what is at stake is not just the reputation of people, but also the reputation of God. And here is the link to the upcoming holiday of Rosh Hashanah. While the liturgy for Yom Kippur focuses on sin and repentance, the prayers on Rosh Hashanah are about proclaiming God’s sovereignty and sanctifying God’s name. The Talmud (Yuma 86a) describes a way in which God’s name is sanctified:

Abaye explained: As it was taught: “And you shall love the Lord your God,” i.e., that the Name of Heaven be beloved because of you. If someone studies Scripture and Mishnah, and attends on the disciples of the wise, is honest in business, and speaks pleasantly to persons, what do people then say concerning him? “Happy the father who taught him Torah, happy the teacher who taught him Torah”… Of him does Scripture say: “And God said to me: You are My servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

Perceived honesty in business is not only a way to protect our reputations, it is also a way of revealing God’s presence. The Talmud hopes that people will connect our good behavior to the goodness of God and Torah, from which we learned how to be ethical. If our reputations are tarnished – even if our actions have actually been honest – we cause people to denigrate not only Jews but also God and Torah. It turns out the prudential concerns, the operational details, are interconnected with the mission we accept on Rosh Hashanah: to help all of humanity recognize the presence and loving nature of our God.

No mechanism for oversight and transparency is foolproof, capable of always protecting the public from undocumented kickback schemes or poor record-keeping. Still, the Mishnah about the half shekels suggests a paradigm for elevating the reputations of Jewish nonprofits professionals and enabling us to be exemplars of the loving-nature of the Divine. It consistently amazes me how much can be extracted from Jewish texts once we begin to scratch the surface. I studied Mishnayot from Tractate Shekalim, including the one described here, with philanthropist David Shapira, and our joint study reinforced for me the contemporary relevance of these texts.

As we enter 5776, I suggest that we open two conversations: 1) about oversight and transparency in the Jewish nonprofit world, and 2) about how to access the texts of our tradition so as to both inspire our professionals and generate modern applications of the Torah’s ancient wisdom.

I wish you a year of good health, dreams realized, and opportunities to apply the Torah’s wisdom to your lives.

Yossi Prager is Executive Director – North America for The AVI CHAI Foundation.

Apr 022015

Photograph taken by Jewish photographer-friend of Lincoln, Samuel Alschuler, who lent Lincoln his own velvet-trimmed coat for the occasion. Urbana, Illinois, April 25, 1858, Courtesy of Library of Congress.

This post is cross-posted from eJewishPhilanthropy

By Yossi Prager

A new exhibit on Abraham Lincoln and the Jews, paired with a beautiful new book by Jonathan Sarna and Benjamin Shapell, has refocused Jewish attention on Abraham Lincoln. The proximity toPesach is appropriate, as both the Jewish Exodus and Civil War are freedom stories. The connection is even deeper, however. Lincoln and Pesachbecame forever linked when, in 1865, John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theater on the eve of the fifth night of Pesach, making thisPesach (2015) Lincoln’s 150th “yahrzeit.” In honor of the occasion, I invite you to reflect this Pesach on God’s role in human history, a theme common to the Haggadah and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.

The Haggadah is a story of the increasing revelation of God’s hand in history. God informed Abraham in advance that his descendants would be slaves in a foreign land, yet God chose to bring about this result through natural means: the brothers’ sale of Joseph, followed by a famine that led to Jacob’s family’s immigration to Egypt and ultimately to a new Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph” and enslaved the Jews. When God sent Moshe to demand freedom for the Jews, Pharaoh refused to recognize the sovereignty of the God of the Jews. God responded with ten very public plagues to show the Egyptians and the Jews Who rules human history. The peak of divine revelation occurred in the miraculous splitting of the Red Sea and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The Jewish people had been transformed from a ragged and divided family into a great nation, carrying a divine mission.

Throughout the early history of the Jewish people described in the Bible, God’s sovereignty over human history was reinforced when necessary through miracles. Toward the end of the biblical period, God began to conceal the divine hand. The best biblical example is the story of the Megillat Esther, in which salvation apparently came to the Jewish people through a series of natural coincidences and without even a single reference to God. The Haggadah nonetheless reminds us that God remains active in history: “In each generation, as a new enemy rises to destroy the Jews, God saves us from them.”

By the third year of his presidency, Abraham Lincoln was engaged in a mighty, personal effort to understand God’s purpose in perpetuating a terrible Civil War, which at times took the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers in a single battle. In a private meditation to himself found after his death, Lincoln wrote (most likely in 1862):

“The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God…. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party – and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true – that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”

Lincoln believed in the justice of the Union’s cause and also thought the Union army to be the stronger force. He expected a faster war. Yet God seemed to will the war to continue. Why? Lincoln might have said – as many of us might – that we cannot untangle God’s purposes. But Lincoln chewed over the question until he believed he had found an answer – one that satisfied his theological questions as well as his political need to bind the North and South together.

By his Second Inaugural Address in 1865, Lincoln was ready to provide the answer:

“If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses … He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war … shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.””

God, argued Lincoln, held both the North and the South responsible for slavery in America, and drew blood “with the sword” as retribution for “blood drawn with the lash.” Why? Because all 13 Colonies permitted slavery. Slavery may have been abolished in the North earlier than in the South, but Lincoln viewed that as in large measure due to differences in the economies of the two sections of America. The North and South each had their own purposes for the war, but God had a larger purpose, to punish the North and South for the sin of slavery. In a single paragraph, Lincoln stripped the North of its self-righteousness and triumphalism. For Lincoln, understanding God’s purpose in history led naturally to the more famous part of the Address, which called for “malice to none, and charity to all.” In Lincoln’s calculus, the South was wrong to perpetuate slavery, but both sides bore responsibility for its initiation.

The Haggadah draws on biblical texts to explain that God liberated Abraham’s descendants to become the carriers and implementers of the divine message. Lincoln’s interpretation of God’s purpose was far bolder, however, as he is not building on the biblical story. The Second Inaugural Address reflects his own personal effort to understand God’s purpose. The Address also reflects Lincoln’s view that the role of a leader is to provide a religious explanation as a way of drawing the nation together.

I am among the many who believe that Abraham Lincoln was America’s greatest president. Yet, I recoil from the chutzpah in Lincoln’s claim to understand God’s purposes in his day. Putting ourselves in God’s shoes is tricky business. Think about other applications: is it fair to acclaim the State of Israel as a realization of long-standing divine promises without attributing the Holocaust that preceded it to some divine purpose? Yet who could dare explain the divine purpose in the deaths of innocents during the Holocaust? The issue of interpreting God’s purposes is troubling, and perhaps raises questions for your own Pesach table in this 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s yahrzeit.

For me, Lincoln’s chutzpah is redeemed by his profound determination to take God seriously and attempt to conform his actions to what he perceived as God’s expectations. As we begin to celebrate the Festival of Freedom and thank God for our freedom and mission as a Jewish people, I draw inspiration as well from an American politician who brought freedom to the United States. I wish you all a Chag Same’ach!

Yossi Prager is Executive Director – North America for The AVI CHAI Foundation.

What’s in it for Me? Selfishness in Philanthropy

 Posted by on January 29, 2015 at 9:50 am  No Responses »  Tagged with: ,  Categories:
Jan 292015

“There was a wealthy philanthropist who added an extension to a synagogue. It was elegant, functional, beautiful. The philanthropist only had one request before he transferred title to the synagogue. He wanted his name inscribed over the entrance as an everlasting memory. As you might expect, some congregants objected, and the dispute eventually came to a leading rabbi. When do you think this happened? What do you think the rabbi said?”

Recruiting donors is hard work. How might we be more effective at attracting funders, especially from the younger generations?  Here’s a counterintuitive idea from Yossi Prager – Executive Director, North America of The AVI CHAI Foundation’s ELI talk: “Encourage people to give – by inspiring them to be selfish!”

How could this possibly work? Philanthropy is by its very nature an act of altruism. Or is it?

Prager’s talk argues that soliciting gifts by appealing to donor self-interest is not only potentially more effective – it is also grounded deeply in both Jewish precedent and wisdom. Want to succeed in donor engagement? Encourage donors to realize their full potential by participating in your work.

Curious to hear more? Watch the talk here to learn how to benefit from prospective donors’ personal drives – and hear some colorful anecdotes from the Jewish and business worlds along the way.

Yossi Prager is the Executive Director – North America of The AVI CHAI Foundation.

Jun 182014
This post is .By: Yossi Prager

AVI CHAI made available $150 million in interest-free loans for construction and renovation at day schools and summer camps by borrowing a great idea from another foundation. In total, we assisted in capital projects of nearly $1 billion. By sharing this story, I hope to “pay it forward,” and perhaps inspire others to consider adapting the model in their own philanthropic work.

In the late 1990s, day school enrollment was booming, reflecting a new interest in Jewish education across all segments of American Jewish life. The new interest in day school education meant that additional facilities would be required – not only to add capacity but to increase the attractiveness of the schools to families for whom a day school education was a choice. AVI CHAI wanted to be helpful in meeting this need, but to do so without violating the provision in our by-laws that prohibited capital gifts.

When Zalman Chaim Bernstein z”l established The AVI CHAI Foundation in 1984, he insisted that that the Foundation not make grants for capital needs. Zalman thought his Trustees would be most effective and creative by developing and supporting new programs that would bring Jews closer to their noble heritage. Was there a way for AVI CHAI to address the significant capital needs of the day school sector without making capital grants?

We looked to the work of other philanthropists for models we might build upon or bring to scale and, with the help of senior consultant Dr. Marvin Schick, AVI CHAI decided to adapt the loan program model of the Gruss Life Monument Fund, which had been operating an interest-free building loan program, primarily for day schools in New York, for many years. Gruss’ key insight was that schools – like other nonprofits – that conduct capital campaigns often experience a timing mismatch. Donors fulfill their capital pledges over a few years, but the contractor needs to be paid at the time of construction. To alleviate this timing challenge, Gruss provided five-year interest-free loans for construction and renovation.

In adapting the Gruss program, AVI CHAI’s Trustees decided to double the Gruss maximum loan size to $1 million, make it available to all schools in North America that meet AVI CHAI’s general eligibility criteria, and modify the method for securing the loan. Like the Gruss Foundation, AVI CHAI’s plan was for a revolving loan pool, which depended on loans being repaid over five years (after an initial six-month grace period). Toward this end, AVI CHAI required that the loans be guaranteed by a standby Letter of Credit issued by an acceptable commercial bank. AVI CHAI agreed to pay the annual Letter of Credit fee equal to 1-1.5% of the loan balance.

Initially, AVI CHAI dedicated relatively modest resources to the program, unsure of what the demand would be. The response, however, demonstrated the benefit of, and need for, the program. We heard repeatedly that an AVI CHAI building loan helps a day school move its project more quickly towards completion and prevents the high interest rates a school would otherwise incur when borrowing from commercial lending institutions. As an added benefit, many schools reported that their own fundraising efforts were considerably bolstered when they secured a building loan. As a result, AVI CHAI eventually increased the loan pool to a maximum of $50 million. Because of the revolving nature of the loans, less was actually required; in the course of lending $125 million to 150 schools, the greatest amount outstanding at any time was $36 million. The program was expertly managed by our consultant, Dr. Schick.

Brand new school buildings, new middle school wings, state of the art science labs, gyms students are proud of, new classrooms and therefore additional seats for new students, playgrounds and prayer space are tangible results of the program. In this we take great pride.

We are also proud of our stance and discipline with respect to repayment. When necessary, AVI CHAI has called payments on the letters of credit, making clear to borrowers that the foundation was serious about repayment. Fortunately, this happened in very few cases. After the downturn of 2008, when a few schools turned to the Foundation for relief, we renegotiated payment terms, with lower annual payments over more years. Rescheduling was conditioned on a parallel extension of the Letters of Credit.

As the program grew over time and it became clearer that our loans were successfully enabling the expansion, construction or renovation of many schools, the Trustees approved a parallel program for overnight summer camps. The summer camp program is operated by the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Since beginning to make camp loans in 2006, AVI CHAI has made loans to 27 camps, for a total of $27 million, and never needed to call a Letter of Credit. These loans have gone to purchasing campsites, and enlarging or upgrading bunks, dining halls, sports centers and other facilities that need to be first-rate in order to attract contemporary campers.

As AVI CHAI prepares for its sunset at the end of 2019, we have ceased making loans, to ensure that all loans are repaid before the sunset. In the course of their existence, the combined day school and camping programs have lent over $150 million, which has assisted in the completion of construction projects whose aggregate cost approaches $1 billion (approximately $750 million in the day school program alone).

We believe that this interest-free loan model has been an extraordinary catalyst for necessary construction projects. We are delighted that some other funders have expressed interest in continuing the camping loan program. We hope that these conversations with other funders will be blessed with success and believe that the day school program deserves continuity as well.

We are especially grateful to the Gruss Life Monument Fund whose program we used as a model. We hope that by sharing their successful philanthropic model, which we have now implemented over almost 15 years, we will spark ideas among other philanthropists about how to creatively use interest-free loans to meet the financial challenges of nonprofits in Jewish life. We would be glad to discuss our experience and “pay forward” the wisdom we borrowed from the Gruss Foundation. I can be reached at yprager@avichaina.org.

Yossi Prager is the Executive Director – North America of The AVI CHAI Foundation.

Israel Education: One Size Does Not Fit All

 Posted by on May 28, 2014 at 11:34 am  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
May 282014
This post is cross-posted here on The Jewish Week.

By: Yossi Prager

On June 1, thousands of day school students in the New York area will march in the Israel Day parade.  While they will march by school, new research highlights differences among students within schools when it comes to caring about Israel.  The findings offer a call to action for day school leaders and supporters.

As a foundation committed to peoplehood and Israel as central Jewish values, AVI CHAI has long supported Israel education programs.  But we lacked data on key questions such as: What do day school students across the country feel and think about Israel?  What do they learn about Israel in school and what lessons do they internalize?

AVI CHAI turned to professors Jack Wertheimer, Alex Pomson and Hagit Hacohen-Wolf, who conducted school visits and surveyed approximately 4,000 eighth and twelfth graders and 350 teachers at 95 day schools.  Their report, “Hearts and Minds: Israel Education in Jewish Day Schools” (available at https://avichai.org/knowledge_base/hearts-and-minds-israel-in-north-american-jewish-day-schools) represents the most ambitious study of Israel education ever conducted.

Across the country and in different streams of schools, day school students exhibit high levels of Jewish engagement and feel confident discussing many different kinds of Jewish topics.  Most students say that Israel is important in their lives as the homeland and spiritual center of the Jewish people.  These students will presumably march in Sunday’s parade with genuine pride.  There is another group, however. The data show that a minority of students in all types of schools describe themselves as more marginally connected to Israel (and to Judaism generally). The presence of 25-45 percent of students who feel detached from Israel relative to their day school peers should concern all of us who care about either Israel or day schools.

Not surprisingly, students whose parents are themselves Jewishly involved were most likely to feel that Israel is important to them.  Family continues to be the strongest influence on children, and family trips to Israel reinforce the message of Israel’s importance.  (More than 60 percent of the 4,000 responding students, an astounding number, have relatives in Israel.)  For these lucky students, the combination of home and school produces young people who care about Israel and even know its core story.  I wondered how many students had heard of Theodore Herzl and Golda Meir; in fact most students not only recognized the names but expressed their admiration for these historic figures.  Parents and schools are succeeding with these students and can build on this strength by providing greater Hebrew language skills and deeper knowledge of modern Israel.

The second group of students, most of whom have parents not as deeply involved in Jewish life, express only a marginal sense of belonging to the group that cares about Israel. The proportion of such students varies, depending on the type of school, grade level and location.  Even in Centrist and Modern Orthodox schools, more-detached students comprise over 25 percent of those surveyed – a large enough group to require urgent action.  Day schools have the opportunity and responsibility to play “catch-up” with these students: inspiring them to feel a sense of belonging to Israel and to those in America who care about Israel.

One recommendation is for schools to map their students, target the more detached with special programming and even draw in their parents.  Many schools already hire Israeli shlichim and “shinshinim” – younger Israelis in their year after high school – who present Israel as an exciting place.  More such Israelis can be brought, and their work can be targeted to students who need the most inspiration. Embedded school Israel trips already generate positive changes in student attitudes toward Israel, and schools can maximize the effect of those trips with thoughtful pre- and post-trip education.

One of the study’s other key findings is about the content of Israel education.  Schools primarily seek to connect students emotionally to the idea of modern Israel as a timeless spiritual homeland that has become a modern state.  Trips to Israel, with their focus on religious and historical sites, contribute to the image of Israeli as a symbolic place for the Jewish people, rather than as a living, breathing society.  At the high school level, students learn about the Israel-Arab conflict, but the rest of contemporary Israel – culture, economics, politics and the daily experience of Israelis – receives far less attention.  The results speak for themselves: students express a lack of confidence talking about contemporary Israeli culture and life. Schools can increase Jewish unity by enabling Jewish youth in America and Israel, which are together home to approximately 90 percent of world Jewry, to share a common culture.

As a strong day school supporter and advocate, I celebrate the accomplishments of the parent-school partnership in building strong connections to Israel among the majority of day school students.  The next steps are to build similar connections among students who come from different family backgrounds and to increase all students’ familiarity with the contemporary Israel experienced by Israelis.  AVI CHAI looks forward to working with educators and lay leaders to imagine how schools can achieve these critical goals.

Yossi Prager is the Executive Director-North America of The AVI CHAI Foundation.

Supporting “Field-Building” Organizations

 Posted by on May 21, 2014 at 10:28 am  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
May 212014
This post is cross-posted here on eJewishPhilanthropy.

For the overall welfare of our community, we believe Jewish funders – local, regional, national – should find ways to support national field-building organizations as well as local providers.


More on National-Local Collaboration:
Supporting “Field-Building” Organizations
by Shari L Edelstein, Marcella Kanfer Rolnick and Yossi Prager

Conversations on funder collaboration have gained momentum. At the 2013 Jewish Funders Network (JFN) conference, we discussed the challenges of and opportunities for collaboration between local and national funders. With a desire to maintain the dialogue, JFN coordinated a series of articles on the interactions between local and national funders called “Local and National Funders: The Launch of a Conversation.” In turn, this exchange caught the attention of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) and led to a joint JFN/GEO webinar in January 2014: The Promise and Pitfalls of Local and National Funder Collaborations.

Since then, the conversation has continued and diversified. At this year’s JFN international conference in March, national, international and local/regional funder collaborations were on full display through both sessions on projects that resulted from such collaborations – “Connected to Give,” the National Study of American Jewish Giving, and the hot-off-the-press research report about Jewish Outdoor, Food & Environmental Education, to name but two – as well as on the topic of how to collaborate, like the session that dove into five case studies of funders from Israel and the Diaspora who joined together to address diverse challenges in Israel. Recently, “A New Experiment in National-Local Funder Collaboration” reported on efforts between the Jim Joseph Foundation and several local foundations to collaborate on community-based teen initiatives.

Clearly, there is much to talk about as funder collaborations continue to work through challenges in pursuit of shared impact. Meanwhile, one topic that surfaced in the JFN article series and the January webinar is: What role should local and national funders play in supporting centralized organizations whose mission is to network, exercise thought leadership, and provide services to local organizations? One article, “Do We Need National Organizations,” challenged us to consider the value of national frameworks, reflecting on the recent closure of “two organizations that have been part of the landscape of American Jewish life for more than a generation,” rather than drawing a simple conclusion that national organizations inherently cannot sustain themselves.

In this article, we wish to turn attention to this under-attended topic. As a practical matter, national philanthropists have largely assumed the burden of supporting these national “field-building” organizations and often encounter little willingness from local funders to support these cross-community organizations. We see this as short-sighted. Powerful “field builders” share information and best practices on a wide variety of developments and trends in their respective fields; they offer a global perspective on shared issues, and develop centrally provided programs that are by their nature more cost-effective. The added value of these organizations can influence national directions and support local efforts for change. And it is increasingly clear that the national philanthropists do not have adequate capital to carry these organizations alone. (See Yossi and Marcella’s eJP pieces for more on this topic.)

For the overall welfare of our community, we believe Jewish funders – local, regional, national – should find ways to support national field-building organizations as well as local providers. Toward this end, we hope this piece will generate interest among national and local philanthropists, as well as the organizations themselves, to brainstorm ways to expand the funding base for field-building organizations. We share below some of our own, thus-far untested ideas and look forward to your thoughts.

First, ideas for field-building organizations and national funders to encourage local support for systems builders:

  • Articulate the value that these organizations can provide on a local level. Is it relevant research? Expertise? Network-building? Education? Training? Benchmarking? Be sensitive to the unique qualities of each community as you explore what expertise is applicable to its specific circumstances and needs.
  • Build relationships. Seek to learn from and to share knowledge with the local funder you wish to engage. Create opportunities for exchanging information and brainstorming without an initial monetary expectation. Financial support is more likely to develop as a result of ongoing dialogue and real understanding of each other’s priorities and aspirations.
  • Create opportunities for local representatives (funders, foundation staff and/or grantee representatives) to be involved in the leadership of national organizations; having local voices allows for connection and can help establish a sense of stewardship on behalf of the organization.
  • Be flexible about the type of financial contributions local funders can provide. General operating support is only one type of funding and isn’t always consistent with a local foundation’s mission. Some local funders might be interested in supporting a pilot program in their community or contracting with national organizations to provide expertise and services. Others might be willing to support centralized leadership and educational programs, or outreach models, offered by field-building organizations.
  • Bring ideas for potential collaborations with local funders early, before they are “fully baked.”

For local funders:

  • Learn about the priorities and strategies of national funders and national organizations that have relevance to your priorities. Reach out to have exploratory conversations. Be prepared not just with good questions, but also with a readiness to share your knowledge, connections and expertise.
  • When you find a national organization that can add value to your field, introduce them to your local funders who already support you and your mission. Advocate for the role it plays in “raising the tide.” It may feel risky, but it may also serve to strengthen your position as a confident, strategic organization that sees the benefits of being part of a network.
  • Don’t assume national organizations have all the resources they need and that your support and engagement would not be welcomed, appreciated, or capable of “moving the needle.” What kinds of creative solutions have you come up with that might be worth sharing?
  • Consider what would help your local organizations that field-building organizations are well-suited to provide and facilitate these connections. Be mindful that any engagement would need to be a financial win-win: perhaps a local funder supports collaboration between a local and a national organization.
  • Be open to learning together. As much as your local circumstances may indeed have unique qualities, you may also be surprised to find commonalities with others.

In talking with each other and at public sessions on the topic of collaboration, we have come to appreciate the mutual benefits of national/local collaboration in its many forms. We have also come to recognize that achieving collaboration requires hard work, openness, creativity and a willingness to put aside preconceived notions and expectations. We look forward to your ideas as we use eJP to brainstorm both the promise and the mechanism for collaborations.

Shari L. Edelstein is a philanthropic consultant based in Boulder, Colorado.
Marcella Kanfer Rolnick is Chair of the Lippman Kanfer Family Foundation.
Yossi Prager is Executive Director for North America of The AVI CHAI Foundation.