YossiPrager

How Do You Think About “Jewish” Giving?

 Posted by on October 2, 2019 at 3:09 pm  No Responses »  Tagged with: , ,  Categories:
Oct 022019
 

A version of this article was cross-posted on the eJewish Philanthropy Blog and here on the AVI CHAI blog in August 2013.

by Yossi Prager

When Dan Brown, the wizard behind eJewishPhilanthropy, suggested that I write for the Days of Awe about my view of the many discussions on Jewish versus non-Jewish giving, my first thought was, “How can I make the connection to the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur?” But, once I figured that out, I was more than happy to write this post, explaining why I believe that the distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish giving, as it is usually used, is misleading.

So, how does this issue relate to this period in the Jewish calendar? Most Jewish holidays celebrate events in Jewish history: Passover, the exodus from Egypt; Shavuot, the receipt of the Torah; Purim, salvation from Haman’s evil decree; and Chanukah, the conquest of the Maccabees. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are quite different. They have, from a Jewish perspective, a universal frame. On the Days of Awe, God judges all people, Jews and non-Jews alike, and consequently decides on the quality of their lives in the coming year.

A verse from Zechariah (14:16) extends the universalistic notion to Sukkot: Zechariah mandates Sukkot as the annual pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem for non-Jews (and Jews) during the messianic era. Similarly, the Talmudic sages explained the number of cows sacrificed over the days of Sukkot – 70 – as one cow for each of the “70 nations of the world.” Jews see our God as Sustainer of the entire universe, not just Jews. Following God’s model, as we think about what is “Jewish” giving, we should not limit the extent of our caring to Jews.

“Jewish” giving therefore is giving that stems from the divine imperative to feed the hungry, provide jobs for the unemployed, cure the sick (and thus fund hospitals and medical research) and more generally establish a just society (which requires high-quality education for all). This imperative is not limited to Jews or to giving through Jewish institutions. A case could even be made that giving to cultural causes (museums, opera, etc.) meets a divine imperative. When I was a student at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Moshe Tendler suggested (albeit not in the context of charity law) that the Talmud supports financial investments in natural and cultural beauty that enrich life.

The upshot is that giving to Jewish poor, Jewish religious causes, Jewish education and Israel cannot be privileged on the basis that they are “Jewish,” while other causes are not. However, there is another distinction that matters: while many different kinds of philanthropy advance the Jewish mission in ways that are beneficial to people generally, only some causes advance Jews or Judaism particularly. For these Days of Awe, I would like to consider: Why privilege Jewish particularism? Or, more starkly, why privilege Jews?

I’ll offer two kinds of answers. The first I’ll call Family First; the second, the Hillel Paradigm.

Family First.

Most of us are more likely to give to a cousin in need than to a stranger, or to give more to the cousin than to the stranger. In fact, we love our cousin notwithstanding annoying behaviors that we would not tolerate in a stranger. Jews are an extended family, and Jewish law asks us to privilege our family in our giving. Interestingly, in the Jewish law hierarchy, first come Jews in our immediate families, then other relatives, then Jews in our town, then Jews in our collective heritage home (Israel) and then Jews in other areas. Family comes first, but within the family, closer relatives and those who live among us take precedence. This makes sense; it’s hard to imagine a caring society in which wealthy families reject the pleas of family members or ignore suffering in their own community in order to support needs in other cities.

Support for Jewish education also falls into the Family First category. Every extended family has distinctive stories, traditions and even values. Ours are embedded in the Torah and the literature (and then audio-visuals) that followed. These resources have enabled Jews to develop as an independent civilization that has also made great and enduring contributions to the world, as God hoped we would. Our ability to make future contributions as Jews – to the Jewish civilization and the world at large – depends on the vibrancy of the institutions that educate the next generation. For this reason, even as there are many universal causes that advance the Jewish mission, Jewish education (encompassing day schools, camps, synagogues, youth groups, Israel trips and more) is the only way to perpetuate the Jewish mission.

The Hillel Paradigm.

But there is a second, perhaps even more compelling, reason to support particularistic Jewish causes. As Hillel famously said in the Mishna in Avot (1:14), “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And when I am for myself, then what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”

Hillel’s paradigm combines values-based considerations (“who am ‘I’?”) with practical concerns (“who will be for me?”). That strikes me as a useful model for setting philanthropic priorities. On the values level, many universal causes advance the Jewish mission, but there is also a practical consideration: while all of the 315 million Americans are targets for the fundraising efforts of hospitals, universities and food banks, it is highly unlikely (except to a limited degree relating to the State of Israel) that anyone but Jews will support particularistic Jewish institutions and programs. Thus, while some responsibility for universal causes rests upon Jews, Jews bear the entire responsibility for particularistic Jewish institutions. Developing philanthropic priorities is a complex process involving personal history, values, emotions, intellect, social considerations and more. To the extent that the intellect – logic – is an important factor, I believe that the Hillel Paradigm for placing Jewish particularism near the top of the priorities is compelling.

I imagine that, in writing for eJewishPhilanthropy, I am preaching mostly to the choir, professionals who devote their lives to the Jewish people. For us, maybe the most important point is to recognize that “Jewish giving” is a broader concept than giving to Jewish institutions. We should validate, rather than criticize, Jews who give to general education and medical research. At the same time, however, as we gratefully acknowledge the way in which these philanthropists are advancing the Jewish mission, we should make the case for their increasing their particularistic Jewish giving. Even a small increase in particularistic giving by America’s wealthy Jews would have a transformative impact on American Jewish life.

This new year, I want to say how proud I am to be a Jew and a professional whose career advances the Jewish mission and Jewish particularism. I am grateful for my many colleagues in the field, at foundations, federations and non-profits, who share this passion. May the new year bring us good health, family joy, productivity, progress, satisfaction and increased moral and financial support from the American Jewish community. Gmar Chatima Tova!

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

Ancient Jewish Wisdom for the Health of the Jewish Nonprofit Field

 Posted by on September 24, 2019 at 4:36 pm  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
Sep 242019
 

A version of this piece was first published in September 2015. View the original here.

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. As we look forward to great success in the New Year, 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 the New Year, 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.

Jul 092019
 

By: Yossi Prager

Cross-posted here on eJewishPhilanthropy.com 

One prominent nonprofit leadership challenge is attracting and retaining talented staff. As I come to the end of 25 years as Executive Director of AVI CHAI in North America, I have been reflecting on how fortunate I have been to keep together a team of program and support staff, in some cases for two decades. Something about the culture built by our Trustees and management has worked, and I share these reflections and stories in the hope that they will be useful to others.

I need to start with the elephant in the room. AVI CHAI is a private foundation, and foundations generally retain staff at higher rates than other nonprofit organizations. Foundations usually compensate at a higher level, offer more stable financial environments and are better able to give staff the resources they need to succeed in their work. Most important, while foundation staff work hard, they do not experience the constant stress of fundraising that characterizes most nonprofits. All true. My experience is relevant to foundations and perhaps may be helpful to leaders at other nonprofits.

As I reflect, four factors most significantly contributed to AVI CHAI’s ability to retain highly-performing staff: (1) the people we hired, (2) a feeling of partnership among Trustees, management and staff, (3) the opportunity for evolving roles even within the same jobs and (4) work-life flexibility. What ties all these elements together is a belief that while organizational success depends on many factors, including strategy and finance, nothing matters more than recruiting the right people and enabling them to succeed and grow. I am incredibly grateful to AVI CHAI’s Trustees for having encouraged and supported me in this way of thinking.

Who We Hired

You might expect that a foundation with the mission of Jewish education would hire primarily Jewish educators. Yet in recent years our professional staff consisted of two lawyers, two public relations experts, the former president of a marketing company, a former Jewish Children and Family Services chief executive, and a professional from a non-Jewish foundation – in addition to a PhD in education with Federation experience on a day school program and two professors (who work at AVI CHAI part-time). All of them feel lucky to have been lured to Jewish professional work.

The hiring from diverse fields started when Zalman Bernstein z”l hired me out of a big Manhattan law firm on the theory that AVI CHAI staff needed to complement rather than duplicate the expertise of our grantees. In turn, I hired people I thought would be best for the roles we needed to fill, even if they did not have professional experience in the Jewish community. We hired based on intelligence, personality, professional skills, a history of hard work, and – very importantly – personal passions demonstrated by the way candidates led their lives outside of work. We also sought candidates with diverse Jewish backgrounds who were deeply committed to Jewish education and in love with the Jewish people. For the most part, we used the same criteria in hiring support staff.

Our Trustees made clear to me that hiring the right people and enabling them to succeed was my primary responsibility. In one case, I flew to Boston immediately after learning that a woman I dreamed of hiring had become engaged and the couple intended to move to the New York area. I made an offer before the bride even had a chance to consider alternatives. In the process, I snagged one of the key components to our spend-down planning and educational strategy.

Bringing together a diverse group of professionals with a common passion for the mission turned out to be invaluable for knitting the culture of mutual appreciation. Each person around the staff table contributed a unique skillset and perspective. All were dedicated to their own Jewish lives and personal Jewish growth, with different views and practices. There was so much we could learn from one another, including support staff.

Full Partnership

I believe that program staff at AVI CHAI feel themselves to be full partners in the work and decision-making because they are at the table and encouraged to tenaciously defend their views, and because of an unusual compensation structure I’ll describe.

Every member of the program staff attended board meetings and had the opportunity to respond directly to Trustee questions and concerns. In addition, the governance system created by Zalman Bernstein at the onset of AVI CHAI partnered a Trustee and staff member on every grant program. This gave individual staff members a direct working relationship with Trustees. In some cases, the Project Trustee became a part of the team that oversaw the work on an ongoing basis.

More broadly, the culture at the foundation is almost Talmudic, in the sense that people routinely disagree with one another and vigorously defend their positions about the best course for advancing the mission. Meetings are not genteel: staff voice opinions, and even interrupt one another, without regard to their hierarchical roles. The discussions are respectful but blunt. Dating back to Zalman Bernstein, the leadership of the foundation has believed that robust debate is the best way to clarify ideas. As a side benefit, people learn that probing questions are not personal attacks but a tool for deepening thinking.

This is not to say that decisions are made democratically. The foundation has a hierarchy with the Trustees on top, clear accountability of the staff to the executive director, and junior staff reporting to direct supervisors. We actually became more hierarchical over time, in response to a concern from staff that too many people reporting directly to me was delaying approvals they needed for their work. The culture is less an Israeli kibbutz and more an entrepreneurial company: giving people the opportunity to make their best argument improves decision-making and also increases investment in the work even when the decisions disappoint staff.

The risk in stimulating robust debate is that staff use the opportunity for competitive advantage rather than collaborative thinking. It therefore became even more important to reduce tensions that undermine collegiality. One factor that can stimulate resentment is differences in compensation. This is a special concern at nonprofits, where public tax returns disclose the salaries of highly-paid employees. At AVI CHAI, we compensated senior staff at the same level, with salaries rising in tandem. There can be no issue of gender difference, and no disgruntlement about pay differential. The law firm I used to work for had a similar compensation structure for partners and associates.

Another facet of our approach to compensation communicated our high regard for program officers. In most organizations, there is a significant gap between the compensation of the executive director and the other staff. This is true at AVI CHAI as well. However, while the salary of the executive director was set to be in the mid-range of compensation for the top professional at similar Jewish foundations, salaries for program staff were always at the high end of the comparables. We wanted our program staff to understand how much we appreciate their contributions.

Evolving Roles

Small organizations offer limited opportunity for staff advancement. As a result, if organizations want to hold onto staff, they have to offer opportunities for the evolution of staff roles within their positions. Ten years ago, I learned that potentially destabilizing uncertainty and change can actually be a catalyst for energizing staff.

In 2008, as we began planning for spending down, AVI CHAI began to explore the possibility of simultaneously making many changes in our operating approach and internal culture. At the start, there was great uncertainty. Would our work actually change or were we just wasting time meeting? If we did change, would it lead to staff additions or terminations? How might the roles of individual team members change? What would happen if we failed to make the transition effectively? I wondered whether and how many staff might leave the foundation because of the uncertainty.

I remember opening the meeting that began the planning process with a thought about the Torah’s exhaustive (and exhausting) list of places the Jews camped during their 40 years in the desert. I suggested that the Torah’s message is for us to embrace the uncertainty of the journey, taking advantage of opportunities for growth as we travel from one encampment to the next. The staff seemed to internalize the message and, ultimately, the foundation shifted significantly – from solo funding to working in partnership with other foundations; from “buying programs” to also investing in the overall capacity of grantee organizations; from a flat staff structure to new roles and added hierarchy; from a Trustee-driven foundation to a Trustee-managed foundation with a larger role for staff.

The change did in fact create new positions in communications and strategic partnerships, some of which we filled internally. More important, all of our staff were charged with collaborating with grantees, other funders and the public in a different way. Staff needed to help plan for the long-term viability of grantees and programs, earn the trust of other funders, and learn to write and speak in public with a compelling voice. We helped the staff develop these skills through a set of professional development programs and, in a few cases, personal coaching. These changes and professional development invigorated the staff, who undertook their new roles with the excitement of people starting a new job.

We experienced a second change after staff-wide learning about ways in which new technologies and the broadband internet were creating a new context for our work and society. After months of reading and discussing books, learning from visiting speakers, and working with consultants, AVI CHAI undertook a new program area: blended learning. This, too, gave existing employees the opportunity for a new challenge, another change in role without leaving the foundation.

Change is often both necessary and frightening. My experience is that it can also be catalytic for giving employees energizing new challenges.

Workplace flexibility

When we first grew our staff, we had a traditional work environment: everyone was expected to be in the office daily from 9-5. By the early 2000’s, the young women we hired began having children. AVI CHAI had a generous maternity leave policy (and a more limited paternity leave policy), but after the leave staff were expected to return to full-time work in the office. By 2006, a few of the mothers found the work-life balance to be sufficiently challenging that they were considering leaving the foundation or reducing their hours. At that point, we re-examined our assumptions about what kind of working conditions were needed for effective performance. Was there a way that we could accommodate staff needs for greater availability to family without losing the benefit of staff working together in the office?

We responded with a Solomonic compromise: we offered these women the opportunity to work at home two days a week – on Tuesday and Thursday – with the expectation that the full office would be present on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for scheduled in-person meetings and serendipitous trips to the water cooler that offer great potential for generating good ideas.

Staff needed to be set up to work effectively from home with both hardware (funded by AVI CHAI) and childcare. They were expected to be at their desks during work hours. And they needed to be flexible enough to attend meetings on a Tuesday or Thursday if necessary, even on little notice. Unfortunately, we felt unable to make the same offer to administrative staff, whose support was needed on site.

Both Arthur Fried, then AVI CHAI’s chairman, and I made the proposal with some trepidation. Concerned about productivity, I initially required staff on the program to provide weekly written reports on their work. When it became clear the productivity continued to be high, the requirement ended.

One staff member wrote a 2012 article providing her perspective on the flexible workspace arrangement. She wrote, “If I had not had the flexibility of working from home, I probably would have spent my 30’s working part-time. I would have put my family first and my career, and thus my opportunity to serve the Jewish people, second.”

Subsequently, another employee requested flexible hours (more hours Monday through Thursday, and Friday off) and argued that in her particular situation the new schedule would increase productivity. Consistent with the belief that our highest priority should be enabling talented and dedicated staff to succeed – and having learned that flexibility and productivity align – I said yes.

***

There is one additional, overarching factor. At AVI CHAI, the mission dominates, rather than personal egos. Zalman Bernstein implanted this ethic when he invested his Trustees with the authority to decide, even in his lifetime, the allocation of the funds he contributed. As a result, the foundation was never fully a reflection of him or any other individual. The Trustees, highly-successful academics or philanthropists in their own right, are humble in nature and were further inspired by the Chairmen who succeeded Zalman – Arthur Fried and then Mem Bernstein – to focus on organizational success and not personal ambitions. Without question, the culture of AVI CHAI developed because of this shared ethic among the Chairmen, the Trustees and management.

I have been blessed to lead the AVI CHAI – North American staff over the past 25 years. In sharing my story, I hope to “pay it forward” by contributing to the important conversation across the general and Jewish nonprofit worlds about how to attract and retain the most talented staff.

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

Apr 042019
 

Cross-posted on eJewishPhilanthropy

By Yossi Prager

More than ten years ago, AVI CHAI received a report from Professor Joel Fleishman recommending best practices for spend-down foundations. One recommendation was that AVI CHAI invests ambitiously in building the organizational strength of our key grantees, including helping them plan for long-term financial sustainability. We took the advice and incorporated capacity building as a core element of our spend-down strategy. Our boldest efforts have come through supporting the development and implementation of strategic plans and funding nonprofit mergers. As might be expected, the results have been mixed – some wins, some losses and some where time will tell. We want to share lessons from our victories and defeats in the spirit of thought partnership, for the benefit of both perpetual and sunsetting foundations that seek to help grantees thrive.

For AVI CHAI in North America, which has focused on field building in the Jewish day school and summer camp sectors, the need to build organizational capacity exists on two levels: 1) in individual schools and camps across North America and 2) within critical organizations that serve across schools and camps with training programs, curricula, networking and other services. Our most distinctive lessons emerged from this second category – several big bets, grants of several million dollars to enable key grantees to plan futures of programmatic success and financial sustainability.

These big bets came in two forms: 1) we funded grantees to engage consultants to develop strategic and business plans, and then we partially funded implementation of the plans; and 2) we funded the merger of our grantees into or with other organizations. We learned from both forms of big investments what success and risk factors seem most important.

Strategic Planning

AVI CHAI funded strategic planning – sometimes in partnership with other funders – at five nonprofit organizations. Based on this sample, we have learned that funding strategic planning can be an excellent way of helping an organization set up a potentially-sustainable future. But we experienced failure as often as success.

As an example of success, the Jewish New Teacher Project (JNTP) is a division of a large award-winning nonprofit organization in general education (the New Teacher Center) that embraced the opportunity to develop a division for Jewish schools. From the beginning, in 2002, JNTP generated revenues from both fees from day schools, foundation grants and individual fundraising. Their first strategic plan, which we funded in partnership with the Jim Joseph Foundation in 2013, helped them to develop a new service delivery model that reduced expenses and provided a framework for expanding to new cities. They successfully implemented that plan, exceeding goals for program and fundraising. The two foundations funded a second strategic plan that will shape their direction going forward. The strategic planning process worked for JNTP because of a number of factors that coalesced: a good consultant fit, talented nonprofit leadership, realistic expectations about future revenues, a willingness and nimbleness to quickly adapt business models and the trust of their funders.

From our failures, we learned some important cautions:

  1. Do not let the process drag on for too long. How long is “too long” depends on the context, but nonprofits need to be careful that time-consuming strategic planning does not become an extended distraction from their core work or dissipate the enthusiasm of key funders.
  2. Do not fail to include stakeholder input or a funder feasibility study;
  3. Do not assume that dramatically-increased short-term budgets will ultimately produce dramatically-increased revenue afterward. Effective strategic plans – like that of JNTP – tie their growth to successful revenue generation.
  4. Do not base the timeline for revenue generation on the funder’s desire rather than realism. In retrospect, we put pressure on grantees to develop timeframes that met our schedule but may have been unrealistic.

In some cases, AVI CHAI and grantees fell into one or more of these traps, and the outcome was less successful than we had hoped. We also came to recognize that, in certain situations, even the best strategic planning process was unlikely to generate successful stand-along organizations. That brings me to the discussion of mergers.

Mergers

Successful nonprofit mergers are generally considered so rare that many philanthropists do not even consider funding them, especially if there is any resistance to the idea within the nonprofits that might merge. We saw the promise of mergers and believe that they can be successful in appropriate situations if foundations are willing to invest sufficient money and time. In fact, foundations are uniquely positioned to make mergers happen.

Initially, our thinking about mergers arose in the context of two successful curricular programs serving 45,000 students combined that were facing the challenges and opportunities of retooling for a digital world and preparing for executive succession. We considered attempting to build the necessary digital expertise within the organizations and ultimately concluded that it would be more effective and efficient to combine these two programs with organizations that had the necessary educational technology expertise and also provided a solution to the executive succession issues. This thinking led to the creation of iTaLAM (please see this case study) and the incorporation of NETA/Bishvil HaIvrit into the Center for Educational Technology.

In a third case, AVI CHAI brokered the merger of five day school networks into a new organization, Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools. The impetus for this merger was the desire to concentrate expertise, generate efficiency and reduce donor confusion. The creation of Prizmah was by far the most complex of the mergers, almost miraculous in that five organizations (or divisions of other organizations) put their hopes ahead of their fears for the greater good of the field to which they were all committed.

Our experience is that mergers are challenging, time-consuming for the nonprofits and expensive to consummate. In all three cases, the mergers involved conversations that lasted over a year, sometimes two or three. Even passive resistance from one key player can add mightily to the cost, time, and energy needed to drive the process forward. In all three cases, the foundation’s staff invested far more time as honest brokers than we had anticipated. But we also learned that mergers are achievable and, in our cases, worth the effort.

All of these mergers have happened within the past five years, and so it is too early to assess their long-term outcomes. However, I feel confident in saying that all of the combined organizations are stronger today, financially and programmatically, than they would have been as independent organizations.

I see three factors that contributed to the merger successes (to date):

  1. The synergies were real: each constituent organization brought unique expertise or market reach. In the case of the two curricular organizations, one side brought content expertise while the other brought experience in educational technology. In the case of Prizmah, each of the founding organizations served different constituencies and had developed complementary expertise that could be combined. Mergers make sense when they concentrate resources and talent.
  2. In all of these cases, AVI CHAI was already a significant funder of at least one party to the merger, and sometimes more than one. Grantee dependence on our foundation forced participation in the process, but two additional factors were critical to getting the mergers done: 1) we generously funded operating expenses of grantees during the merger conversations as well as professional support from consultants, lawyers and fundraisers and 2) we invested a great deal of our own staff time as honest brokers, being a partner at the table.
  3. The key people at the organizations were able to keep the ultimate goal – benefiting Jewish education – as the #1 priority. There were many heated moments and disagreements, and these were only overcome through inspiring commitment that kept us all at the table.

For AVI CHAI, it was only Professor Fleishman’s advice related to impending sunset, and our growing focus on field building, that pushed us toward partnering closely with key grantees to help build and structure long-term success. I regret that it took thinking about sunset to stimulate our focus on capacity building and our willingness to invest time and money in the long-term future of grantee organizations. I applaud other foundations that came to this realization sooner.

Ambitious capacity building – whatever its form – is a necessary role for foundations if our shared goal is to build a field of effective, sustainable organizations. If you want to learn more about our efforts in this area as you plan your own, please call or email me at AVI CHAI.

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

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.