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.

Reflecting Back on Chanukah: Sparking a Chain Reaction of Jewish Engagement

 Posted by on December 5, 2013 at 10:20 am  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
Dec 052013

This piece is cross-posted on eJewishPhilanthropy.

By: Yossi Prager

Each year, the bright lights of Chanukah cause me to wonder how we can better kindle the passion for Judaism and the Jewish people among the next generation of American Jews. In an effort to consider this question publicly, over the past eight days AVI CHAI’s blog has featured guest posts written by educators in the field that provide interesting examples of how to “spark” Jewish flames. Coincidentally, I have been reading about the physical nature of light, and I have come to appreciate ways in which the science of candle-lighting can inform educators seeking to engage Jews of all ages.

Here’s a simple explanation of what happens when we light a Chanukah candle (the same applies to olive oil). Candles are packed with carbon and hydrogen. The heat of the flame that lights the candle causes the carbon and hydrogen atoms in the candle to move around, or jiggle. In jiggling, the atoms of the candle first become a gas and then approach and combine with oxygen in the surrounding air to form carbon dioxide and water. The candle burns and disappears because it turns into carbon dioxide and water vapor that we do not see.

The combining of the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms generates more heat, which in turn jiggles more of the atoms in the candle, leading to more carbon dioxide and water and more heat. The chain reaction will continue until there is no fuel left. This is not the end of the story, of course, since the carbon dioxide and water are ultimately absorbed by growing trees, whose wood serves as fuel for new fires. See this brief and wonderful clip of Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman explaining fire in this way to non-scientists.

The critical role of heat in jiggling the atoms is clear. Where does the light of the flame come from? It turns out that the light is not a result of the jiggling of the atoms but of the change in energy levels of the electrons in the participating atoms. Light is emitted when excited electrons return to less-excited states. Great mysteries remain about the nature of light, which acts at different times in mutually-contradictory ways. Scientists have developed mathematical equations that enable us to harness and exploit light, but physicists are no better than poets at explaining its inherent nature.

It seems to me deeply appropriate that we commemorate the miracles of Chanukah – which involved reclaiming sovereignty over physical land and regaining spiritual freedom – by lighting candles, an act that transforms both matter and energy. Viewing the candles through the prism of science deepens my appreciation of the extent to which the natural world in which we live is itself miraculous. And the science behind the candle lighting does even more: it provides some principles that can inform our thinking as philanthropists and Jewish educators. Here are my takeaways, which relate to a common theme in the AVI CHAI blog’s Chanukah guest posts – energizing young people to be creators:

  1. Like a fire, Jewish educators need to start a chain reaction. The goal of Jewish education should be to inspire students to generate their own light and heat that will further inspire others. We do not have enough Jewish educators for the success of Jewish education to depend only on educators. In reporting on its alumni program, Reshet Ramah provides a great example of a chain reaction, as a participant-initiated Shabbat program energized others to take responsibility for the next programs.
  2. Like a fire which can only get started with sufficient heat, education requires that passions be raised. Students will only agree to be part of a chain reaction if their Jewish education causes them to care deeply. This has two implications. First, the education has to be sufficiently rich and immersive to generate passion. Second, it has to feel relevant and meaningful to students. In this regard, I was impressed by the range of the high school Judaic courses at Golda Och Academy, which was described by Flora Yavelberg, the Judaic Studies Chair at the day school. Effective education requires offerings that are both substantive and responsive to the interests of individual students.
  3. Electrons emit light when they return to levels of lower energy, not when they are excited. So should students. If young people are meaningfully excited by a Jewish educational experience, whether at a day school, summer camp or Birthright Israel, the success should be seen over the long-term, when students return to their regular levels of energy. Daniella Pressner, Principal of Akiva Academy in Nashville, Tennessee, provides a worthy conceptual model based on her experience with Music Row: a Jewish education that seeks to produce Jewish grit, patience and pride – character traits that endure.

In the physical world, it is impossible to create new matter and energy; the universe expands through the transformation of the matter and energy that already exists. The same is true of our Torah and traditions. All the raw material needed to transform Jewish life is in our hands. We need to raise the heat, light the flame and enable the chain reaction to get started.

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

Strategic Philanthropy: Linking Central and Local Philanthropy

 Posted by on November 11, 2013 at 9:37 am  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
Nov 112013

This article was cross-posted from eJewishPhilanthropy.

[This article is part of a series on the interactions between local and national funders ignited by the Jewish Funders Network (JFN). To read more about the series, see the introductory post here.]

by Yossi Prager

AVI CHAI’s spend-down goals include building funding partnerships with philanthropists whose values and interests align with ours. In that connection, I have had the privilege of meeting with impressive and dedicated Jewish funders across the country. Time and again, I have learned that the vast majority of funders focus their Jewish giving on local service organizations (schools, synagogues, Jewish family services, food delivery). This local focus is understandable. The donors understand their local context best and can see firsthand the impact of their philanthropy. They also feel a huge sense of responsibility to local organizations and beneficiaries dependent upon them. Local giving by committed and caring philanthropists is the engine that drives the Jewish nonprofit sector.

Some observers have argued that there is another factor at play in the overwhelming focus on local giving: donors today distrust “institutions,” particularly at the national level, because they perceive them as bureaucratic, staid and inefficient. As a result, donors are not only attracted to funding their local institutions but also repelled by their jaundiced view of national organizations. In my role as AVI CHAI’s North American director, participating in the allocation of hundreds of millions of dollars of giving over time, I have come to appreciate the extraordinary potential reach and leverage of centralized programming in improving the work of local organizations.

My personal appreciation of the role of centralized programming began, perhaps ironically, as a result of my experiences in the 1990’s, as AVI CHAI experimented with direct grants to (initially) synagogues and (later) day schools. We learned that direct grants could be terrific catalysts for stimulating talented people to create innovative pilot programs around the country, a few of which endured over time. We also began to offer a series of longstanding grant programs – ranging from providing small Jewish libraries for students who enter the day school system at the high school level to $1 million interest free loans for construction and renovation at day schools and overnight camps – that provide a set of uniform benefits to qualifying organizations. Through these kinds of direct grants to schools, AVI CHAI also helped to build school libraries/media centers, promote experiential Jewish education and stimulate educational technology experiments.

However, these direct grants addressed only part of the needs of the local schools. Effective schools also need trained principals and teachers, high-quality curricula, access to best practices from other schools and other resources for marketing and fundraising. It would be unreasonably expensive to create programs or organizations to address these needs within multiple schools or communities, and doing so would deprive participants of cross-community learning. AVI CHAI thus turned to national organizations to develop new programs.

One of AVI CHAI’s early day school “jewels” was a program developed by the Davidson school of education at JTS to train principals for the (then) growing number of Community, Solomon Schechter and Reform day schools. By funding a single program that trained heads of school and division principals for new and existing schools across the country, AVI CHAI cost-effectively developed a new cadre of leaders for local schools. A later JTS program to develop standards for the study of Tanakh (Bible) and train teachers and administrators for standards-based instruction has transformed the study of Bible at over 60 schools. We have similarly funded curricula that are used by tens of thousands of students on a daily basis. Our newest focus is on online/blended learning. Today’s need is for a network of schools learning from one another as well as centralized expertise.

My point is that an effective and cost-efficient Jewish nonprofit world – and this extends beyond the sphere of Jewish education – depends upon a healthy interrelationship between local and centralized efforts. The primary needs and opportunities will always be at the local level, where beneficiaries are actually served. But training, materials and best practices are central needs that can best be addressed through centralized programming developed by talented people with a more centralized perch. This is perhaps even truer today, when it is possible to weave networks that enable the sharing of knowledge, and the creation of new knowledge, across communities and between local and centralized efforts through the internet.

A closing thought: What is the difference between philanthropy and charity? One could distinguish the two in many ways. I prefer to describe philanthropy as strategic investments to accomplish philanthropic goals, while charity is the act of choosing among worthy causes competing for giving. Donors with the ambition to be philanthropists see issues and opportunities within the larger contexts of their overall strategic goals. From the perspective of philanthropy, the achievement of our collective goals for the Jewish people depends on effective local institutions supported by centralized efforts. Relatedly, the effectiveness of the Jewish nonprofit sector depends on healthy collaborations among donors within and across communities working in collaboration with national organizations and funders. This is not a utopian vision, but one that can be achieved now with sufficient donor interest and good will.

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

How to Inspire a Jewish Future in America

 Posted by on October 11, 2013 at 12:09 pm  No Responses »  Tagged with: ,  Categories:
Oct 112013

cropped-YP.jpgThis article is cross posted from JTA.

Last week, the Pew Research Center released the first national demographic study of Jewish Americans in more than a decade. Like all such studies, there are disagreements at the edges about the accuracy of some of the results, but the study’s most significant findings have been generally accepted.

The big news is that one in five self-identified American Jews does not identify as Jewish by religion (one in three among younger Jews), and that even among Jews by religion, the intermarriage rate since 2005 is 55 percent. Looking only at the non-Orthodox, since 2005 more than 70 percent of the marriages have been intermarriages.

The big question now is how funders and Jewish organizations respond to this data.

By itself, the news that one-fifth of America’s Jews do not see themselves as Jewish by religion might not be disastrous. After all, there are many Israelis who identify with the Jewish people who call themselves “secular.” The problem is that the Pew study found that unlike Israeli “chilonim,” most of whom see themselves as integral members of the Jewish people and actually perform more than a few Jewish rituals as a matter of course, American “Jews of no religion” are unlikely to raise their children as Jews, be attached to Israel, give to Jewish causes or see being Jewish as important in their lives.

One Jew of no religion who was interviewed for the study described himself to Slate this way:

“Six months ago I told a friendly Pew pollster that I consider myself Jewish but not religious, that my wife is not Jewish, and that my daughter is being raised ‘partially Jewish,’ in Pew’s terms. And as an intermarried Jewish nonbeliever, I think it’s time we anxious Jews stopped worrying and learned to love our assimilated condition — even if it means that our children call themselves half-Jewish and our grandchildren don’t consider themselves Jews at all.”

In short, most Jews of no religion have both feet out of the Jewish community — or at least are on their way to the exit sign.

The astonishingly high intermarriage rate among recent marriages outside of Orthodoxy is so important because according to the Pew study, nearly all children of two Jewish spouses are being raised as Jewish by religion, while only 20 percent of children of intermarriages are being raised exclusively as Jewish. Some of these couples are Jews of no religion and others are headed for the exits anyway. Others might be seen as having one foot within the Jewish community and one foot out.

So what to do?

Without offering firm policy recommendations, which should be carefully developed, here are initial principles:

* We should recognize the big picture. In the aggregate, the many programs developed by Jewish philanthropists and organizations after the 1990 population study that first showed alarming intermarriage rates have failed to stem the tide of assimilation. (It will be interesting to see whether the Pew study supports the contention that Birthright Israel increases Jewish identity and participation.) There is likely nothing that can be done to attract Jews heading for the exits, and the programmatic efforts should focus on those who at least have one foot still within the community.

* Based on the Pew study, at least in America, Judaism will endure across generations almost exclusively in families that identify with Judaism as a religion. (It is less clear to me what level of observance or participation generates a “tipping point.”)   The reasons are less clear, but I imagine that part of the answer stems from the famous Ahad Ha’am saying, “More than the Jews have kept the Shabbos, the Shabbos has kept the Jews.”

Or, as Rabbi David Wolpe wrote in his thoughts about the study:

“As a countercultural tradition in America, Judaism asks a great deal of its adherents. Judaism is a behavior-centered tradition. It is primarily enacted in a language strange to most American Jews [Hebrew] and requires an extensive education to understand its fundamentals. … That which is continually diluted will eventually disappear.”

* Along these same lines, we should measure the likely success of programs based on whether they offer the intensive and immersive education needed to give participants an understanding of the power and beauty of Jewish values and practices. Anything less will fail to give participants sufficient motivation to make the commitment of time, energy and money needed for engaged Jewish life. Programs that attempt to “meet people where they are” can only be justified if they actually succeed in attracting Jews to more substantive ongoing programs.

* Every business owner knows that it costs less to retain a customer than to attract a new one. While economic considerations may not be the only relevant ones, it is far more cost effective to invest in Jews who are closer to the core of the engaged Jewish community, whether they are children or young adults. The study tells us that these, too, are Jews at risk of assimilation. Investment in these young people is our community’s best chance for increasing retention of an energizing nucleus that has the potential to reverse the trends painfully evident in the study.

We all prefer good news to bad. This has caused some commentators on the Pew study to celebrate the number of Jews regardless of their commitments or argue that the answer is to be more “welcoming” of those who are heading for the exits.

There are no easy fixes. The only way to retain the next generation will be to inspire them to desire and love substantive Jewish life. If enough Jews can be so inspired, the Jewish future will be far rosier than the snapshot offered by the Pew study.

Yossi Prager is the executive director-North America of The AVI CHAI Foundation.

How Do You Think About “Jewish” Giving?

 Posted by on August 29, 2013 at 9:15 am  1 Response »  Tagged with: , , ,  Categories:
Aug 292013

This article is cross-posted from the eJewish Philanthropy Blog.

by Yossi Prager

When Dan Brown, the wizard behind eJewishPhilanthropy, suggested that I write for Rosh Hashana about my view of the many discussions on Jewish versus non-Jewish giving, my first thought was, “How can I make the connection to Rosh Hashana?” 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 Rosh Hashana? 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 which stems from the divine imperative to feed the hungry, provide jobs for the unemployed, help 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 this Rosh Hashana, 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. The Jewish family’s stories, traditions and values are embodied in the Torah, rabbinic sources and later textual (and audio-visual) resources. These resources have enabled Jews to develop as an independent civilization that has also made great and enduring contributions to the world. 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.

As the new year approaches, I want to say how proud I am to be not just a Jew but 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. Shana Tova!

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

Why Be BOLD?

 Posted by on August 26, 2013 at 10:10 am  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
Aug 262013

This article is cross-posted from the eJewish Philanthropy Blog.

This week, The AVI CHAI Foundation, the Affordable Jewish Education Project (AJE) and the Kohelet Foundation announced the winners of the BOLD Day Schools grant, which will assist five established day schools in transitioning to a blended learning model. The schools are: Denver Academy of Torah in Denver, CO; Magen David Yeshivah High School in Brooklyn, NY; The Moriah School in Englewood, NJ; The Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge, NJ; and Tarbut v’Torah Community Day School in Irvine, CA. The BOLD project dovetails with AVI CHAI’s funding for new blended/online day school models: we hope to help both established and new schools in the day school field learn about the educational and financial ramifications of blended learning.

AVI CHAI began promoting online and blended learning three years ago because these new educational models were emerging as promising answers to some of the challenges facing the day school field.  By joining the best aspects of both face-to-face and online instruction, blended learning strives to create a learning environment that allows teachers to align their instructional approaches to the particular academic needs of each student, based on individualized feedback obtained from the computerized system.  The evidence for the effectiveness of blended/online learning comes, at this point, from experience in public and Catholic schools.  While the data is still limited, it seems that in addition to improved educational outcomes for students, online and blended learning educational models have often resulted in cost savings to schools by reducing schools’ personnel, facility, and textbook costs.

Our funding for blended learning is part of AVI CHAI’s overall goal of strengthening the day school field. In the area of principals training, our funding includes programs at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Yeshiva University (YU) and Harvard.  We have sought to generate more effective teachers through partnerships with the acclaimed New Teacher’s Center in California and the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.  We are proud of our teaching and learning work, represented in part by the TaL AM and NETA curricula and the TaNaKH Standards and Benchmarks program at JTS.  Over the last 15 years, we have provided interest-free loans for construction and renovation to more than 125 day schools.

In recent years, we have homed in on the sustainability and affordability of day schools. This has led to grants to YU and PEJE, which are working with dozens of schools on financial benchmarking, annual fundraising and endowment building.  Blended learning seized our attention because of its potential to increase quality while reducing cost, the ideal combination for Jewish day schools.

In developing the strategy for our work in this new area, we decided we needed a balance between supporting established and new schools.  Our initial funding toward online/blended learning was to the Jewish Education Project’s (formerly the BJE of NY) DigitalJlLearning Network, which has fostered experimentation with online and blended learning in approximately 50 day schools across North America. We subsequently funded a related network of 12 Torah Umesorah schools.  These established schools are beginning to imagine how blended and online learning can improve their educational programs. The work is evolutionary, as schools move slowly through the change process.

After two years of work, AVI CHAI, in partnership with AJE and Kohelet, realized that it would also be valuable to partner with a small group of established schools ready to experiment in a revolutionary way – to serve as proof points for the educational benefits of blended learning, the steps needed to convert existing schools to a blended model and the net financial implications of the conversion.  If the five BOLD schools are successful and we can document their educational models, results and (hopefully) cost savings, other schools will have the benefit of these schools’ experiences and will hopefully be able to make appropriate shifts themselves.

More controversially, AVI CHAI has also supported the development of new schools built on a blended learning model, including Yeshivat He’atid in Bergen County, NJ, PCLC in central NJ and The Binah School in Boston.  Other new schools have been created in Los Angeles and Westchester County, NY.  Our funding for new schools has attracted criticism to the extent that the new schools compete with established schools.  I want to explain our thinking. We believe that new schools generally have the potential to test radical ideas more quickly than established schools, which are tinkering with a successful model already in place.  At the same time, the learning from the new schools – successes and failures – benefits established schools as well.  We also believe that the pressure from new schools has caused existing schools to experiment more quickly than they might otherwise have done.   However, we want to be clear: we are not funding new school models because of a negative view of the established schools, nor are we funding only new schools.  In general, our decision to support any new school is made after careful thought about the potential communal impact.

As a Foundation, AVI CHAI is committed to supporting day schools (along with overnight summer camps) as effective vehicles for creating the energizing nucleus we envision: young people with the values, commitments, motivation and skills to lead the Jewish People intellectually, spiritually, communally and politically in the 21st century. Our support for blended learning is a piece of this larger strategy, and we expect to continue to work with established and new schools as AVI CHAI continues toward our sunset in 2020.  We are grateful for the leadership and entrepreneurial spirit of professionals and lay leaders across the country.  Ultimately, we feel confident that they will lead strong Jewish schools and communities as the 21st Century progresses.

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

The Book of Ruth: A Great Story and a Profound Lesson

 Posted by on May 13, 2013 at 9:20 am  No Responses »  Tagged with: , ,  Categories:
May 132013

This article is cross-posted from the eJewish Philanthropy Blog.

By Yossi Prager

The Book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuot, is my favorite book of the Bible.  It is a great story, wonderfully told – concise, fast-paced, emotionally stirring.  Without masking the flaws in human nature, the plot progresses though heroic acts of chessed, loving kindness.  Ruth sacrifices to care for her mother-in-law, Naomi, who in turn selflessly seeks a re-marriage opportunity for Ruth.  Ruth and Boaz show loving kindness to each other, leading to a marriage that, in a few generations, produces David, king of Israel.

In many ways, Ruth is a universal story of love and its rewards; at the same time it is a distinctively Jewish tale because the chessed described is rooted in Jewish law and reflects the Torah’s profound wisdom. In a previous blog post, I noted that Thomas Jefferson made a fundamental mistake when he criticized the Talmud for devoting only one book to morality (Pirkei Avot). In fact, the Talmud is suffused with morality, but not as books of ethics independent of law.  To the contrary, Jewish ethics is embedded within law. While the Book of Ruth contains multiple examples, I want to illustrate this point through a set of laws that resonate for me as a philanthropic professional.

Boaz and Ruth meet and begin to develop their relationship in Boaz’s field, when Ruth comes to gather the agricultural gifts set aside for the poor.  Today, we think of tzedakah as cash gifts.  In the Torah text, tzedakah in cash is used for interest-free loans (Shmot 22:24, Devarim 15:8).  Direct gifts to the poor are made through laws that regulate the reaping of produce from the fields.  The laws at work in the Book of Ruth are Leket, Shikhecha and Pe’ah.  Here’s a description of the three laws excerpted from the Encyclopedia of Judaism on answers.com:

a) Leket (“gleaning”). If the reapers drop one or two wheat stalks, they may not retrieve them, but must leave them for the poor. Three or more stalks may be retrieved by the reapers.

b) Shikheḥah (“forgotten”). If, when bringing the harvest to the storage area, the workers leave a quantity in the field, they may not go back to gather it (Deut. 24:19).

c) Pe’ah (“corner”). When harvesting his field, the farmer is required to leave one corner unharvested for the poor. The rabbis imposed a minimum of 1/60 of the crop to be left as Pe’ah.

As Boaz’s workers reap his field, the poor in the city travel behind the workers, snatching up fallen stalks and seeking forgotten sheaves.  Presumably, other workers were reaping the corner of the field that Boaz set aside for the poor. We get the impression from the book that the needy received occasional rebuke from the workers, perhaps because the two groups became entangled.  Boaz orders his workers to leave Ruth alone and even to intentionally drop stalks for her to pick up.  He also praises and encourages Ruth, and feeds her lunch. And the romance begins.

Let’s put aside the story for a moment and reflect on the social and psychological differences between this system of agricultural gifts and the cash gifts we associate with tzedakah today. Recipients of cash gifts are passive, and if the situation continues long enough, could grow psychologically dependent on being supported by others.  This could not only extend the cycle of poverty but undermine recipients’ long-term confidence in their ability to take care of themselves, a devastating ego blow.

By contrast, the Torah puts the needy to work: while they are not harvesting their own fields, they do gain the satisfaction of working for their bread and remaining part of the work force.

The requirement to leave a corner of the field for the poor to reap entirely by themselves is a truly exquisite law.  Essentially, the poor get their own small plot of land, “owned” by them.  They reap on their own and take home the fruits of their own labor, just like the wealthy owner of the whole field. Psychologically, working their “own field” must be a terrific encouragement to those in need.

So here are two takeaways:

  1. Jewish morality is embedded in Jewish law.  Ruth is an extraordinary story, not only because of the interpersonal loving kindness among the main characters but also because of the Jewish legal structure that provides a healthy system for taking care of the needy in the community. Because the story of Ruth emerged from within the context of a value system structured by Jewish law, it is not only universal but distinctively Jewish.
  2. Because agriculture is no longer a common profession, the specific laws of agricultural gifts have little practical relevance today. However, they provide guidance and raise questions for us about how to structure poverty programs and what to look for in writing checks to charities.  Maimonides’ famous Eight Levels of Charity famously puts at the top helping a person to find a job or build a business.  From the Torah’s laws of agricultural gifts, we learn that even when we cannot offer up a job, we should find ways to promote industriousness, self-reliance and self-respect.  Does your organization encourage these values in its programs?  How about the organizations to which you write tzedakah checks?  Something to think about over Shavuot, courtesy of Ruth, Naomi and Boaz.

I hope that you will have an opportunity to read the Book of Ruth sometime on Shavuot and allow it to touch your heart and engage your mind.  If you want to add your thoughts about the book, please contribute in the comments section.

Chag Same’ach!

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

Reflections of a Parent-Educator and Amateur Egyptologist on Seder Night

 Posted by on March 21, 2013 at 9:01 am  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
Mar 212013

By: Yossi Prager

This article is cross-posted on eJewishPhilanthropy.

Drawing of brick-making from Tomb of Rekhmire. Click for a presentation with more images relevant to the Exodus.

At its heart, the seder is a vehicle for telling our children and grandchildren the story of the Jews’ enslavement in and miraculous Exodus from Egypt.  For all the importance of Jewish schooling, the Torah views parents as the most important educators in their children’s lives – every day and especially on seder night.  I am writing not as a foundation leader but as a parent-educator to share some highlights of my family’s seder.  I will be grateful if you use the comments section to share innovations that have enhanced your own seder celebrations.

The educational goal of seder night is articulated within the Haggadah: “In every generation, each person is obligated to feel as if s/he has personally has experienced the Exodus.”  What tools does the seder give us as parents and seder hosts to transport participants to the original Pesach night? A text that elaborates on the misery of our enslavement and the wonder of the miracles that set us free; dramatic “props” such as matzah, maror, wine and charoset that help us experience gastronomically both slavery and freedom; songs to ignite the soul; and an educational approach that invites engagement by celebrating participants’ questions.

Here are some additional ways in which my family attempts to shape the seder environment and experience to transport participants back to the first seder some 3,500 years ago.

  • Transforming the dining room.  The arch into the room has blood of the Paschal Lamb sprinkled on it (OK, really tomato paste on a long roll of paper taped to the arch).  The walls contain photos of artifacts from Egypt, some that show the splendor of the Egyptian empire – one of my kids’ favorites is the statue of King Hatshepsut, a female Pharaoh – and some that more directly relate to the night’s story.  For example, drawings from Egyptian tombs show bricks being made, masters beating slaves and the chariots of Pharaoh.  My favorite is the Merneptah Stele, the only ancient Egyptian source that specifically mentions the people of Israel.  Ironically, the engraved stone reports that Israel has been wiped out; “it has no more seed.”  My children – my seed – get a kick out of that one.  For the younger children, I also put up some clip art related to Pesach that I printed from Chinuch.org.  Our tablecloth fabric is filled with hieroglyphics, and usually the children create place cards in hieroglyphics.
  • Challenging participants to put themselves in the place of those leaving Egypt through interactive activities. In recent years, I have ordered some blank papyrus pages from Egypt (via eBay) and distributed them in advance, asking all seder participants to draw a scene that they “remember” from either their slavery in or their exodus from Egypt.  These papyri also grace our dining room walls.  The assignment gives children of all ages the opportunity to use their imagination, draw about and then teach others at the seder an aspect of the story, perhaps based on a midrash that they find meaningful. Toward a similar end, each participant in the seder is asked to bring two items that they took with them out of Egypt.  Before the seder, all the items are loaded into a pillow case.  At various points throughout the seder, we take turns pulling items from the pillowcase.  Each person removes an item and guesses who put it in and why.  The person who put the item in then explains her own thinking.
  • Using Knowledge of Ancient Egypt to Deepen Understanding.  Children think of frogs as cute, and we have a plethora of stuffed and plastic frogs on our table, but why in the world did God choose to visit the Egyptians with frogs?  It turns out that the Egyptians had a female frog god named Heqet, associated with fertility and midwives. The irony is evident, as Tikvah Weiner, a Jewish educator and educational leader at The Frisch School, notes in her powerpoint presentation (below) on the Ten Plagues.  The Egyptians tried to end Jewish fertility and were defeated by the courage of the Jewish midwives.  In return, the Egyptians received a destructive outpouring of the frogs that symbolize the fertility they believed that Heqet controlled.Since much of the seder story is intended to showcase the Almighty’s ability to crush the Egyptian deities (including Pharaoh, who saw himself as a god), we have a five-foot poster of King Tut on the dining room wall.  As we recite the Ten Plagues and understand the meaning of each one, we slowly cover over King Tut with velcroed pages that describe the plagues.  By the end of the ten plagues, we have visually erased the magnificence of King Tut with the power of God’s plagues.

I could say more about our seder and am happy to link to a presentation by a friend (who prefers anonymity) from which I drew some of my dining room decorations. But I want to return to the larger point: Judaism always viewed parents as the primary educators of their children.  Yeshivot and day schools were introduced “only” 2,000 years ago, when it became clear that not every child could get the necessary education from the home.  Seder is a night when we take back our role as parent-educators.

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes the Passover seder as the “oldest, continuously observed religious ritual in the world.”  It is spine-tingling to realize that the Jewish people – we – are the source of the world’s longest-running religious practice, which celebrates another of our contributions to world history: the concept of political freedom.  However, Rabbi Sacks’ word “ritual” can set us off-track.  As parent-educators, we have the ability to help our children and guests experience the Exodus not as a long-ago, dead event but as a fun and living framework for our own lives and place within the Jewish people.

Chag Same’ach!

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