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Philanthropists put money where their mouths are

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NEW YORK, Nov. 2 (JTA) — A coalition of Jewish philanthropies is putting its money where its mouth is.

An advertisement signed by 11 Jewish foundations calls on Jews to speak respectfully to one another in public, in accordance with Jewish tradition.

The group brings together some of the biggest names in philanthropy – including Steven Spielberg, Judy and Michael Steinhardt and Ronald Lauder – in pledging to foster open dialogue in the Jewish community and to withhold grants from groups that engage in uncivil discourse.

“A diversity of views is a sign of healthy debate. Sensationalism and slander are not,” reads the ad, which was set to run this week in 35 Jewish newspapers in the United States and Canada.

The advertisement marks an uncommon alliance of Jewish philanthropic organizations to take unified action to influence the Jewish community as a whole.

Those involved say it is meant to encourage other foundations and Jewish community federations to join in the pledge,

The idea to promote civil speech as a criterion for Jewish grant making did not stem from any one incident, said Michael Charendoff, the vice president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, one of the participating philanthropies.

Instead, the “joint pledge on unity and civility” grew out of a realization that hostile rhetoric can have “disastrous consequences,” he said, citing the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the rancorous debate in Israel and North America over religious pluralism and the question of “Who Is a Jew.”

“There should be economic consequences when people speak irresponsibly about other members and groups in the Jewish community,” Charendoff said.

Each individual foundation signing the pledge will determine its own criteria for grant-making, but all agree that institutions or their representatives who engage in irresponsible rhetoric will be viewed “with disfavor.”

The ad is not meant as a threat so much as a clear statement, said Sanford Cardin, executive director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

As funders, Cardin said, foundations have limited ability to influence the organizations with which they work, but setting criteria for awarding grants is one effective way to “get the message across.”

The pledge draws on traditional Jewish values as the basis for civil discourse in the community.

“Family and friends can argue,” the ad says.

“It is our fervent desire to see those arguments become like the disputes of Hillel and Shammai: disputes for the sake of heaven,” it continues, referring to the famous rabbis who took divergent views on religious practice.

“Every now and then, we all need to be reminded that we’re all one Jewish family,” Cardin said.

The complete list of civility pledge signatories are: the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies; the J.E. & Z.B. Butler Foundation Inc.; the Dobkin Family Foundation; the Jesselson Family Foundation; the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation; Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation; the Sapirstein-Stone-Weiss Foundation; the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation; Jewish Life Network: A Judy and Michael Steinhardt Foundation; Synagogue Transformation and Renewal (STAR); and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation Inc.

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