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Women’s foundations: new twist in Jewish giving

NEW YORK, April 16 (JTA) – Counseling that helps fervently Orthodox high school girls prepare for careers compatible with an observant lifestyle.

Outreach programs that welcome lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Jewish women into synagogues.

A Web site that provides Israeli women – particularly low-income ones – and health professionals with access to medical information, especially on gender-specific diseases like breast cancer.

These are some of the new initiatives emerging from a burgeoning philanthropic phenomenon: Jewish women’s foundations.

Since the establishment of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York in 1995, similar philanthropies have cropped up throughout the United States, with a total of $20 million in assets.

There are now 10 such foundations, with the largest ones in New York, Chicago, Detroit and Boston. Plans are under way for seven more foundations, including ones in Pittsburgh, San Diego, Miami and Broward County, Fla., according to the Washington-based Dobkin Family Foundation.

Most of these foundations fall under the auspices of Jewish federations, though the largest fund – worth $10 million – is an offshoot of Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America.

Hadassah’s foundation, which funds projects in Israel and the United States, emerged from a strategic plan aimed at making the group more relevant to contemporary women.

In a sign of the foundations’ coming-of-age, 50 women gathered in Atlanta recently for a national planning session for Jewish women’s foundations convened by the Dobkin Family Foundation and the Jewish Funders Network.

For the most part, the new foundations focus on projects that advance the status and self-esteem of Jewish women and girls. The issues they tackle range from domestic violence to eating disorders to glass ceilings in Jewish organizations.

“I’ve been involved in Jewish philanthropy for a long time and knew all about raising money, but had no idea how exciting it would be just to concentrate on the issues out there confronting Jewish women,” said Arlene Wittels, one of the founders of New York’s foundation.

Jewish women “seem to be the most pampered and most petted population in the country, but there are a lot of fissures there,” Wittels said. “Our foundation and other women’s foundations are filling those cracks.”

In addition to drawing attention and resources to Jewish women’s issues, the new philanthropies also are attracting more women to the Jewish organizational world.

Laura Kaufman, the executive director of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, sees herself as an example. A longtime activist in the women’s movement, this job is Kaufman’s first foray into Jewish communal work.

She was drawn to the new foundation out of an interest in reconnecting Jewishly, as well as a frustration that mainstream women’s foundations – which often are willing to fund other subgroups – have been reluctant to support projects addressing Jewish concerns, Kaufman said.

“The wonderful thing about the Jewish women’s foundation in Chicago is we’re getting just about every kind of woman you can think of – ones who’ve been active in federation for years and women who’ve never been involved and may never have made a gift to the annual campaign and see the foundation as a new entry to Jewish communal life,” Kaufman said. “It’s exciting for women to sit in a room that’s multigenerational, where women come from different experiences, but are all Jewish.”

Some federations feared that women’s foundations would compete with their annual campaigns, but the foundation leaders – and some major federation heads – say such worries have not materialized.

Steven Nasatir, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, proposed the idea of a local Jewish women’s foundation after hearing about New York’s.

“I was convinced an initiative of this sort would have no negative impact on the campaign,” Nasatir said. “Not only hasn’t it had a negative impact, it has had a positive impact. It’s attracted the attention of strong women involved in federation and also people who are less involved. Once they have a positive sense in one thing it often carries over into another.”

New York’s Wittels said many of the trustees who joined her foundation were not federation donors, but 95 percent now give to the federation campaign.

Nonetheless, tensions could emerge between the upstart foundations – generally oriented toward social change – and their host federations, which Nancy Schwartz Sternoff, director of the Dobkin Family Foundation, described as “male dominated,” “risk-averse” and “more focused on direct services than social change.”

“When your host is all those adjectives, how do you as a foundation within that organization” stay “edgy, how do you push the envelope?” Sternoff asked.

“When the women’s foundation funds a lesbian empowerment project, how does that resonate with the board of the federation?” she continued.

Still, she said, “what we’ve heard is there has never been a ‘You can’t do that’ ” from the federations. “There may have been a few raised eyebrows, but so far their autonomy has been respected.”

Those involved say the new foundations have supported projects that were unlikely to win enough backing from mainstream funders.

Sally Gottesman, chair of a pilot project organizing Rosh Chodesh groups for teen-age girls, said the project – funded primarily by Hadassah and the Chicago foundation – probably would not have been able to get off the ground without Jewish women’s foundations.

“I really think women’s foundations get it, in a way others don’t,” Gottesman said.

However, Chicago’s Kaufman said she does not want “Jewish women’s foundations to become an excuse for no one else funding these things.”

Rather, she hopes the new initiatives will get funding from federations and mainstream philanthropies as well. That has happened with Girls Informed for Tomorrow, a project offering career counseling to Orthodox girls.

But is there a danger that the foundations will make women too narrow in their philanthropic outlook, funding only issues of concern to women and girls, when the Jewish community faces broader concerns?

Barbara Dobkin, a longtime funder and champion of Jewish feminist causes, said the women’s foundations are a small redress to the fact that the vast majority of Jewish women don’t fund Jewish women’s causes at all.

“It’s very, very difficult to get money for women’s and girls’ issues in the Jewish community, especially if they’re feminist issues,” Dobkin said. “To start a women’s organization and not do an endowment is irresponsible, because people aren’t standing in line to follow you.”

And do men now need their own foundations? After all, several new books have been published about Jewish men, and some Jewish leaders are raising concerns that boys, particularly teen-agers and college students, are far less active in Jewish life than girls.

According to Kaufman, new foundations focusing on male issues would be fine.

“The most productive way to benefit everyone is to start asking the gender question about women,” she continued. “We’re not going to fund programs for boys, but if others start asking about that and funding that, I’d be thrilled.”

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