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With New Structure, Foundation Emerges As Major Education Donor

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Since its founding in 1987, the Jim Joseph Foundation has been a modest trust making gifts to American Jewish organizations that, largely, focus on Jewish education. But when Joseph died in 2003, he left the foundation assets worth in excess of a half billion dollars. Now, insiders are saying, the trust — recently incorporated as a private foundation — has entered the big leagues, joining the Bronfmans and the Schustermans and the Steinhardts as among the largest and, potentially, most influential funders on the Jewish philanthropic scene.

“I think there’s no question about it: This is a major player entering the field,” said Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network. “This is emerging as one of the largest Jewish foundations in the world — and especially one that is dedicated to core Jewish causes, which puts it in the position of potentially having enormous impact.”

Before his untimely death in 2003, Jim Joseph, an enormously successful real estate developer in the San Francisco Bay area, had funded a variety of initiatives aimed at supporting the education of Jewish children and youth in America — programs that were both religious and secular, formal and informal.

Each year the foundation gave out $500,000-$1 million, in addition to personal gifts from Joseph. By 2007, in accordance with U.S. law — which requires such foundations to disburse 5 percent of their assets annually — the Jim Joseph Foundation is likely to be giving out at least $25 million each year.

As per Joseph’s instructions, the incorporated foundation will continue its focus on initiatives for the young, making good on prior commitments to organizations like the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education and the Curriculum Initiative, as well as searching out new groups.

“We’re really trying to make sure” that Joseph’s “vision of touching every Jewish child in this country comes true,” said Al Levitt, chairman of the foundation’s board and a longtime confidant of Joseph.

That means the organization may give money to everything from day schools to Jewish camps to pre-schools and beyond, Levitt said.

Joseph often conferred with advisers before making his gifts, but the bottom-line decisions were left up to him. Now, the non-profit entity that existed during Joseph’s lifetime has been succeeded by a charitable trust to be headed beginning in April by Chip Edelsberg, vice president at the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland.

First and foremost, Edelsberg said, the foundation is seeking counsel on “what is most important and most promising,” particularly in Jewish education.

“Ideally by the end of the year,” we’ll be “able to say, ‘Here’s where we believe the foundation has its greatest opportunities over, hypothetically, the next 20-40 months,’ ” he said.

We’re “taking some serious time to plan,” he added. “We’ll invite knowledgeable people to talk to us” to find out “what’s happening in the United States in programming for Jewish children and youth.”

Among the things they must decide is exactly what “children and youth” means: Does it include pre-schoolers? College students?

If the definition does include Jewish college students, “it could lead us to consider being a funder of birthright,” Edelsberg said, referring to the birthright israel program, which provides free trips to Israel for Jews age 18 to 26.

Levitt said that the foundation, which will make grants by invitation only, hopes to partner with other foundations.

“It became clear that a lot of the grants that foundations make are scattered; they don’t really hit the mark,” he said. “Jim was really interested in having projects that affected a great number of children, and one of the best ways to do this is through partnering with other foundations.”

Joseph was president and founder of Interland Corporation, a developer of investment properties headquartered in San Mateo, Calif. He served on many charitable boards and focused on aiding Jewish youth and elderly.

“He was a very strong figure fighting for, as it were, universal Jewish education, and was leading the charge to make sure that those of us who were involved in it worked more cooperatively toward creating that vision,” said Steve Kraus, director of day school, congregational and communal education initiatives at JESNA, the Jewish Education Service of North America.

Kraus said JESNA officials held a series of meeting with Joseph prior to his death about bringing together JESNA, the religious movements and the central agencies for Jewish education to work toward improving the quality of congregational education.

“When he died, we had not solidified that whole area,” Kraus said. “What we are seeing on the national scene is a renewed interest in congregational education. We’re hoping that” the Joseph Foundation’s “new direction and their new funding opportunities will continue along those lines.”

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