New Jim Joseph grant shows that pluralism pays

The Jim Joseph Foundation, which is cementing its position as one of the most significant Jewish foundations around, gave out another big grant this week — $12 million to three Jewish seminaries to help recruit and train new educators across the denominational spectrum.

The grants will be given over a five-year period to the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the Modern Orthodox Yeshiva University. Much of the money will go to scholarships for students at the three seminaries.

But there is an interesting and significant stipulation in the grant, which picks up on a trend that seems to be gaining momentum as the recession takes hold: The foundation has required that the institutions collaborate to develop innovative best practices and technologies for advancing Jewish teaching. This wasn’t a throw-in clause by any means, the president of the Jim Joseph Foundation, Chip Edelsberg, told me this week. The grant "absolutely would not" have happened without it.

Cross-denominational collaboration is not unprecedented, but it’s certainly becoming more en-vogue as money in the Jewish organized world has become tighter. Just last week we read that day school networks associated with several denominations would be holding one joint conference this year instead of several separate conferences.

Edelsberg and the Jim Joseph Foundation believe they have a magic combination for collaboration in the leaderships of the three seminaries. YU’s Richard Joel, JTS’s Arnold Eisen and HUC’s David Ellenson were among the 10 "madrichim," or counselors, whose advice and counsel the foundation sought when it was launched slightly more than three years ago. This grant has long been in the works, and Joel, Eisen and Ellenson and the leaderships of their schools have been in conversation for months about how collaboration could work.

"As the conversation was developing, they said, ‘Look, we have the potential for something historic,’ " Edelsberg said. "They are suggesting there is an opportunity here to do something historic. Their directors were focused on what we can do together. That has become sharper in focus by virtue of the economic free fall."

While some foundations and donors have gone quiet with the recession, Jim Joseph is one of the foundations that has been spending aggressively over the past year and is trying to spur others to do the same.

Foundations, Edelsberg says, have a golden opportunity here to really prove their mettle and effect change. In this case, the three major seminaries have the opportunity to use the recession as a starting point for adapting to a Jewish community that he sees as becoming increasingly post-denominational.

A lot of money also may hang on whether the three schools can actually work together, as the foundation seems poised to make a much larger investment in them, at least according to some vague language in the news release announcing the grants:

"The grants represent the launch of a long-term investment the foundation plans to make in these three grand institutions," the release says.

If the initial investment is $12 million, one can safely assume that long-term investment could at least triple that figure.
 

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