Creative Thinkers Get Big Bucks


Continuing a trend among philanthropies to highlight and support the creative work of individual thinkers and activists, the Avi Chai Foundation this week announced the first winners of its new Fellows program.

The recipients and their projects are: Ariel Beery and Aharon Horwitz of New York and Jerusalem, respectively, to expand PresenTense Magazine and their PresenTense Initiative for Creative Zionism; Betsy Dolgin Katz of Highland Park, Ill., to write a book about adult Jewish learning in America; Rabbi Elie Kaunfer of New York to expand Yeshivat Hadar, an egalitarian local yeshiva he helped found; Rabbi Dov Linzer of Riverdale, to create a rabbinical school curriculum for Orthodox rabbis to gain training as educators; and Rabbi Menachem Schmidt of Philadelphia to expand his innovative programming
in outreach work on campuses and in communities.

Each winner (or team, as in the case of Beery and Horwitz) will receive $75,000 a year for up to three years as an investment in emerging Jewish leadership, according to Avi Chai officials. They said the fellowship is “unique” and is “the largest cash award to emerging communal and educational leaders within the North American Jewish community,” with a commitment of about $3 million over three years.

At a ceremony at Avi Chai headquarters in New York on Monday, Chairman Arthur Fried said awarding individuals was “a new strategy” for the foundation, which has been “project driven” until now, primarily in the areas of Jewish education and camping.
“We are investing in you and the things you do,” he told the winners, who were nominated in a secretive process that began last December. They did not know of or apply for the fellowship until last month.

Noting that Avi Chai intends to spend down its funds by 2020, Fried said that by then, there could be 60 fellows, ensuring a creative impact on the community long after the foundations ceases its allocations.

Other recent awards showcasing individuals include Brandeis University’s Charles R. Bronfman Visiting Chair in Jewish Communal Innovation, the Charles Bronfman Prize for visionary leaders under 40 and the Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Six Points Fellowships for young artists.
Each of the winners spoke briefly about his or her work on Monday. Beery and Horwitz, who met and became friends at Columbia University several years ago, described their goal of combining a magazine, Web site and institute that brings young innovators to Israel for mentoring.

Katz, the North American director of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, said she plans to write a book that will be part memoir tracing her many years teaching adult Jewish education and part thoughts on the profession, drawing on the philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig.

Rabbi Kaunfer said he has devoted his life to creating areligious egalitarian Jewish society and “the best way to do that,” he said, is to expand the yeshiva he directs from summers-only to year-round.

Rabbi Linzer, rosh yeshiva and dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah here, said his plan is to develop pedagogical curriculum for rabbis because most of them have little training in that area, and the course would better prepare them for teaching in day schools and yeshivas.

Rabbi Schmidt, whose Jewish Heritage Program in Philadelphia is an outgrowth of his activities as a Chabad Lubavitch emissary, said one project he will expand is geared toward the many non-observant Jews who attend openings on Friday night in the art district, and another is to further develop the peer-to-peer networking and mentoring methods he uses to reach young Jews.

Fried said he hoped the fellows program will “light a match” and serve as a catalyst for other foundations to focus on nurturing creative individuals in the Jewish community.
When asked how their mothers reacted on being told they were winners, one of the awardees, noting the secrecy of the process, deadpanned, “I would have loved to tell her but I couldn’t.”