NEW ORLEANS, La. (JTA) — Just down the road from where the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America had concluded a day earlier, more than a thousand of the federation system’s most generous women found a philanthropic sanctuary of their own.
At the Hilton Hotel here, the International Lion of Judah Conference drew about 1,100 of the women that the federation system refers to as “lions” — those who give at least $5,000 each year to the system — for a number of sessions dedicated to showcasing the best of what that system supports and highlighting some of the interesting projects women are running in the broader Jewish nonprofit world.
They told stories about strong women and mothers. And at a conference without men, the humor was decidedly female-centric: Comic Judy Gold, performing at its closing gala, got her biggest laugh in response to a joke involving a yeast infection and Passover.
The absence of men was vitally important to making the five-day event a success, said guests at the Nov. 10 closing gala at the Hilton.
“You can let your hair down more,” Shanny Morgenstern, the president of women’s philanthropy at the Kansas City federation, told JTA.
While annual campaigns have fallen across the country with the recession, women’s giving to the federation has held steady over the past two years, said Kim Fish, the senior director of national women’s philanthropy for the Jewish Federations of North America.
The lions made $19.1 million in pledges over the course of their conference — a 12 percent increase compared to their last get-together in late 2008, just before the recession took hold. In the Big Easy, their average gift was more than $17,000.
The Lion of Judah has become something of a cultural phenomenon within the federation world since Norma Wilson came up with the concept in Miami in 1972.
Her idea was to spur giving by rewarding women who gave $5,000 or more with a gold brooch featuring a roaring lion and a diamond eye. As the idea spread from federation to federation the lion evolved, with the diamond eye turning into a ruby for a gift of $10,000, a sapphire for $18,000 and an emerald for $25,000. The lion turns platinum if a woman has given a gift of more than $100,000 — and if a woman endows her gift, the philanthropic feline gets a little gold torch to hold in its outstretched paw.
And while the GA, the annual conference for the federation system’s lay and professional leaders, is more about the system’s functionality, best practices and policy, the biannual Lion of Judah conference is strictly about fund raising — and instilling a sense of feminine camaraderie in some of the most generous benefactors of the multibillion-dollar per year charitable system.
“It’s about sisterhood,” Bari Freiden, a Lion from Kansas City, told JTA between sessions. “You are all the same because you are at a certain giving level or above no matter where you are from. You recognize a lion and all of a sudden you have a connection.”
The idea has worked — big time. The federations may do a better job of raising money from women than any other philanthropy, Jewish or not. About 17,000 women in the United States have become Lions, and they provide the core of the $180 million raised by the federations through their women’s philanthropy campaign.
All told, giving by women accounts for about 23 percent of the annual $900 million general campaign, according to Fish.
At federations like the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, the women’s campaign brings in about 40 percent of the organization’s overall annual campaign, according to Steve Rakitt, the federation’s president.
While some insiders openly wondered whether federations should have spent more time at the GA working on how to articulate their story more clearly, the system clearly knew how to pitch its Lions. Their conference this year was orchestrated to put the federations front and center, and to pull at the heartstrings of its participants.
Sessions ranging from “Slim Peace: Diet for a Peaceful Planet” to “Strong Women and ‘Lipstick’ Leadership” to “Business Women and Politics” generally avoided becoming bogged down in philanthropic theory, instead focusing on making the attendees aware of the more interesting programs being funded by the federations. The sessions told the stories of the programs through women’s voices.
For example, during one session, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — one of the federation system’s two main overseas partners — focused on a woman it rescued from Georgia and another it saved from Bosnia. The session also highlighted the generosity of Anne Heyman, a major funder who worked with the JDC to establish the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda for orphans of the country’s genocide.
Each presentation drew more on the emotional than on nuts and bolts — and each included a pitch for the federation system.
Plenary sessions were more about positioning the federation and the Lion of Judah as not just organizations offering opportunities to donate to good works, but also venues for making friends and empowering women through philanthropy.
Having no men around was key, participants said.
“You can say things you wouldn’t necessarily say with men there,” said Morgenstern of the Kansas City federation. “If there would be men, the women would be less open to share.”
“It is an exclusive network both because it is women and the giving dollar amount,” said Freiden, a fellow Kansas City lion.
And while that included a bit of feminine high-jinks on Bourbon Street that both acknowledged, the conference all led up to a caucus closed not only to the press but also to all but the highest-level staff, at which the women poured out their hearts and opened their checkbooks.
After spending five days hearing about the power of the federations and of being women associated with the federations, the Lions broke into groups. The women sat in a circle and, one by one, told their stories about how their local federation had personally touched them.
The caucus became a tear-filled affair as the women related their intensely personal stories — and made financial pledges to their local federations, often disclosing the dollar amount or at least the percentage of increase over their last pledge, according to several participants.
Despite the success, some federation insiders say the model would need to be tweaked to attract a younger generation. This year the conference included a service project in which Lions, in partnership with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s PJ Library, handed out backpacks of books to underprivileged New Orleans children as the federations become convinced that service is the gateway to a younger generation.
But for now, the federations are banking on inspiring more giving through sisterhood.
“If you put women in a situation where there is abundance and where they can all succeed, they are incredibly cooperative and helpful to each other,” Freiden said. “Whereas if you are in a situation where you are taking from my cubs, they come out with their claws. Here it doesn’t hurt us to share good things. It helps us and we help each other.”
(This article was adapted from The Fundermentalist newsletter; sign up at Fundermentalist.com.)