When Jewish Foundations Ignore Core Needs


Gary Rosenblatt’s column on foundations’ priorities in “Why Funders Need to Embrace Failure” (Jan. 6) will hopefully set off a discussion about basic community needs and how we can do better in the future. Most of the large Jewish foundations are caught up in funding “cutting-edge” or “funky” Jewish trends and social networking projects. While some are successful in building new models that have real impact, many duplicate existing efforts or, worse yet, miss the boat entirely.   

Helping the Jewish needy is simply not “sexy” enough for the big Jewish foundations. To be sure, there are some bold and brave ones that take a chance on programs to combat hunger; to fight domestic violence; and even to provide effective career counseling. But for the most part, they have been let off the hook by Jewish communal leaders and even by the Jewish media that dare not challenge the funding giants.

The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty (www.metcouncil.org), which I lead, has the track record to demonstrate program and service-efficacy and results. That includes recognition from government and private funders, particularly the metrics-oriented Robin Hood Foundation, with which we have partnered on several programs for more than five years. Remarkably, some Jewish foundations tell us they are “turned off by the word Jewish” in our name. Others tell us they like to pursue an “out of the box” approach, which seems to mean that feeding, housing or clothing the needy don’t fit in their plans.

I actually thought some large Jewish foundations would step up when the economy fell apart in 2008 and the government began to implement serious reductions to services that helped us serve thousands of needy New Yorkers (the majority of them Jewish). Instead, we got responses like “this doesn’t ‘build the field’” or “while we are impressed with your important work, it does not fit our criteria for new and engaging programming…”

I genuinely believe Jewish organizations (and foundations) need to take real risk to become better at what they do. That’s why Met Council went from a small kosher food pantry program serving 200 households in 2002 to helping 15,000-plus households today; that’s why we invested energy and effort in building nearly 2,000 units of affordable housing in a city where it is the number one issue for every demographic in need; that’s why we began training underemployed individuals in electronic medical/health records immediately after national health care reform was passed. We take risks everyday to better serve the poor, the working poor and even the middle-class needy. UJA-Federation of New York deserves credit for believing in and helping in these efforts.

Met Council responds in real time to community crisis, so we must be cutting edge to implement solutions quickly, raise funds continually (especially as government cuts place our programs under serious assault); and attract and retain the dedicated staff to put the pedal to the metal every day.

After speaking at a 2010 conference about our work, I met with a lay leader of the Jewish Federations of North America who has a large foundation. He was surprised that he hadn’t known of our organization; his suggestion to me was “get some big celebrity behind your cause because we want young people to get interested and they can get to young people.” 

I have also been told that that “Jewish poverty groups need to spend more time attracting support by hosting retreats at resorts and lectures at university clubs.” 

It is shortsighted to think that helping the needy isn’t “sexy” or doesn’t build Jewish continuity. We now have 3,945 volunteers who contribute 6,876 hours annually. The majority are young Jews in their 20s and 30s right here in New York City. Their impact is even greater than their numbers. But the greatest effect volunteering has — especially on teenagers from every religious denomination — is what it teaches volunteers about “chesed” and “tzedakah.” It also teaches them that “tikkun olam” is not a buzzword or something you do in another country as a one-shot, but something you can do regularly. 

There are extraordinary Jewish communal leaders — along with some foundations, to be sure — who have taken the gamble to help us expand our food, housing, crisis intervention and employment programs. Their work reminds us of the biblical Joseph, who helped saved Egypt from famine. On being reunited with his brothers he tells them ki l’michya sheechanu Elokim lifnetchem, that it was to preserve life that he was sent to be in this position by God. 

The heads of our Jewish foundations would be wise to take note that attending conventions at resorts and looking for “out of the box” or “cutting edge” programs with minimal impact is not why they were chosen to lead.

William E. Rapfogel is the executive director and CEO of Met Council on Jewish Poverty.