Finestone standing in a library
Jim Joseph Foundation President and CEO Barry Finestone

Q&A: With new grants, Jim Joseph Foundation broadens its idea of Jewish education

What constitutes Jewish education, and what’s the best way to fund it?

That’s been the central concern of the San Francisco-based Jim Joseph Foundation since its inception in 2006. In its 11 years, the foundation has given away more than $450 million to train Jewish educators and expand opportunities for Jewish learning among children and young adults, making it one of the leading forces in growing the field of Jewish education in America. With four $100,000 grants announced this week for Jewish digital initiatives — two in the Bay Area — the foundation continues to broaden its funding umbrella.

Last fall, founding executive director Chip Edelsberg stepped down to make way for Barry Finestone, who in November became the foundation’s first president and CEO. New leadership inevitably brings change, so J. sat down with Finestone recently to talk about his vision for the foundation’s future.

J.: The Jim Joseph Foundation has a very narrow focus — Jewish education — and focuses on relatively few grantees — giving large grants, often for multiple years, to less than three dozen organizations. Is this an advantage, a disadvantage, or both?

Barry Finestone: I find that it keeps you very, very focused within the wide world of philanthropy. And within that narrow focus, there’s a lot of work to be done. Also, it doesn’t allow for “mission creep.” Many of my colleagues are recalibrating what they’re doing in light of national and international events; their approach is that you need to do different things to survive. We have a slightly different approach.

In its first few years, the foundation focused on teens and young adults. In the past five years there has been a marked increase in funding for early childhood education. Why the shift?

An area we’re beginning to look at is families with young children. It’s a recognition that education takes place both in formal settings and within the family. We are now piloting some grants in that arena.

I suppose you are referring to the $100,000 one-year grants you announced this week to four Jewish digital education initiatives: in the Bay Area, BimBam, Sarah Lefton’s video animation series; and Let It Ripple, Tiffany Shlain’s film project that explores character development through a Jewish lens. In thanking you, Jordan Gill, BimBam’s managing director, said that digital was the next frontier in Jewish education. (The other two grantees are 70 Faces Media and the Jewish Education Project, both based in the greater New York area.)

Right, these are good examples of how broad Jewish education can be. The Jewish world has evolved, and we need to be at the leading edge of that. Fifteen years ago if you had said “Jewish farming,” I would have said, “What do you mean?” And now there’s an entire field. The question is, what’s the next field?

So, what is the next field?

(Laughs) The Jewish world tends to react a lot. A problem occurs, we react to it. Amazing things have happened because of that — we worried about young people’s connection to Israel, and [in 2000] Birthright came out of it. But I’m exploring the notion of being more proactive. See what’s around the corner, be a little adventurous. Philanthropy doesn’t have to worry about raising money each year [like our grantees do]. So philanthropy has a responsibility — we have the ability to take risks, and we should take risks. Stay true to your core, but see what’s coming and take more risks.

In one document, the foundation states its goal of “serving as a model of effective philanthropy.” What does that mean to you?

I don’t know that I’d say we want to “serve as a model,” but we are interested in really effective philanthropy. We see ourselves as constantly in partnership with the ecosystem we live and work in — internally with staff and our board, externally with our grantees and other funding partners.

Our team spends an inordinate amount of time with our grantees, not in the “sausage making,” but we’re not up in the penthouse looking down either. I give tremendous credit to my predecessors Chip Edelsberg and [former board chair] Al Levitt for building really close relationships with our grantees, to understand where we can add value. In the future, we might have to recalibrate, going even narrower and deeper with fewer grantees.

For example, recently we have given large grants to BBYO, Hillel, Leading Edge and Moishe House — we gave more than $8 million to BBYO last year to help them get from 20,000 to 40,000 teens. We liked what we saw with these groups, so we made deeper commitments.

Until now, the foundation has not accepted unsolicited grant applications. But recently the foundation announced its first two Requests for Proposals (RFPs), for leadership and development programs in Jewish education. How does that fit into future funding priorities?

Leadership is increasingly a focus for us — making sure there’s a pipeline in place. There are a lot of retiring Jewish professionals out there. The seminaries and universities that are producing Jewish educators are delivering quality people, but not enough. The broader issue is, why don’t our best and brightest come to work in the Jewish world? Part of it is the salaries, but it’s also not quite seen as “My son the doctor.” People don’t place value on working in the Jewish world. It’s not like at 19 I said, I want to be a Jewish professional. But it’s been an amazing career path. I’m very lucky, very happy.

Having spent most of my career on the other side of the table, I have deep respect for the people running the Jewish nonprofit world— the people running our JCCs, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the newspapers. They are incredible people. The pressures today are so great. Whatever we can do to support them, as philanthropy and a community, we should do.

In sum, how do you see the Jim Joseph Foundation leading the way in developing and pursuing new visions for Jewish education?

There’s a lot we don’t know. Philanthropy doesn’t have the answers. It goes back to the notion of partnership and collaboration. Over the next few years you’ll see more convenings, more conferences, people getting into a room and having real dialogue about what it will take to move our community forward.

We’re not spending down. Success for us is not about giving away money, but how we leverage those dollars in collaboration with other funders. We give away about $50 million a year. Imagine what the world of Jewish education would look like if that were $200 million.

I’d like to look back in 10 years and see that our dollars leveraged a whole lot of other dollars. That’s success. It will be a challenge, because many of the larger philanthropies are spending down. The RFPs we just announced are an attempt to source new and compelling ideas. Philanthropy has to see part of its work as being the venture capital of the Jewish education world. If we’re not going to invest, who will? It might not always work, but sometimes it will.

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Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.