Jewish Milestones scales back as seed funding runs dry

The agency that helps Bay Area Jews reinvent Jewish ritual is undergoing its own reinvention.

Jewish Milestones has scaled back its staff and programming as a result of the economic downturn’s impact on its funding sources. Rachel Brodie, the nonprofit’s founding director, likens the process to clicking a Web browser’s “refresh” button. She views the changes as temporary.

“We’re not going underground,” Brodie said. The organization is “restructuring, but our vision remains the same.”

Jewish Milestones is a six-year-old Berkeley-based nonprofit that guides unaffiliated individuals and families through lifecycle events, while also promoting the idea that Jewish life is bigger than any one institution or denomination can represent.

The drop in funding was “a perfect storm with the economy,” Brodie said.

Essentially, Milestones’ seed funding dried up at the same time many foundations — pinched from the recession — decided not to take on any new grantees. This one-two punch left Jewish Milestones with a shrunken budget and staff.

Jewish Milestones director Rachel Brodie (from left) and board members Amy Mezey, Ken Kramarz, Rabbi Dan Goldblatt and Toby Rubin stand for aliyah during its Torah dedication in December 2008.

The downsizing has been abrupt for Jewish Milestones, which thrived before the recession.

Last summer, the organization was awarded its first national grant. Also in 2009, for the fifth consecutive year, the Slingshot Fund named Milestones one of the 50 most creative and effective Jewish organizations in North America.

Meanwhile, Milestones had grown to its biggest staff ever — five employees — in response to increased community need. Thousands have used Jewish Milestones’ resources since its founding.

Today, Milestones is operating with  two-thirds of its former $300,000 budget.

Brodie is the only remaining paid staffer. Milestones let go of its administrative assistant in January, chief operating officer in February, program director in April and education specialist in May.

Before Milestones scaled back, “in some ways, we were in the best position we had ever been in — demand for services was way up, we had a stable staff and a brand new board,” Brodie said. “That is the irony that has made this so particularly painful.”

Jewish Milestones needs second-stage, or mezzanine, funding. This is not easy to find in the Jewish nonprofit world, said Jonathan Woocher, chief ideas officer at the Lippman Kanfer Insitute, a think tank in New York focused on Jewish education and researching this very issue with other New York nonprofits.

When new nonprofits begin to seek funding, they are eligible for seed grants, which typically last three to five years. An organization that outlives the life of its start-up grant has proven it can succeed, but it can’t always find the continued support to do so, Woocher said.

“There are very few sources of funding to take organizations to the next level,” he said. “Funders are very interested in working with fledgling projects in their early stages, but it takes more resources and funding over a longer period to really grow something.”

In the spring, Milestones learned that not all of its funding would evaporate.

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund gave Milestones a $25,000, one-year extension of its three-year seed grant, while the Walter and Elise Haas Fund awarded a one-year $65,000 grant for operations, among other smaller grants.

But the funding is not enough to keep afloat its most popular offering: the Jewish Milestones referral service. Brodie is reluctantly putting it on hold.

“In theory we’re not taking calls, but we are — we really don’t know how to say ‘no’ at this point because we have no other place to send them,” Brodie said.

The referral service is personalized to each caller, and the process can be time-consuming, which “makes it very expensive,” Brodie added.

Milestones spends as many hours as necessary on the phone or in person with people, helping them understand the wide diversity of Jewish rituals available for lifecycle events.

“Most people don’t even know what their options are — they think that what they know is all there is,” Brodie said. “We are empowering people to be active participants in their own lifecycle events.”

Unchanged is the organization’s lending library of books, articles, music and ritual objects (still free and available to the public) and its community Torah, which continues to be on loan nearly every weekend.

While Milestones temporarily “refreshes,” Brodie is looking to create a revenue source with its Chemotherapy Siddur, which is available for purchase and potentially could generate funding.

Brodie is focusing on putting more resources on Jewishmilestones.org, though notes it’s “not a substitute” for personalized referrals.

She also is writing and speaking about what she’s learned during the six years she’s worked with thousands of disaffected, unaffiliated and disconnected Jews across the Bay Area.

If she secures multiyear, stable funding streams, she’ll be back in full force.

This is music to the ears of Toby Rubin, founding CEO of Upstart Bay Area, which provides support for early-stage Jewish nonprofits. She has worked with Milestones in the past.

“There’s no failure in my mind when considering the impact Jewish Milestones has had on the people they have served,” she said.

“The rest of the community also has benefited from the knowledge Jewish Milestones has gained and generously shared,” Rubin added. “Our failure as a community is in not being prepared to provide access to resources for the longer term to those innovators, like Jewish Milestones, who have demonstrated significant impact with their new programs and services.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.