SoCap Shabbat puts focus on Jewish lens for investing

The Bay Area Jewish community has been successful at generating its own versions of many cultural trends. “We have Jewish yoga, Jewish organic farming and even Jewish pop-up stores here,” said Julie Hammerman, the founder of the JLens Investor Network. “But we don’t have engaged Jewish investing.”  

Seeking to fill this gap, Hammerman created JLens in 2012, and soon she plans to launch the first-ever Jewish mutual fund.

 

Julie Hammerman speaks at “SoCap Shabbat.” photo/peter marcus

On Sept. 5, the plan was more simple: a panel discussion and breakout sessions about investing in accordance with Jewish values.

 

The timing of the meeting was just as interesting as the topic, as it followed a big conference in San Francisco called Social Capital Markets 2014, or “SoCap14.” The gathering at Fort Mason drew more than 2,000 people, including impact investors and the entrepreneurs who create what they are looking for — companies that have a positive social impact in addition to a good rate of return.

After the conference ended, a few dozen “SoCap14” attendees headed downtown for “SoCap Shabbat,” which included a lighting of Shabbat candles and blessings by Reform Rabbi Martin Weiner.

In all, about 100 people attended the three-hour event. The main part of the evening was a panel of Jewish social investment experts talking about what Jewish tradition has to say about impact investing.

Hammerman kicked things off by explaining why a Jewish lens is needed for impact investing: because typical ground rules for most mainstream values-based investing — such as not investing in “sin stocks” like alcohol or weapons — don’t necessarily align with Jewish values.

“We say blessings over wine, and defense is critical to Israel’s existence. There’s just not a perfect overlap of sins,” she said, getting a big laugh from the crowd.

Things turned more serious when the issue of Israel and investing came up. Though many mainstream socially responsible investors are seeking to divest from (or not invest in) companies that are linked to the Israel Defense Forces, the “SoCap Shabbat” panelists objected to such a strategy.

Rabbi Doug Kahn, the executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council and a panelist, gave some background on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, and the panel addressed Presbyterian Church USA’s recent decision to move its $8 billion pension fund away from companies with ties to Israeli defense.

Daryl Messinger, chair of the Reform Pension Board, which has served congregations, institutions and professionals in the Reform movement since 1944, provided a counterpoint of how her organization’s $1.2 billion pension fund follows Jewish values while also supporting Israel-related stocks.

As things moved on, one of the panelists, David Levy, urged thinking differently about philanthropy. Levy, the founder of Marin-based GeneroCity Capital, helps run Mayacamas Ranch, a retreat center in Calistoga that allows corporate leaders and others to reflect on their priorities and recharge.

“We have this model of people making money and then doing philanthropy,” he said. “But how can you bring those two things together, so that the business, by its very nature, does good?”

One of the areas of focus was how the roots of impact investing go far back in Jewish history. Beth Sirull, director of Pacific Community Ventures, which supports small businesses in underserved communities, reflected on the study of Jewish text in a breakout session on poverty.

“Centuries ago, early Talmudic scholars held conversations about investment and social values,” Sirull said. “The Talmud says, ‘Let every man divide his money in three parts and invest a third in land, a third in business and a third [to keep] in reserve.’ This is literally where we get the idea of asset allocation strategy.”

The event was held in the downtown offices of Ascent Private Capital Management and had seven sponsors in addition to JLens, including the Koret Foundation; Israel Bonds; the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation; and Dualis, Israel Social Venture Fund.