While the Jewish Funders Network conference agenda last weekend delved deep into the weeds of philanthropy, Andrés Spokoiny focused instead on the Jewish big picture in his March 18 plenary address.
“Why do we remain Jewish in a world of radical choice?” the JFN president and CEO asked hundreds of conferees gathered on March 18 in the San Francisco Hilton’s Grand Ballroom. “How do we remain a people?”
In setting the tone for the conference, Spokoiny offered his view of where the Jewish people now stand in a rapidly changing world.
To that end, he said civilization seems to be heading in two potentially diverging directions: One, “a hyper-cosmopolitan world in which nobody belongs to any particular group smaller than humanity as a whole.” The other, a paranoid vision of ethnic purity exemplified by the rise of white nationalism. “On one hand, down with all borders,” he said. “On the other, build that wall.”
Either extreme would have no room for the Jews, Spokoiny said.
But, he added hopefully, Jews “are in the driver’s seat, with more power than ever before,” including a strong Jewish national homeland. “We need to stop thinking the Cossacks are coming.”
The Jewish Funders Network event drew more than 600 philanthropists, foundation leaders and other Jewish community professionals, the largest turnout since JFN began holding conferences. Among the attendees were funders from Israel, Canada, Mexico, Britain, Australia, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden.
The objectives were to have funders learn from one another, and secure a stronger Jewish future. JFN has more than 1,800 members and estimates they donate approximately $1 billion per year.
Conference presenters included such leading Jewish figures as Rabbi David Wolpe and author Yossi Klein Halevi, as well as representatives from Jewish philanthropic foundations, among them the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Avi Chai Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.
Why do we remain Jewish in a world of radical choice?
Topics covered in breakout sessions covered such hot-button issues as BDS, anti-Semitism and the Israel-diaspora relationship, and less tantalizing topics like impact investing and strategic giving. Attendees also got to leave the Hilton bubble by signing up for field trips to Berkeley’s Urban Adamah to discuss food justice, and Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco’s Tenderloin to examine issues related to poverty.
“You can learn from the city,” Spokoiny told J. after the presentation. “In many ways [S.F.] is a microcosm of the issues affecting the Jewish community at large. It’s a laboratory of challenges and opportunities, and we wanted to see it firsthand.”
Spokoiny has seen big changes in Jewish philanthropy over the course of his career as a Jewish communal leader, including many years with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Europe and, since 2011, with JFN.
“In the past, [philanthropy] was done through somebody else, like a federation,” he said. “Now you do it directly. You also planned vacations through a travel agent, now you plan your own. You acquired knowledge through a teacher, now through Wikipedia on your own. This is a process of ‘disintermediation,’ cutting out what is perceived as the middleman.”
In terms of Jewish philanthropy, that means more funders might skip a Jewish Federation annual campaign, choosing to do “what they want, and on their own,” Spokoiny said. “And that atomization of philanthropy has consequences.”
But he doesn’t necessarily see it as a problem. For one thing, he told J., the change “enhances creativity, with more ideas and more risk-taking. There could be monumental failure, but also successes, like PJ Library, Birthright and Moishe House, all created by independent philanthropists, doing their own thing.”
And while he concedes that size still matters, when it comes to impact, one need not be a foundation behemoth to make a difference.
“It is a core belief that it doesn’t matter how much you give; you can be strategic and you can be impactful with your philanthropy,” he said. “I call it the principle of the acupuncture needle. It’s very thin, but if you put it in the right spot, you can have a chain reaction.”
As for dismissing the fears of modern-day Cossacks, Spokoiny said that even though anti-Semitism has not gone away, Jews today are in a better position to combat it than ever before.
“We cannot build an identity based on a self-image of the Jew as a victim,” he said, “because we are not victims. We have agency. And the more we realize that, and leverage our agency to create community, the better we will be.”