The Chabon Boy Band (Ezra, Levi and Judah) at the Congregation B'nai Tikvah's Roaring '20s-themed Zoom gala.
The Chabon Boy Band (Ezra, Levi and Judah) at the Congregation B'nai Tikvah's Roaring '20s-themed Zoom gala.

Zoom or bust: Jewish organizations get creative with fundraising

All of the honorees were lined up, the San Francisco venue was booked and hundreds of tickets had been sold in advance. “Behind the Scenes,” the Jewish Community Relations Council’s premier gala, set for March 11 at the War Memorial Veterans Building, was a go.

Then came the pandemic.

Forced to cancel and forfeit vendor deposits, organizers had to reconfigure the annual fundraiser for a community in lockdown. And so, “Behind the Scenes” went virtual, with YouTube tributes to the honorees, who included UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ and former JCRC director Rita Semel, and a “Donate” button at the top of the screen.

The gala remains online to this day, still bringing in donations. It has raised 98 percent of its goal, accounting for nearly 20 percent of JCRC’s annual campaign.

“It worked really well,” said Tye Gregory, who became executive director of the S.F.-based JCRC in April. “We beat our financial goal and we made [the gala] much more public, so we could tell the stories to the community. That’s an element you don’t normally get.”

Facing both a persistent ban on public gatherings as well as the economic hardship caused by the pandemic, Bay Area Jewish organizations have gotten creative with their fundraising, utilizing Zoom and other platforms to reach donors where they live.

For Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette, the annual spring gala accounts for half of all fundraising revenue. Abandoning the long-planned May 3 event would have been devastating to the school’s bottom line.

“We debated whether we should postpone,” recalled Eden Allswang Bruner, director of institutional development. “Then about two or three weeks before, we decided we would still go through with it. It was definitely daunting, figuring out how to make a meaningful and successful fundraising experience on Zoom.”

In this time where we have to actively find these moments of joy, it was an opportunity to come together.

The gala’s theme was “Bring the Light,” honoring school supporters Karla and Neil Smith. In years past, the event brought together the school’s wide community of parents, teachers, students and donors to support Jewish education. This year, Bruner wanted as much as possible to reproduce that customary in-person haimishness on Zoom.

Unlike the JCRC event, the school’s gala came far enough into the crisis to avoid catering costs and rentals. However, she noted, whether in person or on Zoom, a big event still requires audiovisuals, programming and someone to keep things flowing.

“The hardest part is that it’s not fun to be on Zoom for three hours,” Bruner said, “so we had to think how we keep it short. In addition to formal speeches, how do we give people the chance to connect? We used the chat function. People could participate through that.”

During the 90-minute event, Bruner offered chat prompts to encourage participation, asking people to weigh in on what they liked best about CCJDS or to name their favorite Israeli dish. The gala attracted more than 175 sign-ups, resulting in more than $300,000 in donations — half of the school’s fundraising goal for the year.

Though Zoom has been a blessing in keeping people connected, Rachel Nilson Ralston of San Francisco Hillel knows a virtual gala is no replacement “for getting together in Kanbar Hall at the JCC of San Francisco.”

Ralston is executive director of the Hillel chapter, which serves several campuses in the city, including UC Hastings College of Law and S.F. State University. These campuses are closed and will remain so for the fall semester. But the Hillel still engages Jewish students, and to do that takes money.

“We’re trying to figure out how to support students on the front lines during this [pandemic],” she said. And with distance learning in effect, some students are not moving back to the Bay Area anytime soon. “We have a diaspora now,” Ralston added. “That’s new for us.”

S.F. Hillel had been planning its spring fundraiser for some time before the pandemic hit. The April 5 gala was converted to a one-hour online event honoring major donor Carol Weitz and featuring testimonials from students who benefited from Hillel’s services.

Chanel Benhamou and Kathy Jacobs all dressed up for Congregation B'nai Tikvah's Roaring '20s-themed Zoom gala.
Chanel Benhamou and Kathy Jacobs all dressed up for Congregation B’nai Tikvah’s Roaring ’20s-themed Zoom gala.

Ralston, who says Hillel relies almost entirely on philanthropic donations, admits the fundraiser did not hit its financial target. “That’s what’s hard,” she said. “We would have had 200 people [in person]. Instead, 75 households logged in”

Despite Zoom’s limitations, Congregation B’nai Tikvah of Walnut Creek went all in by planning a Roaring ’20s theme for its June 6 gala, a two-hour affair that included an auction with prizes such as a Puerto Vallarta vacation. Rabbi Jennie Chabon dressed up as a flapper.

Instead of incurring catering costs, organizers offered a deal on a takeout dinner package from Tal’s Patisserie in Danville, with a portion of the proceeds going to the fundraising effort.

“In this time where we have to actively find these moments of joy, it was an opportunity to come together,” said Anne Marx, the synagogue’s executive director. “It’s absolutely part of how we’re able to get through. We were very pleased with the success of this fundraiser.”

The event brought in around $100,000, approximately 45 percent of the synagogue’s annual fundraising target.

Marx said B’nai Tikvah will try out other fundraising ideas in the coming months, such as partnering with Walnut Creek restaurants and sharing a portion of proceeds from takeout orders, as it did with Tal’s for the gala.

With no clear-cut end in sight for the pandemic, Jewish nonprofits continue to adapt as best they can.

“I think we will be fine,” said JCRC’s Gregory. “I don’t think this is an existential threat to JCRC. Some of our funders are taking hits, so that impacts our bottom line, but we feel pretty good that our supporters will continue to find value in what we do.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.