TOOLS AND TRAINING
By David Whelan
Seminaries, synagogues, Zionist groups, neighborhood centers, summer camps, day schools, campus clubs, and countless other charities serve American Jews. Yet Yavilah McCoy, a black orthodox Jewish New Yorker now living in St. Louis, felt that there was room for one more: a group devoted to the concerns of "Jews of color." So in 2001, she started the Ayecha Resource Organization.
Dedicated to integrating non-white Jews into the rest of American Jewish society, the organization started slowly, taking the form of intimate meetings between Ms. McCoy and friends. But recently a new Jewish grant-making organization, Joshua Venture, provided her with a fellowship, money, and a calling card that many consider a ticket to the big leagues of Jewish philanthropy.
Ms. McCoy came up with the idea for her charity while she was working for Hadassah, a Jewish women's organization. There, she had already started making a name for herself as an authority on the unique challenges faced by the United States' estimated 20,000 black Jews. She organized conferences, raised money, and conducted "diversity training" for rabbis and Jewish leaders. "Jewish diversity is an untapped field," she says.
Hoping to dedicate herself full time to Ayecha, Ms. McCoy turned for help to Joshua Venture, a grant maker in San Francisco that for the past two years has attracted attention by supporting unconventional, even edgy projects dreamed up by Jewish "social entrepreneurs," who create public-service projects using business principles. According to its mission statement, Joshua Venture, whose name alludes to the biblical character Joshua, who led the Jewish people after the death of Moses, focuses on supporting "a new generation of leaders whose innovative projects or 'ventures' contribute to a just, vibrant, and inclusive Jewish community."
In December, Ms. McCoy was selected as one of eight Joshua Venture fellows. Each fellow receives $60,000 over two years, along with health insurance, a small expense account, and, perhaps most important, access to the larger world of Jewish philanthropy, including opportunities for more grants and greater visibility.
Ms. McCoy is trying to make the most of her fellowship. Hoping that her organization will eventually have an annual budget of $150,000, she has already raised $24,000 from individuals and has sent grant applications to three foundations. She treasures the opportunity to build the first organization devoted to ministering to Jews who are racial minorities, and credits Joshua Venture with making her enterprise possible.
"Joshua Venture," she says, "is opening doors for new voices to be heard in a way that has the power to change the Jewish landscape."
The program has also attracted attention in the corridors of traditional Jewish philanthropy: the federation system, which American Jews developed more than a century ago to centralize support for local schools, social services, neighborhood centers, and other groups.
Joshua Venture stands out because it is not constrained by the customs of the federation, says John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Federations "are products of a system created many decades ago that has worked quite effectively," he says. "But what tends to happen is that you don't get the opportunity to enter new areas of service because there is tradition, there are expectations, there are obligations."
Mr. Fishel's federation started a venture fund last year that he says resembled Joshua Venture. It supported two youthful, "cutting edge" ideas for new Jewish charities, one in Israel and one in Los Angeles.
He says he would pay attention to a Joshua Fellow who came to him for a job or grant support. "We always look for the best and the brightest," he says. "As large as L.A. is, with 500,000 Jews, we're always looking for people with nontraditional training."Shifting Identities
Joshua Venture originated in the late 1990s when three women in their early 30s who helped run Jewish programs at foundations found they had a shared interest in starting an organization that would provide support to young Jewish leaders who wanted to undertake risky new projects.
"We were all thinking on our own that the issue of Jewish identity in the U.S. is changing, especially for Jews in their 20s and 30s," says Rachel Levin, Joshua Venture's co-founder, who works at the filmmaker Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation. The women, Levin says, observed that Jews in their 20s and 30s had approached their faith less rigidly than older generations, perhaps because they did not suffer from as much prejudice as their parents and grandparents. But they felt those changes were not reflected in Jewish philanthropy.
Ms. Levin, along with Robyn Lieberman, of the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, in San Francisco, and Rachel Cowan, of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, in New York, set out to find a way to finance and guide future nonprofit leaders.
"We had a sense that when looking for creativity and vibrancy the best place to look is among those who are young," Ms. Levin says. However, they also felt that merely writing checks wouldn't make for successful grant making. "I had already made grants for projects initiated by young adults and had found that money alone was not enough," recalls Ms. Levin. "The recipients were often new to the nonprofit field. Money was needed, but they also needed technical assistance and a sense of camaraderie."
In 1999, the three held meetings with young Jews across the country. They asked the participants, who were not all necessarily religiously observant or active in Jewish charities, to think about the sorts of Jewish organizations that might attract them. It was in one of these sessions that they met Brian Gaines, whom they would eventually pick to run their brainchild organization.
Mr. Gaines came to grant making after years as a for-profit entrepreneur: He opened a string of Ben & Jerry's ice-cream franchises on the West Coast before selling them in 1999. While building his businesses, he did charity work -- among other activities, he founded the Isaiah Project, which promoted dialogue between Jews and black people in an attempt to mend sometimes frayed relations.
Charged with managing Joshua Venture's $750,000 annual budget, Mr. Gaines has had ample opportunities to put his business skills to use. Since the first group of fellows was selected in 2001, he has offered them guidance on marketing, publicity, financial management, and leadership, bringing in management experts to speak to the fellows at retreats or during conference calls. Mr. Gaines says he believes strongly in a start-up business approach to nonprofit management.
He acknowledges that his organization's target, the "social entrepreneur," can be hard to define. He feels that Joshua Venture is seeking to nurture "an individual looking at alternative ways to create positive social change, possibly using alternative revenue streams. There's a business element to it."
Seeking a New Generation
During its short life span, Joshua Venture has become a recognized name in the world of philanthropy, and its fellows -- 16 so far -- have found that the award functions almost like an imprimatur that says "Next generation of Jewish leaders."
Amy Tobin, a performer in San Francisco, says that her Joshua Venture fellowship has made her a public figure in the Jewish world. "The impact that it has had on my career and my confidence is immeasurable," she says. "More people know who I am."
She won the fellowship in 2001, when she was 27, to work on a project called the Hub, a series of performances held at nightspots in the Bay Area aimed at young people who might otherwise stay away from Jewish events. ("It's where all the beautiful Jewish women go," she jokes.) The Hub has received other grant support since its inception, including money from the Zellerbach Family Foundation, in San Francisco, which Ms. Tobin attributes to her association with Joshua Venture.
Since becoming a fellow Ms. Tobin has received invitations to talk about her generation's attitude toward Jewish life. Two years ago, she gave a keynote address at a United Jewish Communities conference in which she urged the assembled leaders to "appeal to us in our totality, as multidimensional people and as Jews."
The remarks were a stark critique of efforts to encourage young Jews to stay completely within the fold. During the same talk, Ms. Tobin told the crowd that her longtime boyfriend is not Jewish, and that he should be welcomed by other Jews. The Forward, a New York Jewish newspaper, called her a "blunt-talking spokeswoman for post-boomer Jews."
The Forward also said that Ms. Tobin's grant follows a pattern. With a few exceptions, the newspaper commented, the fellowships "represent the kind of boundary pushing that Joshua Venture has promoted as a sort of badge of honor."
One prime example of this is Heeb magazine, an irreverent publication aimed at young urban Jews, which the grant maker helped start by awarding a fellowship to Jennifer Bleyer, a Brooklyn writer and editor. Heeb just published its third issue, but its creation in 2001 stirred up a few days of controversy: One established Jewish group, the Anti-Defamation League, lauded the new magazine's concept but called the name offensive.
Mr. Gaines defends Heeb's moniker as a smart marketing tactic and an effort to reclaim the word from those who use it pejoratively. But he cautions that Joshua Venture does not simply try to ruffle feathers.
"Not all our projects are out on the edge," he says.
As proof, he points to one fellow, Meredith Englander, a New Yorker working to provide learning-disabled children with religious education similar to those received by other youngsters as they prepare for their bar-mitzvah or bat-mitzvah coming-of-age ceremony.
A Rising Profile
Whether their projects are controversial or not, Joshua Venture fellows must devote 75 percent of their time to the endeavor over the two years of their grant, and attend two five-day retreats each year to listen to speakers and bounce ideas off each other. The fellows appear to appreciate the guidance they receive from their benefactor. Ms. Tobin, for example, says that Mr. Gaines and other speakers taught her a lot about how to budget for and then publicize an event.
Joshua Venture has also received help from other grant makers. Ms. Levin's employer, the Righteous Persons Foundation, has given $600,000 to Joshua Venture, including money to help pay for the second class of fellows, she says, "to make sure [the first class] wasn't a fluke." In addition, the venture received support at its creation from the other two co-founders' employers -- $800,000 from the Walter and Elise Haas Fund and $500,000 from the Nathan Cummings Foundation. But Joshua Venture has also won $1.5-million in grants from other sources, including the Charles H. Revson Foundation, the Nash Family Foundation, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, the Dorot Foundation, and the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.
With the fledgling grant maker's rising profile has come a rise in the number of applicants for its annual eight fellowship slots: It received 130 applications for the second class of fellows, up from 87 during the first year. Mr. Gaines says that he would like to drum up even more interest to keep the process competitive. He is focused now on recruiting through master's of business administration programs, where Jewish students might have ideas for new charities.
Ms. Levin says she was pleased with Joshua Venture's first foray into grant making, but was disappointed in the group's difficulty in attracting mentors to work with the fellows. "Mentoring is hard to do well," she says. "It's more an art than a science."
Mr. Gaines says he has big plans for the program's future. He would like to increase the number of fellows from 8 to 12 and give them out every year, instead of every two years. He would also like to inspire and help start similar grant makers that would serve other religious faiths. "This is my baby," he says. "It has my fingerprints all over it. We'll keep looking for projects that expand how we think about modern Judaism."
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