Impacting Jewish Lives

Impacting Jewish Lives

Since our founding in 2006, the Jim Joseph Foundation has granted nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to organizations that foster compelling, effective learning experiences for young Jews in the United States. It's an impressive figure, to be sure. But more impressive than that number is the number of young people these grants have affected — and the breakthroughs that have been made possible in the fields of Jewish youth and Jewish education.

We see each grant we make as a vital step along the long road toward achieving our larger vision: to reach Jewish youth, both inside and outside school classrooms, in an effort to shape a future in which an increasing number of them engage in ongoing Jewish learning and choose to live vibrant Jewish lives. The programs we fund already have begun to produce a much needed cohort of qualified Jewish educators and to provide young people with high quality immersive educational experiences.

Our latest move in this direction was the recent announcement of $33 million in grants to America's top three training institutions for Jewish educators — Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC), the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and Yeshiva University. This funding will provide financial aid for students pursuing education degrees or certification in programs that prepare them to work with Jewish youth and young adults. The grants also will assist each institution in planning, staffing and implementing new and enhanced programs designed to attract more educators to the field.

While our particular focus may be on Jewish youth, we'd like to think we can serve as a model for philanthropy outside the Jewish world. Our efforts highlight the possibilities for achieving significant and lasting outcomes with large, targeted grants, in the Jewish community as well as the broader philanthropic world.

Indeed, we believe strongly that education happens in a variety of settings, including but not limited to day schools, camps, youth groups, congregations, college campuses, service learning experiences, and community centers. To that end, we developed a core vision for our grantmaking, a vision aimed at making an indelible impact on the lives of young Jews in the United States.

The $225 million we have awarded has gone to a wide array of programs and institutions like those noted above, whose methods vary significantly but whose goals all align with our overarching strategy. We have further funded programs for teacher training, education and recruitment, service learning, and incubator programs.

Although we believe all our grants are significant and will be important, we are especially excited about a recent $12 million grant to create a doctoral Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies at Stanford University's School of Education. The largest gift in the history of the School of Education will enable Stanford to join New York University as one of only two research universities preparing scholars of Jewish education at the doctoral level (our foundation also supports the NYU program).

In this day and age, it is essential that we begin to understand how Jewish studies intersect with the broader society in which we live. Our grant will allow Stanford to help pioneer a new investigation around the nexus of culture, religion, and education. Scholarship in this area is critical to understanding the central role religion plays in education and its broad implications for humanity.

When we began our grantmaking in 2006, we commissioned Brandeis University's Fisher-Bernstein Institute to research and map Jewish youth education in the United States. The report, Lessons from Mapping Jewish Education, describes new momentum in the area; presents specific insights from Jewish foundations regarding their mission, role, and relationships with other entities; describes trends that are sources of energy and activity in the world of Jewish education; and details the programming, structural, and funding challenges that confront the field.

Let me touch on one of those challenges, one that could have implications for education and philanthropy in society at large. In recent years, we have seen welcome growth in Jewish private school enrollments. With that growth, however, has come an increasing demand for qualified Judaic studies teachers — a demand that, from all accounts, has not been fully met. And so we find ourselves on the flip side of a golden coin, encouraged by increasing demands that we are unable to entirely meet.

In light of this situation, we recognize that the Jewish community must move quickly to prepare more and better teachers for its schools. At the same time, we seek to place a greater emphasis on encouraging our bright and talented young people to consider the field of Jewish education as a serious career opportunity. We must attract, recruit, and train them. And then we must work hard to compensate them fairly and retain them.

If that all sounds familiar, it's because schools across the United States — not just Jewish ones — are facing similar issues.

The $33 million in gifts recently awarded by our foundation (which was in addition to a previously awarded $12 million in emergency grants to the same three seminaries mentioned above) represent our commitment to increasing the number of future educators and to improving the quality of professional preparation and Jewish education they receive.

We care deeply about the future of Jewish life and believe in the unique role philanthropists can play in helping to ensure it. The new partnerships we are establishing should have a significant impact on the number of future Jewish educators and the skills they will bring to their professions. With the help of these grants, we know those institutions can reach their full potential and produce teachers who continue to positively shape the lives of Jewish youth.

More importantly, we hope that our efforts to meet the challenges facing the Jewish community will encourage other philanthropies to see how large, targeted grants that enable grantee partners to build capacity and sustain funded initiatives can ultimately lead to transformative changes in education.

Al Levitt is president for the Jim Joseph Foundation.