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Quarterly Update:
Winter 2021 / 5781
Helping people apply particular Jewish wisdom to universal human questions in the here and now and cultivate Judaism’s evolving wisdom tradition as an enduring source of value for human civilization over the long term.

 

I. Letter From The President

II. Meet Our Grantee Partners
III. What Our Partners Are Up To
IV. What We're Up To

Letter From The President

Dear Friends and Colleagues,
 
I remember clearly the walk to megillah reading a year ago, my family in costume—Gertie from All of a Kind Family, Waldo, Samirah Al-Abbas from the Magnus Chase series, the Easter Bunny, and Santa Claus—and a not-so-vague sense of uneasiness in our Brooklyn neighborhood. The crowd was noticeably thinner than it had been in previous years, hand sanitizer flowed liberally, and we bumped elbows in greeting, trying to find our way into the awkwardness of that in-between space.
 
There were 270 new cases of COVID-19 reported in the U.S. on Purim 2020. By the following Sunday, schools had been closed. We had entered the mei tzarim, the narrow place in which we still find ourselves.
 
A year on, and we’re preparing for another Purim, for many of us the last “first” of Jewish holidays we’ll be experiencing virtually. (I’ll admit that I’m finding it hard to motivate myself to craft a costume that will be visible only in that postage-stamp-sized Zoom window.)
 
As more people get vaccinated and positivity rates drop, and with federal guidance and funding finally on its way to address the pandemic, I can begin to fantasize about an “after.” But a poem that my wife’s 91-year-old grandmother recently sent us is a reminder of the glimmers of connection and unexpected moments of grace that massive disruptions enable, and how easy it is to slip back to what was “normal.” As we enter these holidays of upside down-ness, narrows, and freedoms regained, I share with you this evocation of empty picture frames, longing, connection, and seeing. I cannot stop reading and thinking about this poem, which reads more quickly than its length might portend. I promise that reading it (or listening here) will be among the best uses of a few minutes this week.  
 
“The Curator” (Miller Williams, 1992)
We thought it would come, we thought the Germans would come,   
were almost certain they would. I was thirty-two,
the youngest assistant curator in the country.
I had some good ideas in those days.
 
Well, what we did was this. We had boxes   
precisely built to every size of canvas.
We put the boxes in the basement and waited.
 
When word came that the Germans were coming in,   
we got each painting put in the proper box
and out of Leningrad in less than a week.
They were stored somewhere in southern Russia.
 
But what we did, you see, besides the boxes   
waiting in the basement, which was fine,
a grand idea, you’ll agree, and it saved the art—
but what we did was leave the frames hanging,   
so after the war it would be a simple thing   
to put the paintings back where they belonged.
 
Nothing will seem surprised or sad again   
compared to those imperious, vacant frames.
 
Well, the staff stayed on to clean the rubble
after the daily bombardments. We didn’t dream—
You know it lasted nine hundred days.
Much of the roof was lost and snow would lie   
sometimes a foot deep on this very floor,
but the walls stood firm and hardly a frame fell.
 
Here is the story, now, that I want to tell you.   
Early one day, a dark December morning,
we came on three young soldiers waiting outside,   
pacing and swinging their arms against the cold.   
They told us this: in three homes far from here   
all dreamed of one day coming to Leningrad   
to see the Hermitage, as they supposed   
every Soviet citizen dreamed of doing.   
Now they had been sent to defend the city,   
a turn of fortune the three could hardly believe.
 
I had to tell them there was nothing to see
but hundreds and hundreds of frames where the paintings had hung.
 
“Please, sir,” one of them said, “let us see them.”
 
And so we did. It didn’t seem any stranger   
than all of us being here in the first place,   
inside such a building, strolling in snow.
 
We led them around most of the major rooms,   
what they could take the time for, wall by wall.   
Now and then we stopped and tried to tell them
part of what they would see if they saw the paintings.   
I told them how those colors would come together,   
described a brushstroke here, a dollop there,   
mentioned a model and why she seemed to pout   
and why this painter got the roses wrong.
 
The next day a dozen waited for us,
then thirty or more, gathered in twos and threes.   
Each of us took a group in a different direction:   
Castagno, Caravaggio, Brueghel, Cézanne, Matisse,   
Orozco, Manet, da Vinci, Goya, Vermeer,
Picasso, Uccello, your Whistler, Wood, and Gropper.   
We pointed to more details about the paintings,   
I venture to say, than if we had had them there,   
some unexpected use of line or light,
balance or movement, facing the cluster of faces   
the same way we’d done it every morning   
before the war, but then we didn’t pay
so much attention to what we talked about.
People could see for themselves. As a matter of fact   
we’d sometimes said our lines as if they were learned   
out of a book, with hardly a look at the paintings.
 
But now the guide and the listeners paid attention   
to everything—the simple differences
between the first and post-impressionists,
romantic and heroic, shade and shadow.
 
Maybe this was a way to forget the war
a little while. Maybe more than that.
Whatever it was, the people continued to come.   
It came to be called The Unseen Collection.
 
Here. Here is the story I want to tell you.
 
Slowly, blind people began to come.
A few at first then more of them every morning,   
some led and some alone, some swaying a little.
They leaned and listened hard, they screwed their faces,   
they seemed to shift their eyes, those that had them,   
to see better what was being said.
And a cock of the head. My God, they paid attention.
 
After the siege was lifted and the Germans left
and the roof was fixed and the paintings were in their places,   
the blind never came again. Not like before.
This seems strange, but what I think it was,
they couldn’t see the paintings anymore.
They could still have listened, but the lectures became   
a little matter-of-fact. What can I say?
Confluences come when they will and they go away.
 
As we prepare for two Jewish holidays—Purim and Pesach—in which the historical recounting of events is the central, animating mitzvah, the words that jump out at me are the narrator’s repeated attempts to begin: “Well, what we did was this…” “But what we did, you see…” “Here is the story, now, that I want to tell you…” “Here. Here is the story I want to tell you…”
 
It’s hard to know where to begin the story of the pandemic but narrating its end will surely prove impossible. Unlike so many historical events inextricably linked to specific places, COVID-19 is not fixed to geography and will stand astride our history like a colossus. After a year in its long shadow, we might begin to reflect on our stories of this time, thinking about how we behaved, what we paid attention to, what we refused to return to, what wisdom we brought to bear during this pandemic, and what world we’ll rebuild in its wake.
 
Even when the pandemic no longer orders our days and circumscribes the boundaries of our lives, we’ll have to find our own way of telling this story. “What we did was this…” “Here. Here is the story I want to tell you…”
 
Best,
Aaron

Meet Our Grantee Partners
Grants for Applying Jewish Wisdom to the COVID-19 pandemic
The following, recently funded projects apply Jewish wisdom to the COVID-19 pandemic


              

 

Collecting These Times: American Jewish Experiences of the Pandemic

The Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM) and George Mason University’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) are launching two new collecting initiatives with support from a group of Jewish funders, the Chronicling Funder Collaborative, to document diverse Jewish experiences of the pandemic. The Rosenzweig Center received a grant to create a web portal that will serve as a digital content hub reflecting Jewish life during this time. The grant to CAJM enables it to partner with 18 member institutions to lead a broad-based oral history collecting initiative.  

These grants have already garnered community excitement with a shoutout in eJP's Daily Phil and an article in The Jerusalem Post.

We're honored to be funding these projects in collaboration with Jim Joseph Foundation, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, and The Russell Berrie Foundation.

Grants for Applied Jewish Wisdom
The following, recently funded projects apply particular Jewish wisdom to universal human questions.


Universal Human Question

How might we better cultivate a racially equitable and just society through education?

Jewish Wisdom Applied

Prizmah draws inspiration from the words of Deuteronomy 16:20: “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”

Project

Prizmah’s Racial Equity and Justice Laboratory and Learning Community project is a three-year, two-phase initiative to begin its long-term commitment to Jewish racial justice education. Phase one introduces 39 Jewish day schools in its network to racial justice work; supports those schools to create and begin to implement plans to address their own diversity, equity, and inclusion issues; and evaluates programming that will be most effective to scale in Phase two. Phase two will implement the lessons learned in Phase one and expand to support 100 schools.


Universal Human Question

How might philanthropists better use their resources and power to help shape a more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and just society?

Jewish Wisdom Applied

Slingshot mobilizes young Jewish philanthropists as funders and active change agents to shape the Jewish community to be vibrant and continuously evolving. Slingshot draws from Jewish wisdom to inform just philanthropic practices supporting the full diversity of the Jewish people.

Project

Slingshot will partner with the Jews of Color Initiative to produce “A Guide to Funding with a Racial Equity Lens,” a resource and curriculum to help funders embrace the power and influence they have on racial equity both inside and outside the Jewish community. 

Universal Human Question

How might we transform the entrepreneurial ecosystem to be more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and just?

Jewish Wisdom Applied

Upstart’s diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) work is framed and inspired by the wisdom of Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot who said, “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, nor are you at liberty to desist from it.” Upstart’s DEIJ efforts are about ensuring that every member of our community is not only acknowledged and seen as having been created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, but also supported and empowered to thrive to their full potential. Finally, UpStart draws on texts that focus on cultivating humility and a recognition that people are the best experts on their own lives.

Project

The UpStart team is building its capacity to embed DEIJ behaviors and practices into program design, recruitment, organizational culture, and other core functions. DEIJ will be a priority of their emerging “Learning and Design” agenda, which is dedicated to sourcing, testing, and supporting the highest impact ideas to drive change in Jewish life. In addition, Upstart is developing a diverse and representative leadership pipeline for the UpStart network and larger Jewish communal ecosystem.

A More Perfect Union Grants
The following, recently funded projects apply Jewish wisdom to strengthen American democratic norms and institutions.

Universal Human Question

How might we cultivate vibrant American citizenship in young people of faith?

Jewish Wisdom Applied

Moses’s final warning to the children of Israel in Deuteronomy is to be wary of the moments when success leads to complacency, “When you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget...” It is all too easy for a country to forget where it comes from, why it exists, and what principles established its creation. Civic education, for this reason, has its own profound origins in religious education.

Project

Civic Spirit educates, inspires, and empowers schools across faith traditions to enhance civic belonging and responsibility in their student, faculty, and parent communities. With this grant, Civic Spirit is poised to expand from its New York City roots to schools in five states—New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.

Universal Human Question

How might religious studies scholars inspire our democratically elected leaders as well as ordinary citizens to act in ways that align with core American values?
 

Jewish Wisdom Applied

Values and Voices was conceptualized and launched by Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss (Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Provost at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion) and Lisa Weinberger (founder and creative director of Masters Group Design) in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election. It created an extraordinary body of religious wisdom drawn from a broad array of religious traditions applied to critical questions of democracy and civic engagement in this country, including contributions from renowned Jewish scholars.

Project

For 100 days—from January 20 to April 29, 2021—Values and Voices will send a letter a day to President Biden, Vice President Harris, and Members of the 117th Congress, just as they sent 100 letters to President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Members of the 115th Congress in 2017. Dr. Weiss is reprising the 100 Days, 100 Letters series this year with more than half of the 2017 writers providing new letters and over 40 new writers contributing letters. This exciting project is already gaining momentum and garnering press

What Our Partners Are Up To
 

 

Jews of Color Initiative Survey


The Jews of Color Initiative commissioned a major research study to understand the lived experiences and perspectives of Jews of Color nationwide. A multiracial research team based at Stanford University created the Count Me In survey with the goal of 1,000 Jews of Color participating. The data collection recently closed, and we look forward to seeing the research team's analysis. 
             
 

The American Jewish Philanthropic Complex:
A Conversation between Lila Corwin Berman and Rob Reich

What role has philanthropy played in a democratic society, and how have American Jews used philanthropy to participate in American civic and political life? 

On Tuesday March 16, 5:00pm-6:30pm EST, noted historian Lila Corwin Berman (Temple University and current Katz Center fellow) and political scientist Rob Reich (Stanford University) will be holding a wide-ranging conversation on these and other questions in light of Dr. Berman’s book The American Jewish Philanthropic Complex: the History of a Multi-Billion Dollar Institution (Princeton University Press)

    
 

Jewish Wisdom Fellowships


The final projects from Hadar’s Jewish Wisdom Fellowship are now posted on its website. The Fellowship probed Jewish tradition for wisdom on the social, moral, and spiritual questions of life during a global pandemic.
    
 

Harvesting Resilience


Reconstructing Judaism created resources for their Harvesting Resilience project in the lead-up to the election. For 30 days, about 560 people received an email with a daily resiliency practice; these five-minute videos were an important element of that content.
                 
 

COVID-19 Jewish Law and Ethics Hackathon


Sefaria and T’ruah consolidated the resources from T’ruah’s COVID-19 Jewish Law and Ethics Hackathon on Sefaria’s website. The source sheets they assembled have already been viewed almost 2,000 times.

 

The Pro-Democracy Faith Movement


The Center for American Progress put together a comprehensive report based on interviews they did in the summer of 2020 with 28 pro-democracy religious leaders of diverse faith backgrounds. The report delves into the five major themes they found: 
  1. Building an inclusive democratic movement for a more inclusive democracy
  2. Centering the experience of Black Americans
  3. Grounding democracy in a shared sense of community
  4. Being political but nonpartisan
  5. Meeting the urgency of the moment
    
 

Rise


JPRO Network announced that it will increase focus on Rise, a support system for Jewish communal professionals who have experienced layoffs and furloughs during the pandemic. Rise provides essential resources and services for jobseekers’ careers and mental and financial health.
What We're Up To

Recommended Reading/Listening/Watching

  • Give a listen to Aaron's guest spot on the Judaism Unbound podcast where he discussed Jewish innovation, Jewish sensibilities, and how LKFLT fits into the Jewish philanthropic landscape.
     
  • Shortly after the riot at the Capitol, our colleagues at PACE and the Democracy Funders Network put together a collaborative funder statement condemning political violence and affirming democracy, which we also signed onto. 
     
  • Rabbi Benay Lappe, founder of SVARA, wrote this thought provoking piece, which suggests that studying Talmud can help people be more thoughtful and reflective, in general, and in terms of how they think and act as citizens, in particular.
     
  • Mijal Bitton, a scholar at the Shalom Hartman Institute, wrote an interesting article challenging the ways in which the search for diversity in the Jewish community does not always extend to ideological difference.
     
  • We enjoyed this National Center for Family Philanthropy blog entry by Rob Reich and several collaborators. It provides advice for family foundations seeking to involve the communities they serve in their decision-making processes.
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