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Disagreements and Decisions: Natan’s 2019-2020 Grants

Change My Mind: How We Make Decisions

In my ongoing effort to try to understand the dismaying and hurtful divisiveness of our current cultural and political moment, I recently read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, a masterful analysis of a vast amount of scientific literature on how people form moral judgements and “why good people are divided by politics and religion.”

I wasn’t expecting - though I also wasn’t surprised by - Haidt’s argument that groups made up of people with diverse viewpoints are more effective and rational decision-makers than individuals:

We must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason...each individual reasoner is good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons…[and] particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play.  But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. (105)  

This has been exactly my experience at Natan (the giving circle I’ve been privileged to be part of for over 16 years) - as well as in the collaborative process that we used to engage dozens of stakeholders in co-designing Amplifier, the now-independent network of giving circles inspired by Jewish values that Natan launched in 2014 with funding from the Schusterman Foundation, and in a similar process that Amplifier and four other American giving circle networks are leading to design backbone infrastructure for American giving circles, with funding from the Gates Foundation and several others.  

We’ve learned a lot at Natan over this past year of grantmaking, as we always do, but I have to say that as the world seems more and more divided, with more demonization of the Other (as opposed to good, old-fashioned civil disagreement), it feels more important to me than ever that Natan and other giving circles are places where a community of people who care about each other come together to do good in the world together, not ignoring their differences but literally strengthened by their differences.  Although there’s much that differentiates the people in these circles, they come together over what they have in common, build trusting and affectionate bonds with each other, and are thus able to use their diverse perspectives not as wedges that divide, but as assets that strengthen group thinking. 

Viewpoint diversity was baked into Natan’s DNA from the start, and is in fact what drew me to the organization in the first place: I loved that each time someone around a grantmaking table spoke, they changed my mind.  Natan’s members are all over the map politically (progressives and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans); they have widely different Jewish backgrounds and current Jewish practices; they are in different personal situations; they work in different industries; and some are raising their children and/or volunteering full-time.  They bring widely different experiences and perspectives to their decision-making.  

We didn’t set out to create this - we just built a community and a culture that is warm and connected, and that welcomes curiosity, learning and debate.  We also intentionally try to flatten relationships between our members (ie “funders”), grantees, and other nonprofits, further diversifying perspectives and strengthening our thinking by helping the different “sides” to understand the other and to learn from their different experiences.    

The philanthropic sector has long understood the power of collective giving - through giving circles, donor collaboratives, teen and women’s foundations, etc.  But while we’ve analyzed the additional leverage, efficiency, and impact that collective giving can have, I’m not sure we’ve fully appreciated how much wiser, more connected, and more human this kind of giving can be than individual giving or more transactional fundraising.  There is tremendous, inherent, but often unarticulated value in the connections between people and across perspectives that these kinds of initiatives create.  Even groups that visually look homogeneous - because most people are one race, religion, gender - can actually be deeply diverse in other ways, and this heterogeneity, however it manifests itself, can be a core strength.

As public discourse seems to devolve further every day into polarization and demonization, I’ve come to believe even more strongly in the importance of creating more sites where people can come together, be curious, learn from each other and from subject-area experts and practitioners, change each other’s minds, and collectively make wise and intentional choices together about the change they want to see in the world.  We need more places in our communities where we can break down silos, welcome disagreements, test and examine new ideas, take risks, and change our minds. We’re blessed to be doing this at Natan year after year, and we or the good people at Amplifier would be happy to talk to anyone about it who wants to learn more.


***


What We’re Supporting

As they usually do, Natan’s grant committees took a portfolio approach to their grantmaking over this past year, believing in building diverse fields of initiatives, often working in concert with each other, to test out new approaches and to bring new vision to old challenges.  The unifying thread between all of our committees, as always, was a willingness to take prudent risks, to fund innovative ideas and invest in talented leadership, to support general operating expenses whenever possible, and to “go first” in providing institutional support for emerging organizations.    

What follows is a summary of our 2019-2020 grants; for more information on all of the grantees, see the Natan website.


Confronting Antisemitism

In its third year of operations, Natan’s Confronting Antisemitism committee continued its strategy of supporting a variety of approaches to addressing antisemitism in all of its modern manifestations - from “the left” and “the right,” in different sectors of society, and targeting different audiences, both Jewish and not.  About ⅔ of the committee’s grantmaking over time has been focused on combating the demonization and delegitimization of Israel, which we believe strongly is a complicated, extensive, and existentially dangerous form of contemporary antisemitism. Many of our grantees work in different ways to present a nuanced, realistic understanding of Israel as “a real place on the planet Earth,” as journalist Matti Friedman has memorably said - not the mythological, idealized or demonized, place of newspaper headlines and politicized shouting matches.  We’re not in the least bit afraid of criticism of Israel - in fact, all of our grants in Israel are investments in solving Israel’s core challenges.  (Meeting with Israeli grant applicants is just hearing criticism of Israel all day long, in a way.)  However, we want to understand and shine a light on that murky area where criticizing Israel becomes antisemitism.  In essence we’re following Natan Sharansky’s “3D” test of antisemitism: when criticism of Israel delegitimizes or demonizes it, or holds the country to double standards relative to other countries.     

This year we’re proud to again support A Wider Bridge (LGBTQ), Academic Engagement Network (campus), Creative Community for Peace (entertainment industry), and Fuente Latina (Spanish-language media), and to add Zioness (political activism) to this area of the portfolio.  Each of these organizations is working in a different sector to provide nuanced information about and connections to Israel, and to counter the increasingly prevalent notion that progressivism and Zionism are incompatible.  When this idea emerges - on campuses, in LGBTQ spaces, in political activism, in the media, or elsewhere - it tends to reflect ignorance about what Zionism actually is, about Israel’s past and present, about Jewish history, and about the unique historical and geopolitical contexts that fundamentally differentiate Israel from the liberal, Western countries in which this idea tends to emerge.  

Although no discussion of contemporary antisemitism can be divorced from conversations about Israel, the committee is also proud to support organizations that are tackling more traditional and recognizable forms of antisemitism based in ignorance and stereotypes about - and sometimes animus toward - Jews.  We’re supporting Asylum Arts to bring British Jewish artists together to discuss Jewish identity in the context of current British antisemitism and anti-Israelism; the replication of the JCRC of St. Louis’s Student to Student program, which brings pluralist teams of Jewish teens to speak to their peers about Judaism and Jewish life; renewing our grant for Jimena’s Arab Outreach Initiative, which is using the internet to bring the untold - and mistold - history of Jews of the Middle East and North Africa to millions of Arabic speakers around the world; Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom’s new efforts to bring Jewish and Muslim teenage girls together to connect and fight hatred; and the Western States Center’s efforts to educate prominent US progressive leaders about antisemitism in all of its forms. WSC is the first non-Jewish American organization that Natan has supported. We’ve learned a lot from its visionary Executive Director, Eric Ward, who has argued that antisemitism forms the foundation and fuel of white nationalism and is a core threat to inclusive democracy.


Jerusalem

Funding organizations in Israel - not just those talking about Israel - has always been roughly ⅓ of Natan’s grantmaking.  This is the second year that Natan has focused its Israel grantmaking on Jerusalem, benefiting immeasurably from a partnership with the Leichtag Foundation and the Jerusalem Model that has enabled us to dive deep into the challenges and opportunities facing Israel’s largest, poorest, and most diverse city.  

As we learn more every year from city leaders, thinkers, and activists about the complexity of a city that is ⅓ Haredi, ⅓ non-Haredi Jews, and ⅓ Arab Israeli/Palestinian, and as we support and partner with organizations working in all of these sectors, we realize how much common perceptions of the city are shaped by overly-simplistic narratives, stereotypes, and an unwillingness or inability to engage with the complex realities of Israeli life.  We’ve been so transformed by our learning about Jerusalem, in fact, that we plan to work with Amplifier to create new giving circles focused on funding Jerusalem - let us know if you’re interested in learning more about this new initiative.

Some cases in point: MiniActive has taught us that there are thousands of Palestinian women in East Jerusalem willing to interact daily with the Jerusalem Municipality on a variety of efforts to improve conditions in their communities; Shaharit’s Haredi Leadership Program demonstrates the eagerness of many Haredim to work to strengthen the integrationist trend among Haredim in the city (and around the country); the increasing demand from all sectors of society for Madrasa’s Colloqial Arabic videos and meet-ups shows a strong desire among Israelis of all backgrounds to connect with their Arab and Palestinian neighbors; 0202’s work making media, news, culture and events from different sectors of Jerusalem society accessible to the others demonstrates all of the sectors’ desire to learn authentically about what’s happening in other communities in the city; and Kulna Yerusahlayim’s use of the unifying game of backgammon to bring East and West Jerusalemites together in different parts of the city, exposing them not just to their neighbors, but to conditions in other neighborhoods, has shown the ways that seemingly “fun” activities like backgammon tournaments can have real-world changes, including in municipal budgeting and policy. 

We’re also supporting several “placemaking” and more physically-oriented projects.  Thriving cities must have vibrant public spaces and effective infrastructure, as we’re learning from 15 Minutes, which is harnessing the wisdom of diverse Jerusalemites to identify holes in the public transportation system and to design potential solutions, increasing not only physical but also economic mobility; from Muslala’s “HaMirpeset,” on the top floor of the Clal Building, which is infusing new life into this massive but neglected mall located at the intersection of several core Jerusalem neighborhoods; and New Spirit’s ReStreet program, which is turning empty storefronts into coworking spaces for creatives and thereby revitalizing empty streets and creating ripples of economic and social benefits. 

And finally, while Natan generally supports emerging grassroots organizations, the very complexity of Jerusalem has encouraged us to also work with larger organizations that can bring broader scale and research-driven perspectives to their work.  Three of our returning grantees fall squarely into this category: Shaharit (described above); the Jerusalem Intercultural Center, whose work empowering activists of all types and promoting cultural competency and tolerance is generating new theoretical models about how to strengthen diverse communities around the world; and the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, an action-oriented think tank whose nonpartisan research has shaped municipal thinking and policy for decades, including, most recently, on East Jerusalem.


Jewish Connections

It seems easy, in dramatic times, to turn one’s attention to the many fires that feel like they need to be put out, like antisemitism and battles about and within Israel. So it might feel counterintuitive to read, for example, historian’s Deborah Lipstadt conclusion to her recent book about contemporary antisemitism, encouraging Jews to focus more on the “joy” than the “oy” of being Jewish - on what Jews do, not what is done to them (240).  Similarly, on a recent panel on antisemitism at the American Jewish Historical Society, the renowned historian Jonathan Sarna commented that he was more worried about Jews being “loved to death” in America through assimilation and intermarriage than he was about the seeming rise in American antisemitism - and thus that the real existential threat was to weakening Jewish knowledge, ties, and communities.

While most Natan members sit on only one grant committee, the staff supports all of them - and, in line with both Lipstadt and Sarna’s exhortations, we’d agree that in this difficult year in particular, it felt gratifyingly balanced to toggle between conversations about fighting antisemitism, investing in Israel, and creating more Jewish joy in the world.  

Strengthening Jewish communities and providing creative new access points to Jewish life have been cornerstones of Natan’s grantmaking since inception, and this is perhaps the grant area for which we are best known.  Because the evolution of Jewish life is so relevant to Natan members personally - and also for me personally, as a student of American Jewish history - some of the most exhilarating moments of the year are encountering the groundbreaking ideas that continue to emerge in contemporary Jewish life.  

One such idea is Rabbi Lisa Rubin’s Center for Exploring Judaism, which offers a new way to engage and inspire interfaith couples - a more proactive, high-touch, almost evangelical approach to sharing Judaism’s richness with people who may or may not want to convert.  Natan’s grant will support the CEJ as it starts to grow out of its original home in Manhattan’s Central Synagogue. Another new grantee is The Jewish Baby Network, located in the Bay Area, which leverages the moment that parents are starting to build their families. The organization has been exponentially multiplying the number of families it reaches each year, and Natan’s grant will support the high demand for its expansion into other parts of the West Coast. 

At the other end of the age spectrum, ChaiVillage LA, a returning grantee, continues to demonstrate the value of engaging older Jews to build community with each other and with other generations, and to see Jewish community as a source of vibrancy, meaning and connection as they age.  ChaiVillage’s focus helps us all move beyond the fetishization of young adults in Jewish philanthropy, pioneering a Jewish version of the groundbreaking American “village” movement that creates new opportunities for Jews ages 50 and older to “age in place” and to remain part of rich, interdependent communities throughout their lives.

Other returning Jewish Connections grantees continue to do profoundly important work in other areas of North American Jewish life: Jewish Kids Groups continues to pioneer a transformative model of Jewish supplementary education and experiences; Jewish Queer Youth is providing critical support to LGBTQ Orthodox Jewish teenagers in New York City; the Jewish Studio Project uses creativity as a new entry point into Jewish learning and engagement; SVARA makes substantive, rich, moving Talmud study available to everyone, regardless of background, while connecting learners to each other in meaningful ways; and Tablet’s “Unorthodox” podcast models its own version of viewpoint diversity not only through the loving and hilarious conversations between its three very different hosts, but also through exposing listeners to an extraordinarily broad and creative swath of contemporary Jewish life.  We’re also proud to continue to support Lazos, a network of entrepreneurial Jewish leaders from across Latin America, which emerged out of the ROI Community and which is bringing innovative ideas and entrepreneurial energy to this large swath of global Jewry.

I invite you to learn more about all of our 2019-2010 grantees on our website.  We’re proud to partner with them and to support their excellent work.

A closing thought: we’re eager to support even more good work across Jewish and Israeli communities in the coming year.  Natan is always open to new members who are interested in funding Jewish and Israeli social innovation, and who appreciate the value of being in a community of thoughtful, intentional, hands-on givers who want to wrestle with the issues that matter most to them.  If you know of anyone who would enjoy being part of Natan, or who wants to start a similar kind of giving circle in their area - or if you want to disagree with something we’ve said or done! - let us know.


Felicia Herman has been the Executive Director of Natan since 2005, after joining it as a member the year before.  She is the founder and board chair of Amplifier, and a proud board member of the American Jewish Historical Society, Sefaria, and Brooklyn’s DreamStreet Theatre Company.

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