The young woman standing in front of us is seemingly nervous and out of her comfort zone. She is likely new at this — presenting to grant committees. But as our dialogue unfolds, this initial impression quickly evaporates. Our presenter is sharing the work she is doing in Baltimore with Russian-Jewish teenagers — kids who, while Jewish by birth, either grew up in the former Soviet Union or are growing up with parents who are from there, and have no affiliation with their Judaism. She is describing to us the successes she has had engaging these children, promoting excitement about their heritage, giving them a sense of Jewish values, and making them advocates for Israel. She has a smile on her face and her eyes light up as she recounts the “small” victories — repeated increasing attendance, active engagement, the leadership roles her students are starting to take in their community in turn. It is not so much what she is saying (many of our applicants do great work in the community), it is the way she clearly feels about her work that gives me that special feeling. As our applicant leaves the room, I realize that I, too, am smiling, and I am convinced that we need to grant this program the entire amount that they are asking us for.
Fortunately, the rest of the Natan RSJ Committee agreed. But let me back up and explain what are “RSJ’s”, what is a giving circle, how did we come to form our philanthropic group at Natan and give away $152,000 to seven deserving organizations — it’s a happy story for Sukkot.
RSJ is a term of art, which stands for “Russian Speaking Jews” — referring to Jews from the former Soviet Union. My Wexner Heritage class (NY RSJ 12) was an unusual one, the first of its kind: we were not all just from the New York Jewish community, we were also all, in one way or another, “RSJ’s.” In forming this class in partnership with UJA-Federation of NY, The Wexner Foundation recognized a special need in the American RSJ community. We currently comprise about twenty percent of the Jews in the greater New York area, and while we are numerous, successful, and most of our members self-identify as Jewish, we are not involved in Jewish life nearly as much as the rest of the American Jewish community. Our Soviet background and mistrust of the collective and of religion is certainly to blame for this — but our time to place the blame has expired. The time has come to move on and solve this.
Finishing our two years of studies and feeling empowered to express ourselves more strongly in the Jewish community, many of us wanted to focus our philanthropic efforts on the RSJ community — specifically on building Jewish identity and Jewish values within that community and on solving the problem. But many of us, including myself, were not at all sure how: what would work, what could be done, who should do it and how?
For a number of us, this is where Natan came in. Natan is a giving circle. It provides like-minded individuals with an opportunity to get together, pool their resources and their minds and make grants in their areas of interests. The administrative team at Natan is tremendously helpful at guiding the group through the entire process — from understanding the core values that guide our grant-making decisions, to soliciting the requests for proposals, to meeting applicants and coming to consensus on which grants to actually make.
The Natan administration and board could not have been more flexible when we approached them with a possibility of doing something new — creating a committee with a grant-making strategy focused on a particular subset of the American Jewish community. Many members of my Wexner RSJ class formed the core of the group. We recruited a few others to join, and the Genesis Philanthropy Group generously matched our commitment. The first ever (to my knowledge) RSJ giving circle in the United States was born.
Our first meeting was memorable — the Natan staff led an exercise to help us understand our own core values, and the passions that drive us personally. The results of this exercise guided us in preparing our request for proposals. I learned quite a bit about myself preparing that RFP! The rest of the year was thought-provoking as well — we had lively debates about the future and the needs of the American RSJ community and met a number of experts and many interesting applicants. The year allowed us to do what we set out to do — start to understand the needs of the American RSJ Community and become active players in fulfilling these needs.
There were plenty of challenges as well — what are the best ways to reach out to the RSJ community; how do we know what works and what does not with little data; what about applicants on whom we could not agree? We finished our pilot year, giving grants to seven organizations for which we have very high hopes. There are certainly wrinkles to be ironed out and improvements to be made. I am looking forward to co-chairing the Natan RSJ committee into its second year, to learning more about myself and my community, and helping improve both in years to come.
Last year was a busy one. When I look back upon it, certain moments stand out and slow down the blur. Meeting the young lady from Baltimore quoted at the top of this story was one of my “special moments”. The excitement, pride and inspiration in her eyes is what made it so. We started this giving circle to help create this kind of excitement in the RSJ community, to foster our pride in our Jewish identity, and to let us be inspired by our Jewish values. I am looking forward to more such moments in this new year.
Jane Greyf, a Wexner Heritage alum (NY RSJ 12), is a partner in Goodwin Procter’s Private Equity Group, focusing her practice on private equity investments, representing investors, companies and management in private and public leveraged buyouts and other investment transactions. Jane is a member of the committee overseeing Goodwin Procter’s Neighborhood Business Initiative, a pro bono program that offers business and legal services to entrepreneurs and small business owners in underserved neighborhoods. In addition to co-chairing the Natan RSJ Giving Circle and continuing to learn with her NY RSJ 12 cohort, Jane sits on the board of COJECO (Counsel of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations), is on the Steering Committee of COJECO’s Keystone Fellowship, and is involved with the Russian Division of fundraisers at NY UJA Federation. She can be reached at JGreyf@goodwinprocter.com.