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Jewish Journal

Shefa Fund Reaches L.A.

"We see L.A. as a key Jewish community."

by Tom Tugend

August 23, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Jeffrey Dekro, Shefa Fund president     Celia Bernstein, West Coast director

Jeffrey Dekro, Shefa Fund president Celia Bernstein, West Coast director

"The premise of our mission is idealistic, even romantic, but we operate on a very realistic set of values," says Jeffrey Dekro, founder and president of the Shefa Fund, a public foundation aimed at social causes. "We not only call for justice, but we work within the Jewish community to create justice."

A newcomer to Los Angeles, the Shefa Fund is unabashedly liberal -- "progressive" is the preferred term -- at a time when daily clashes in Israel and social conditions at home seem to be tilting the American Jewish community to the right.

Already the Shefa Fund, and Celia Bernstein, its new West Coast director, are making their presence felt by joining in an informal coalition of progressive organizations to raise their profile and impact in the Jewish community.

Shefa (Hebrew for "abundance") was established 13 years ago in Philadelphia, where it still has its headquarters, and while the fund is active in half a dozen American cities and in Israel, Los Angeles is its first full-fledged satellite office.

The Shefa Fund is a public foundation established in 1988 to encourage American Jews to "use their tzedakah [charitable] resources to create a more just society, and, in the process, to transform Jewish life so that it becomes more socially conscious and spiritually invigorating," their press release states. The fund's services include low-income community investing, socially responsible grant-making and education for those funding the grants.

In its first function, Shefa is asking Jewish institutions to invest a small percentage of their enormous financial resources in low-income and disadvantaged communities in their own urban backyards.

"We see Los Angeles as a key Jewish community in the country, yet many individual Jews are disconnected," Dekro says. "We've come here not to take money out of the community, but to contribute to the Jewish and general communities up and down the West Coast."

The son of Germany Jewish refugees, Dekro believes that the admonition, "Never Again," applies not just to Jewish victims but to endangered people everywhere.

He estimates that Jewish federations, family foundations, synagogues and rabbinical pension funds collectively manage an eye-popping $25 - $50 billion in assets and endowments.

Shefa's modus operandi calls for investing a tiny fraction of this sum in community-based banks, credit unions and loan funds, admittedly at a loss of some interest returns compared to commercial banks.

These community development financial institutions, in turn, make low-interest loans for their clients for housing, business development, worker retraining, child care and other social services.

TZEDEK (Tzedek/"Justice" Economic Development Campaign), a Shefa subsidiary, has catalyzed $11 million of such investments, since its start four years ago, in Washington, D.C.; Boston; Chicago; Oakland; Greensboro, N.C. and Harrisburg Penn., with other efforts underway in Miami, New York and Philadelphia, according to Bernstein.

Her first goal in Los Angeles is to raise $5.4 million from large institutional funders and private donors for low-income neighborhoods that are starved for credit. She has begun talking to The Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Foundation.

Bernstein feels that her campaign meets Maimonides' criterion for the highest form of charity by helping the recipients to help themselves. She cites the Hebrew Free Loan Societies and landsmanshaften (hometown associations) of the early 20th century, which helped Jewish small-businessmen get started when banks turned them down.

In its second role as distributor of "socially responsible grants," Shefa focuses on four main areas of concern: economic justice, social justice, Middle East peace and transforming Jewish American life.

Typical grants listed in Shefa's last annual report are the Better Beginning Day Care ($500), Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development ($29,600), Jewish Student Press Service ($4,000), and Project Kesher, which trains Jewish women in the former Soviet Union as grass-roots community organizers ($1,500).

As a public foundation, Shefa is not an advocacy organization itself, but makes a variety of grants to groups advocating progressive causes.

In its third role, Shefa seeks to educate contributing funders in socially responsible giving, combining traditional Jewish teachings with contemporary liberal principles.

"We call this the 'Torah of Money' and it informs everything we do," says Dekro, who has co-authored a book on his philosophical outlook called "Jews, Money and Social Responsibility: A 'Torah of Money' for Contemporary Life," (The Shefa Fund, 1993).

Shefa's fundraising, much of it based on its faith in Jewish-Arab cooperation, has been hard hit by the continuing intifada. While in fiscal year 2000 (ending June 30), Shefa was able to distribute $4.25 million in grants, in the current year the figure fell to $3.25 million.

Dekro blames the $1 million drop on "the situation" in Israel. "Peace funding is down and past funders on the highest level have cut back," he says.

One of Shefa's middle-sized grants is for $40,000 to the Committee for the Future, which seeks to launch a new national progressive organization, called USAction.

Although nothing that ambitious is planned in Los Angeles, a quiet effort is underway to bind together the Jewish community's liberal and progressive organizations for mutual support, exchanges of ideas and occasional joint projects.

Key professionals, who meet on a monthly basis, represent Americans for Peace Now, ARZA (Association of Reform Zionists in America), Coalition for Justice in Hawaiian Gardens and Jerusalem, New Israel Fund, Progressive Jewish Alliance, Shefa Fund, Sholem Community, and Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring.

The group is so informal that it hasn't found a name yet. Though suggested designations include "Jewish Progressive L.A.," "Left of Center Group" and "Informal Coalition."

Last April, the group co-sponsored a speaker from Settlement Watch, an Israeli organization opposing expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, with Shefa underwriting the advertising expenses.

Some members of the same group, joined by others, collaborated in placing a half-page ad in The Jewish Journal before last month's solidarity rally, affirming their stand with the people of Israel, while advocating a just peace and mutual respect between all peoples in the Middle East.

The older resident organizations of the coalition have received Shefa as a welcome addition to their ranks, though opinion varies on the group's future role.

"It is very encouraging to have the Shefa Fund here, both for their support and as a confirmation that Los Angeles is seen as a vital community," says Joan Patsy Ostroy, founding president of the Progressive Jewish Alliance and chair of its executive committee.

David Pine, West Coast director for Americans for Peace Now, believes that if the coalition can develop a joint project, Shefa might be able might be able to identify a fundraiser to get the project off the ground.

Mindy Eisner, regional director for ARZA/World Union, North America, represents the only large membership organization in the informal coalition. She sees some common ground with the other members, but so far, she says, "We have not defined what we can accomplish." Susan Lerner, a vegvayser, or leader, of the Sholem Community, hopes that the coalition might revitalize the tradition of social justice, "which it would be criminal for the organized Jewish community to forget."

Eric Gordon, director of the Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring, says that with every constituent organization eager to draw from the same small pool of energetic, generous and progressive activists, the coalition may face some future strains. That, Gordon says, acknowledges that "We [progressives] are a minority in the Jewish community ... but those willing to stick their necks out have always been in the minority."

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