Edgar M. Bronfman Sr. – Remembering a Jewish Philanthropist

I awoke in the middle of the night last night unable to sleep. It was a little before 4:00 AM. I know what time it was because I looked on my phone since the power was out from the winter storm. Shockingly, I noticed from a few email messages, tweets and Facebook postings that the world lost a giant in the field of Jewish philanthropy.

I only had the opportunity to meet Edgar Bronfman, Sr. twice and both were for only fleeting moments. At a Hillel staff conference in New Jersey he seemed to enjoy walking the hotel shmoozing with Hillel staffers and thanking us for our work on campus. It was he who should have been thanked. In the middle of the night I read his very lengthy obituary in the New York Times. As long as this tribute was it still failed to mention so many of the causes he championed and the philanthropic efforts he backed with his family’s fortune.

In October at The Conversation, Gary Rosenblatt’s annual convening of Jewish leaders at the Pearlstone Retreat Center in Maryland, I ate lunch with Dana Raucher, the executive director of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. I listened to Dana share her fondness for Edgar Bronfman, Sr. and articulate how genuine and authentic is his love for the Jewish people and the many causes he supports through his foundation. Upon his passing at his home yesterday on Shabbat, Dana publicly shared the following about her boss:

“Edgar was deeply committed to making Judaism relevant to all those who were seeking it. He sought to build a big tent, open for vigorous debate, impassioned questioning, and full of joy. He loved the energy and exuberance of young people, and took them quite seriously because he recognized that they would be the ones shaping their own Jewish future.”

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Harold Grinspoon Invests in Jewish Families Through PJ Library

Jewish philanthropists of the “mega” variety are always looking for the best ways to use their fortune to benefit the Jewish community. Many of them have set up philanthropic foundations and have paid professionals advising them how to realize the best return on investment for their substantial donations.

In the past two decades, billionaire donors like Les Wexner, Michael Steinhardt, Lynn Schusterman, Sheldon Adelson and the Bronfman family have infused millions of dollars into free 10-day trips to Israel for young adults (Birthright Israel), entrepreneurial programs for rabbis and Jewish educators (STAR Foundation), Jewish teen (BBYO) and college campus initiatives (Hillel), Shabbat enrichment endeavors for synagogues (SYNaplex), and educational programs for adults (Wexner Heritage).
The mega donor whose large scale creative giving has impressed me the most over the past few years is an unassuming, Jewish immigrant who made his fortune in the real estate market. Harold Grinspoon established his foundation to promote Jewish life among young people, adults and families. To date, he’s infused north of $110 million into the Jewish community and has done so without much fanfare.

Harold Grinspoon recognized early on that Jewish summer camps for children have the ability to provide a 24/7 enriching Jewish experience to the future leaders of the Jewish people. While he had the ability to donate millions to Jewish camps to afford underprivileged children with a Jewish camp experience, he went several steps further.

With Harold Grinspoon at Camp Maas in Ortonville, Michigan.

Through the Grinspoon Institute for Jewish Philanthropy, Harold Grinspoon set out to enhance the long-term effectiveness of nonprofit overnight camps. Rather than simply sending more Jewish children to summer camp Grinspoon was determined to improve the camps through intensive leadership training of the staff (young future leaders), enhancing the internal philanthropic environment of each camp, and making capital improvements to allow for more and better programming. Dozens of Jewish camps around North America share their success stories on the Grinspoon Institute’s website.

While large philanthropic giving to Jewish summer camps is not a novel idea, the way Harold Grinspoon leveraged his investments to Jewish camps was creative and will have lasting positive implications for the Jewish community.

But Jewish camping is not Grinspoon’s only philanthropic love. In February 2010 I read an article in the Boston Globe by Eric Moskowitz about Grinspoon’s PJ Library that had just given away its 2 millionth book. I made some notes on a hard copy of the article and planned to write about it on this blog. Somehow the article got filed away and I missed the opportunity.

And then I received an email message yesterday from close friends Cindy and Neil Goldstein of Livingston, NJ. We became friends with the Goldsteins when my wife and I lived in Caldwell, NJ during the final three years of my rabbinical training at the Jewish Theological Seminary. We had our first children just days apart and have remained good friends since.

The Goldstein’s email message explained that Harold Grinspoon arrived at their home on Wednesday to present their daughter Jordana with the PJ Library’s 3 millionth book, Noah’s Swim-a-Thon. I immediately pulled that Boston Globe article out of my file cabinet.

PJ Library Founder Harold Grinspoon reads to Jordana Goldstein at her home in Livingston, NJ

Harold Grinspoon’s creative philanthropic idea for the PJ Library, which distributes free Jewish-themed books and music CDs to children all over North America each month, came from none other than Dolly Parton. Grinspoon explained to the Boston Globe, “I’m in the car one day listening to public radio and I hear that a gal by the name of Dolly Parton is giving away free books to disadvantaged families.”

Grinspoon, who is dyslexic, had not read to his own children when they were young, but he had just been on a flight where he was captivated by a father comforting a crying child with a book. He immediately called Parton’s Imagination Library and arranged to sponsor her program in the Springfield area, where he lives. 

That same spring, he attended a Passover Seder at his son’s house. Around the table in Weston, Grinspoon watched his daughter-in-law give picture books with Jewish themes to each guest. “He was just mesmerized,’’ said Winnie Sandler Grinspoon, his daughter-in-law. “He didn’t even know [such books] existed.’’ 

Grinspoon was surprised by the quality of the stories and illustrations, and more amazed still that his adolescent grandchildren cherished these books from their childhood as much as titles like “Goodnight Moon.’’

He gave his daughter-in-law $500 and told her to buy him a crate of her favorites, which he devoured. Then he dispatched a young assistant to consult with Jewish educators and institutions, with the Imagination Library and packing companies, and present him a report about whether – and how – a Jewish version of Parton’s project might work.

Grinspoon’s PJ Library now sends over 100,000 free books and music to families each month (that figure was only 200 per month in 2005). The program has grown to include, Sifirat Pajama b’America, a division that sends children’s books in Hebrew to Israeli families in North America. Not only have young children and their families been positively affected by Grinspoon’s amazing generosity, but the book publishing industry has seen tremendous growth through the purchasing and distributing of 3 million books in recent years.

Grinspoon reflected at the Goldstein’s home, “While we are thrilled to be delivering the 3 millionth PJ Library book, we won’t rest until we know that every family with Jewish children who wants these wonderful Jewish books is able to receive them… We look forward to delivering the 4 millionth book and 5 millionth book and beyond — and knowing that all across North America and around the world, parents and children are snuggling around PJ Library books, and having special conversations in which parents are transmitting our heritage to the next generation.”

Jewish camping experiences are enduring and have lasting effects on our Jewish community. Those experiences take place outside of the home. Harold Grinspoon’s PJ Library invests in Jewish families by giving parents and grandparents the resources to educate children in the home.

Harold Grinspoon’s dyslexia precluded him from reading to his own children when they were young. As a father who has read dozens and dozens of PJ Library books to my children at bedtime over the past eight years I can honestly say that Harold Grinspoon’s generosity is having a real and meaningful effect. In a way, Harold Grinspoon is now reading to over 100,000 children each month.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Why Jewish Summer Camp Remains Hot Investment for Donors

Professor Arnold Eisen, a scholar of American Judaism and the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, proclaimed, “Nothing I do to build Jewish life, Jewish education, or the Jewish community is more important than getting more kids to Jewish camps.”

Those are strong words from the ivory tower and quite the endorsement of Jewish summer camp. But Eisen wasn’t the only head of a major Jewish academic institution who lauded Jewish summer camping at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s recent Leaders Assembly. He shared the stage with Richard Joel and Rabbi David Ellenson, the presidents of the Orthodox and Reform academies respectively, who both agreed that the answer to Jewish continuity can be found at summer camp.

All three academicians extolled the virtues of the summer camp experience for young Jewish children who seamlessly go from overnight hiking and canoe trips to Friday evening Shabbat services by the lake. The leaders of Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Hebrew Union College took turns standing in front of 400 Jewish camping leaders at the FJC gathering – from camp directors to donors – to explain how their denomination would help to grow the Jewish camping phenomenon in the coming years. These schools train Jewish educators – most of whom discovered or strengthened their Jewish identity at summer camp – and with a $45 million investment from the Jim Joseph Foundation (divided among the three institutions) they will be able to prepare more young people who wish to work in the informal Jewish educational field of Jewish camping.

With over $90 million of philanthropic contributions coming through the FJC since its founding 13 years ago to benefit Jewish camping, it is clear that this is where donors are investing the most capital in what has become known as “Jewish continuity.”

Approximately 72,000 Jewish children currently attend a Jewish summer camp. The statistics show that the Jewish summer camp experience has a tremendous effect on children and their Jewish identity. A recent study by the renowned sociologist Steven M. Cohen commissioned by the FJC shows that Jewish campers grow up to be connected to Jewish life and identify proudly within the Jewish community as adults. “The analysis indicates that they bring, first of all, an increased inclination to practice Jewish behaviors in their lives, from Shabbat candle lighting to using Jewish websites, and to appreciate the value of Jewish charity,” Cohen concludes in the study. “Secondly, they bring an increased inclination to value and seek out the experience of Jewish community, whether in the immediate sense of joining other Jews in prayer or in the more abstract sense of identifying with fellow Jews in Israel.”

Most Jewish summer camps are nonprofits and, historically, have not been able to compete with the lavish facilities and stellar sports programs at the privately owned for-profit camps. But that is changing. Over the past decade the hottest cause for major philanthropists in the Jewish community has been funding the growth of Jewish summer camps, which means seeding new camps and ensuring there are ample need-based scholarships to afford all young Jewish children the ability to experience the magic of camp.

Camp leaders have long recognized that a main reason more young people don’t make Jewish camping part of their annual summer experience has been because they choose to focus on one interest like drama or a particular sport and seek out camps that specialize in those activities. FJC has put its attention into funding such specialty camps that concentrate on one main interest category but also infuse the Jewish magic for which Jewish camps have been known. FJC was able to open five new camps in 2010 as a result of the first Specialty Camps Incubator – based on a business incubator model – and now the second wave of that program has been launched resulting from the $8.6 million investment by the AVI CHAI Foundation together with the Jim Joseph Foundation.

There seems to be something inherently Jewish about summer camp. Indeed, when Jewish adults gather the conversation inevitably turns to Jewish camp memories filled with nostalgia. When two adult Jews meet for the first time, the game of “Jewish Geography” ensues and “Which camp did you go to?” and “Did you know so-and-so who went to that camp?” are the unavoidable questions.

As Eisen has written about Jewish summer camp, “For once in these kids’ lives, Jewishness is not something they are or do off to the side of life, in Hebrew school or synagogue. It is not a subject for debate but simply there, taken for granted, a part of what happens 24/7.”

No matter what the activity – from baseball and boating to crafts and campfires – the social aspects of Jewish camp all play out in a constant Jewish milieu. The benefits of those summer experiences are reaped over the course of a lifetime for the Jewish individual, and in turn for the Jewish community as well. Spring is upon us and we are now focused on Passover, but thousands of young Jewish children are already counting the days until school vacation and their own exodus to the freedom of another memorable summer at Jewish camp.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Jewish Summer Camp and Helicopter Parents

Originally published on JTA.org

Parents find new benefit to Jewish camp: Freedom from themselves

When she took the stage recently before an audience of 400 Jewish camping enthusiasts, Lenore Skenazy wasted no time in addressing why she is known as “America’s Worst Mom.”

The author of a 2008 column in The New York Times describing how she let her 9-year-old son ride the subway home alone just to see if he could do it, Skenazy has been the subject of sharp criticism for her parenting philosophy. But Skenazy is fighting back, waging war against what she describes as overzealous and anxiety-ridden helicopter parents who hover over their children rather than letting them be “free-range kids,” affording them the freedom to make mistakes.

She even wrote a book on the subject: “Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry.”

Lenore Skenazy at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Leaders Assembly

“Sending your kids to camp is a fantastic way to give kids back their freedom,” Skenazy said at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s recent Leaders Assembly in this central New Jersey city. “Homesickness is a good thing. It shows they appreciate their home. So, thank God for camp.”

Summer camp has emerged as one of the most promising tools in the struggle to ensure Jewish continuity in an era when Jews face more choice and fewer barriers to assimilation. A recent study by the sociologist Steven M. Cohen commissioned by the FJC shows that campers grow up to be connected to Jewish life and identify proudly within the Jewish community as adults.

“The analysis indicates that they bring, first of all, an increased inclination to practice Jewish behaviors in their lives, from Shabbat candle lighting to using Jewish websites, and to appreciate the value of Jewish charity,” Cohen concludes in the study. “Secondly, they bring an increased inclination to value and seek out the experience of Jewish community, whether in the immediate sense of joining other Jews in prayer or in the more abstract sense of identifying with fellow Jews in Israel.”

Since its launch 13 years ago, the foundation has raised approximately $90 million to strengthen Jewish camps and, more recently, to encourage the growth of so-called Jewish specialty camps — those that focus on sports, art or outdoor adventures — in an attempt to siphon off some of the Jewish campers who might be drawn to non-Jewish camps focusing on specialty areas.

But the focus on identity building has obscured what some say is another, less-touted benefit of the camp experience that should also be a draw for Jewish parents: affording their kids a measure of freedom from intensive parenting.

“Kids go to camp and gain independence,” said Nancy Lublin, the founder of the nonprofits Dress for Success and DoSomething.org, and another speaker at the conference. “That’s why we need camp. It’s about the fun, tradition and independence. Go get dirty, get lice, sprain something. Parents will see that they don’t come home with their nose pierced, purple hair or worshiping the devil. It’s okay.”

Nancy Lublin of DoSomething.org addresses Jewish Summer Camp leaders

Helicopter parenting, a term used to refer to parents that hover over their children and pay exceedingly close attention to their every activity — sometimes to a degree that borders on smothering — is hardly a Jewish phenomenon. It has been the subject of numerous books and articles, and of late has sparked its own backlash. But Jewish parents, and particularly the much-maligned stereotypical Jewish mother, may be more susceptible to such impulses than most.

“We Jewish parents are definitely overprotective of our kids, and it’s tough to send them to overnight camp,” Lublin said. “But we all know it’s the right thing to do. It’s just what Jews do.”

For some parents, however, summer camp may not be a cure-all. Parents still call and write their kids and, with the proliferation of new communications technologies, they can remain involved to a degree that parents of a previous generation were not.

“Even when the children are away at camp, the parents will still be hovering,” said Michael Salamon, a psychologist in New York who has fingered overparenting as one of the reasons behind the so-called shidduch crisis, in which a glut of young unmarried adults — mainly in the Orthodox community — struggle to find suitable mates.

“I met with parents in a recent session who were so overprotective of their child that it was hindering the child’s ability to perform well in school,” Salamon said. “They told me they felt it was important to send their child to camp this summer to encourage independence, but really what I noticed is that they were looking for a vacation for themselves. They work so hard at parenting that they need a break.”

For parents like these, summer camp is a way to loosen the reins a little but in a way that still feels relatively safe.

Stephanie Steiner of Springfield, N.J., describes her own parenting style as “somewhat overprotective.” Still, every summer she ships off her kids to Camp Harlam, a Reform movement camp in Pennsylvania. They’ve demonstrated more independence as a result, which makes the experience — and the expense — worth it.

“We feel very comfortable with the camp and who is running it and how it is run, so it makes it easier,” Steiner said. “The camp’s motto is ‘Where friends become family,’ and we know our kids are so happy at their home away from home.”

Whatever the benefits of Jewish camping, there’s little sign that enthusiasm for it is on the wane. The Jim Joseph Foundation and the Avi Chai Foundation have put up $8.6 million in grant money to bring more Jewish children into the camping world by focusing on their specialized hobbies.

“Camp gives kids the permission to be themselves. Parents trust that camp is a positive place for building self-esteem and self-confidence,” said Jeremy Fingerman, the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “Jewish camp brings that and an even stronger sense of community.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

A Detroit Jewish Nonprofit Competes in Facebook Contest to Win $250,000

Thousands in Metro Detroit’s Jewish community have been flocking to Home Depot’s Facebook page in recent weeks. No, they are not all interested in becoming fans of the national retail giant. They are simply trying to help a local social service agency win $250,000 from the Home Depot Foundation.

Jewish Family Service in Michigan was one of 12 nonprofits around the country to win a monthly prize of $25,000 cash and another $5,000 in Home Depot gift cards from the Home Depot Foundation this past January. That win put them in the competition for the Aprons in Action contest that will give away a total of a half-million dollars in March. JFS plans to use the cash prize for its Project Build! program, which provides JFS clients with safe and barrier-free homes through pro bono repairs and renovations provided by local builders, remodelers and suppliers.

While many nonprofits in the Jewish community are still trying to find their way in the new world of social media, online contests like the Home Depot Foundation’s Aprons in Action have pushed nonprofit organizations to create a social media strategy to get out the vote on Facebook, the social networking site that boasts more than 850 million users.

Retail giants like Target and Home Depot, as well as large corporations like Toyota and Ford Motor Company, have drawn millions of Facebook users to their corporate and foundation “Fan Pages” through their online contests.

These crowd-raising initiatives have required nonprofits to familiarize themselves with such 21st-century terms as “social clout,” “social analytics,” “network amplification,” “true reach” and “social media influence.” Additionally, these nonprofits that compete in the contests have to quickly bolster their own online social identity to broadcast their participation in the contest. Many of these nonprofits are trying to raise their online presence on a shoestring budget, if they have allocated any marketing funds to social media at all.

In most cases, competing in such online contests is a gamble for the nonprofits because they don’t know what their return on investment will be, and they are allocating a lot of resources, including staff time, to the cause. JFS has recruited Jewish professionals and lay leaders in the community to reach out to their own networks to encourage daily voting on the Home Depot Foundation Facebook page during March. Local members of the Jewish community were asked to include reminders on their social networking sites and in email signatures. Some also participate in “post-a-thons,” where volunteers gather at a site and recruit voters via laptop postings. Additionally, JFS offered a daily email reminder service to increase its odds of securing the most votes.

“The Home Depot contest, as well as our success last summer at winning Toyota’s 100 Cars for Good competition, has made us aware that everything we do needs to have a social media layer,” explained Perry Ohren, CEO of JFS. “This has profound meaning in terms of our timing and our message. Timing has to be instantaneous and our message has to be short and engaging.”

One organization that has found much success in using its social reach to garner the votes needed to win online contests is Chabad Lubavitch. The international organization headquartered in Brooklyn exploits social networking not only to broadcast its message globally, but to also win financial grants. Chabad schools and service organizations, like the Friendship Circle, have used Facebook and Twitter to rack up hundreds of thousands of votes in national contests for six- figure grants by Chase Community Giving and Target Stores.

In a Facebook contest sponsored by Kohl’s Cares, 12 Jewish day schools in the U.S. finished in the top 20 of the competition, with 11 of those schools being Chabad-affiliated. Friendship Circle of Michigan, an organization dedicated to helping children with special needs, won $100,000 when it finished third in the Chase Community Giving Challenge on Facebook after using several social media tools to get out the vote.

Through these online contests, major corporations are able to donate funds to social service organizations, but it’s not completely altruistic. After all, the corporations are attracting a lot of attention to their brand. In the case of Home Depot, they are able to get thousands of people to visit their Facebook page each day for a month and look at their corporate logo, even if it is subliminal advertising. That is valuable advertising for the company and the half-million dollar investment is a small fraction of the retail giant’s more than $1 billion advertising budget.

Foundations for these large companies, like the Home Depot Foundation, have to make large charitable gifts each year so they figure they should at least help promote their corporate brand in the process.

Regardless of the motivation behind these online contests, it is certain that they have been the driving force in getting nonprofits to focus more on social media strategies. Hopefully, when there’s no large cash prize at the end of the rainbow, nonprofits will continue to utilize social media to promote theircause, raise awareness about their mission and solicit donations.

Originally published in the Detroit Jewish News and posted on the eJewishPhilanthropy.com blog

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Sheldon Yellen – CEO and Mensch

Yesterday morning, we heard the words from the Torah portion Ki Tavo, which included the blessing that God shall make us the head and not the tail. This blessing is often repeated on Rosh Hashanah Eve and some even have the head of a fish on their holiday dinner table as a reminder of this blessing. According to the Torah, it is good to be the head.

That’s not always the case in the business world however. CEOs may have been blessed to be the “head” and not the “tail,” but it oftentimes seems like more of a curse. Over the past decade we’ve seen many disgraced CEOs who are not good examples of doing what’s right. We certainly wouldn’t consider the corporate heads of Enron, Tyco, Adelphia or WorldCom to be role models for our children.

There are exceptions. There are CEOs who demonstrate strong leadership skills along with ethical behavior. Several years ago I gave a sermon about Aaron Feuerstein, the CEO of Maden Mills, who after his entire plant burned down spent millions of his own money to keep all of his 3,000 employees on the payroll with full benefits for 6 months. Feuerstein consistently did the right thing even when it was difficult and he was faced with significant challenges. He claimed his strong ethical behavior and sense of justice as a corporate head were due to his faith and Talmud education.

Photo courtesy of Belfor

There is another CEO, who like Feuerstein, is striving to be a mensch and give back to his community. Sheldon Yellen, the CEO of Belfor is not your typical CEO. Tonight he’ll be at the Emmy Awards, where his episode of “Undercover Boss” is nominated for an Emmy. Sheldon went undercover in the CBS reality show “Undercover Boss” and received an education about how hard his employees work and how difficult it is for them to make ends meet. Yellen was so moved by all the lower-level employees he met that he eventually broke down and revealed himself as the CEO of the international disaster restoration company that is based in Michigan. The episode is up for an Emmy Award in the category of Outstanding Reality Program.

Yellen’s episode of “Undercover Boss” is a long shot to win an Emmy tonight against the other nominees including “Hoarders,” “Antiques Roadshow,” “Deadliest Catch,” Kathy Griffin’s show, and an episode of “MythBusters” guest starring President Obama. But while Yellen may not win an Emmy tonight, he is quite deserving of a mensch award.

In the episode of “Undercover Boss,” Sheldon demonstrated strong moral character and was able to show his emotions on national TV. Sheldon learned a great deal about his employees, their passion for the job, and how hard they work to support their families. He came off as an inspirational leader and the episode proved to be an important lesson for the upcoming Jewish holidays. I’m not the only rabbi who noticed that Sheldon’s experience of going undercover is a lesson for all of us as we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Sheldon recently received a phone call from a Connecticut rabbi asking him to be the guest speaker at the community’s Selichot services this year. In his typical humble fashion, Sheldon couldn’t understand why the rabbi would want him to speak. However, he agreed and will be the featured speaker at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Bridgeport this Saturday night. He’ll speak about his journey from a challenging childhood in Detroit to becoming a wealthy businessman and philanthropist. He’ll also talk about system of values he draws on as a CEO.

Yellen and his three brothers were raised on Welfare by their mother in Detroit during the 1950s. Their father was a great person, but became sick and eventually developed an addiction to methadone after having nine stomach operations in the course of only two years. Growing up in an affluent Jewish community in which he and his brothers had to work from a very young age and with a father who was in prison (for dealing drugs) was difficult for Yellen. He told me that his mother didn’t have enough money to belong to a synagogue or send Sheldon to Hebrew School, but right before he turned thirteen she decided that it was important for him to have a bar mitzvah. An Orthodox synagogue agreed to let him have a bar mitzvah, but he didn’t have the Hebrew background. He was called to the Torah for his aliyah with the blessings transliterated in English on a piece of paper. The Orthodox men were expecting him to actually read from the Torah. It is a memory that has lasted with Yellen to this day.

In the past year Sheldon Yellen has made lasting contributions to his community. He bought a financially distressed private Jewish country club in order to keep its Jewish roots alive. He also funded a Toledo, Ohio-based yeshiva that had run out of living space for its young students. He was able to donate enough money so that the yeshiva could move into a new facility in suburban Detroit with enough room for both study and living quarters for its students. Yellen has also committed himself to Torah study at the local Detroit Kollel. The Jewish education he missed out on as a child is now one of his top priorities.

In addition to his philanthropy, Yellen has proved himself to be a very generous individual on a personal level. Recently, Michael Kenwood, a 39-year-old New Jersey volunteer EMT, was killed during Hurricane Irene while trying to save others’ lives. That hero’s sister-in-law is Amy Margolis of Birmingham, Michigan. When Amy and her family were unable to get a flight to New Jersey for her relative’s funeral because of the hurricane, they had no choice but to get in the car and drive. She was already on the road making the Michigan-New Jersey trek when she received a call from Sheldon Yellen who offered to meet them on the road and escort them to the airport where they would board one of his two private jets.

Margolis was quoted in the Detroit Jewish News saying that Yellen’s act of kindness makes him a mensch and an angel. “I didn’t do anything anybody else wouldn’t have done,” Sheldon Yellen said.

In an era when CEOs don’t always do the right thing and often act immorally, it is refreshing to see Sheldon Yellen demonstrate that a CEO can also be a mensch and a role model. While he might not win an Emmy Award tonight, he certainly has made a positive difference in his own company and in his community. He’s made a fortune restoring properties, but Sheldon Yellen might just have enough integrity and generosity to restore the reputation of our nation’s disgraced CEOs.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

MC Hammer Performs at Jewish National Fund Party

For generations, fundraising efforts for the Jewish National Fund have centered around dropping loose change into little blue metal boxes. In fact, stories abound regarding the millions of dollars sent to the JNF from Hebrew School children to plant forests and make the dessert bloom in Israel during the first decades of statehood.

Apparently, the Jewish National Fund has now moved on from the little blue boxes (pushkes) and is ready to try something new. If the JNF was able to make the dessert bloom then perhaps it won’t be such a monumental task to revive the career of 1990s rapper MC Hammer. Yes, THAT MC Hammer!

On September 22 in Toronto the JNF will host its Future Party and it will be “Hammer Time.” I’m not sure exactly what the conversation sounded like when the Toronto branch of the JNF was planning this Future Party. What other names were thrown out before they arrived at MC Hammer? Did they consider Bobby Brown or Tone Loc? Maybe Kid ‘n Play would be a bigger draw, I’m not sure.

I certainly hope the crowd will come out for what will definitely be a nostalgic evening for many of the young adults who were in middle school and high school when MC Hammer was turning out hits like “U Can’t Touch This” and “Hammer Time”.

The event benefits a very important cause. Proceeds raised from the Future Party will go toward the development of a sports field at the Yafit Park complex in Kibbutz HaHotrim in the northern Carmel coast. The project will fund a multi-functional sports field where the kibbutz residents can enjoy games of football, volleyball and basketball. In 2000, the kibbutz economy collapsed, and as a result the community underwent radical changes in its socioeconomic structure.

Tickets for the Future Party featuring MC Hammer can be purchased online.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Clarifying Natalie Portman’s Hadassah Gift That Never Was

I pride myself on always trying to provide factual information on this blog. However, it has come to my attention that six years ago, in March 2005, I reposted a news report that the Jewish/Israeli actress Natalie Portman made a $50 million gift to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. I didn’t provide any of my own commentary on the post, but simply reposted a news report that had been published on several other websites, based on Israel’s Arutz7. A Google search still retrieves many of the original news reports of Portman’s supposed gift from 2005. Here is what the Arutz7 website report about Portman’s donation looked like back in 2005:

The operative word in the Arutz7 article above is “including,” insinuating that a total of $50 million was received including a “large donation” by Natalie Portman. That was misinterpreted when it was reposted on the NataliePortman.org blog (clip below):

Now, Natalie Portman has won an Oscar and is starring in several big box office films. She is also making headlines for standing up to Dior’s John Galliano and speaking out against his anti-Semitic slurs. Hadassah issued a statement last week praising the actress for her courageous stand. And then, I’m sure some Google searches by Hadassah staff and members turned up the various blog posts from 2005 about the $5 million gift that turns out to be a misunderstanding.

So, six years went by and no one seemed to question this erroneous donation? I did a little research and it turns out that a woman named Phyllis commented on a blog in April 2005, stating “she [Portman] didn’t donate $50 million personally-they received donations of $50 million and her donation was included in that re-read the article: ‘Jerusalem’s Hadassah hospital received a $50 million donation last week including a large donation from one of the people born there — famed Jewish actress Natalie Portman.”

Early this week, I began receiving emails from Hadassah staff members inquiring about this supposed donation. And then I received this message from Hadassah:

“This ‘story’ was originally misreported exactly six years ago this month when Hadassah announced it had raised $50 million in just two short years from quite a variety of sources for a new center for emergency medicine. Natalie Portman appeared at the event but did not contribute to the center. For some unknown reason, last week, people began to re-circulate the very old, very wrong version of the story claiming that Portman had made a $50 million donation. Hadassah would be grateful if you would post a correction to this post. This was obviously no fault of yours. But these things quickly take on a life of their own. Thanks very much.”

So, I am hereby retracting the misinformation that was published on this blog in March 2005. Natalie Portman has been a strong supporter of Hadassah Hospital and I’m sure she will continue to be, however, she never made a $50 million donation to the expanded emergency trauma unit.

I’ll conclude this post by reminding everyone that the new Sarah Wetsman Davidson Tower at Hadassah Hospital, named for the mother of the late Jewish philanthropist Bill Davidson of Detroit, is still in need of funds and I encourage everyone to contribute to this important cause.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Razoo Corrects Its Israel Problem

Here’s my recent post on the Jewish Techs blog for The Jewish Week

If you didn’t receive numerous email solicitations from non-profit organizations during the final week of 2010, then your email server was likely down.

Many of these charitable organizations that sent year end pleas for your contributions have begun using Razoo.com, which claims to have raised more than $42 million for thousands of worthy causes. Razoo’s LinkedIn profile describes the company as “a new way to give and raise money online. We offer visually engaging and inspiring content along with easy-to-use, free tools for individuals and nonprofit organizations to raise awareness, raise funds, connect, and share.” The company is led by CEO Sebastian Traeger, based in Washington D.C.

When I received an email solicitation from eJewishPhilanthropy, I clicked the link and was introduced to the Razoo website. Within minutes, I set up a fundraising account for my congregation. I’ve since noticed that many Jewish non-profits are using Razoo for online donations. I’ve been very pleased with the website thus far.

Yesterday, eJewishPhilanthropy’s founder Dan Brown wrote an op-ed on the eJP website asking “Does Razoo Have an Israel Problem?” He wrote:

Two weeks ago, during the peak week for online donations, we had several people who live in Israel contact us to indicate they could not donate through Razoo’s platform as Israel was not an option listed on their country list (see above). We contacted Razoo, who responded:

“Due to high rates of fraud, we do not accept donations from cardholders in the following countries: Israel, Ukraine, Indonesia, Serbia, Lithuania, Egypt, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Russia, Pakistan, Malaysia, Nigeria and Ghana. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this causes for you and the work you are doing. Our chief goal is to protect the integrity of the giving process for all parties involved: non-profits, donors, fundraisers, and Razoo. At first glance, one would think, ok Israel is not being singled out; we’re one of several. But a little checking around told us that you could not only use a credit card with an Israel billing address on the likes of Amazon and eBay, but also on nonprofit giving platforms including Blackbaud, Convio and even Global Giving. In terms of online payments, these are pretty large global organizations so one expects they’re current on credit card fraud problems around the world.”

Today, Dan Brown sent out an update that alerted readers of eJewishPhilanthropy that Razoo was changing its policy on accepting Israeli credit cards. He sent a “shout-out to both the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and J-Town Productions who were also proactive in pushing this issue.” The company released the following statement:

Razoo respects its donors and nonprofits without discrimination, and aims to to provide a safe and trusted online environment for donors to contribute to the 501(c)(3)s they care about. Razoo’s intent was not in any way to make political statements towards any country’s legitimacy. After evaluating our fraud policies, we have taken steps to address the situation to allow donations from Israel and appreciate valuable feedback from organizations like yours. We are planning to launch the new functionality on Wednesday, January 12th or on Thursday, January 13th.

Kudos for Razoo and Sebastian Traeger for acting so quickly in correcting this oversight.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Donor Recognition Gone Wild

There is usually some form of recognition when donors give a significant amount to an organization. The plaques that decorate the hallways of hospitals, symphony halls, universities, and museums is nothing new. In the Jewish community, there seems to be a longstanding joke about the large amount of plaques dotting the walls to recognize donors.

Locals in the Detroit Jewish community often quip that they wouldn’t be surprised if a certain large synagogue in town put donor plaques above the urinals in the Men’s room. And in rabbinical school, I recall a discussion about the irony that in a faith tradition that recognizes the Maimonidean philosophy that the ultimate form of charity is to give anonymously, there are so many ways we recognize donors by name. Of course, the names on synagogue sanctuaries, on Jewish Community Center gyms, on Torah covers and in the inside cover of prayer books, and on the walls of day schools are all lasting legacies to the donors or tributes to the memory of their loved ones. I’ve long believed that donors, both those who create large endowment funds and those who give on a smaller scale, deserve recognition for their generosity and benevolence.

But as this satirical video demonstrates, sometimes donor recognition does go too far. This funny video from Israel was sent by Dan Brown of eJewishPhilanthropy, who is currently in New Orleans at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly amidst thousands of Jewish donors and those working to secure their charitable gifts. Even if you don’t speak Hebrew, you will understand the premise of the video.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller