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Jewish nonprofits are struggling. How should donors try to rescue them?

Jewish nonprofits down $650 million

By BEN SALES NEW YORK (JTA) — In the weeks after it became clear that the coronavirus pandemic would spark a lasting economic crisis, the Jewish world’s leading funder group put together a memo with some back-of-the-envelope projections for how much Jewish nonprofits stood to lose.

The tally: at least $650 million, according to the internal document from the Jewish Federations of North America, which was based on estimates from several American Jewish umbrella organizations, such as the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the JCC Association of North America. The document was produced in March and obtained by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
The document says Jewish camps, schools, community centers and other groups like college Hillels will need that much or more to make it through the pandemic, which has already caused widespread layoffs and furloughs at Jewish community centers across the United States.
On Monday, a coalition of large Jewish philanthropic foundations pledged $80 million to shore up struggling Jewish organizations. But now, with it becoming increasingly clear that the world will not snap back to its former shape anytime soon, that number appears to be a fraction of what will be needed. Doron Krakow, CEO of the JCC Association of North America, told JTA earlier this month that the need would exceed $800 million if camps have to close for the summer and a recession drags into a second year.
The sudden financial blow is reanimating a longstanding debate about the best way to support America’s robust infrastructure of Jewish nonprofits. Should collective, communal fundraising bodies like Jewish federations have responsibility for disbursing philanthropy across the Jewish world? Or should the wide array of private Jewish family foundations each give separately to their causes?
Proponents of the network of Jewish federations, which act as collective funding bodies for local Jewish communities across the country, have suggested a single massive pool of coronavirus philanthropic assistance, to be managed centrally. No overarching plan has been put forward yet, but the Jewish Telegraphic Agency has learned that several leading funders are working to form a fund that would provide loans to Jewish organizations on the brink of going broke.
Among them is Krakow, who has called for private Jewish foundations and Jewish federations, which act as collective charities for Jewish communities across the country, to create a loan fund of $1 billion.
“There’s a need to know with confidence that we can keep one eye on the horizon and know that there’s a day after,” he said.
But some in the world of Jewish philanthropy are already raising questions about whether a centrally administered megafund is the best strategy to shepherd geographically and programmatically diverse organizations through the crisis.
“A ‘Billion Dollar Fund,’ a ‘Jewish New Deal’ [or] a ‘COVID czar’ are fine and well-intentioned ideas that look good on paper and seem simple and straightforward, but they are anything but,” Andres Spokoiny, CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, which convenes Jewish donors and foundations, wrote in a recent essay in the publication eJewish Philanthropy.
“As leaders it’s our responsibility to accept reality and focus on practical, smaller-scale, sector-specific solutions that can work,” Spokoiny wrote. “The aggregate of all those will be surely larger than any central fund and will produce a richer and more vibrant result.”
The $80 million fund, announced Monday, appears to attempt a third way. It’s a coalition between the Jewish Federations of North America and eight large Jewish philanthropic foundations. Called the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund, it will prioritize organizations that focus on education, leadership and engagement, though a press release did not provide further detail on those fields.
The fund will provide short-term loans to organizations to meet payroll and maintain operations in the next three to six months, and will also award grants that do not have to be repaid. Participating foundations include the Jim Joseph Foundation, Maimonides Fund, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and others.
“We have also seen firsthand the acute challenges Jewish organizations across the country are facing,” read a statement from the funders. “While this fund alone cannot address all of those challenges, we believe that investing together in these vital pillars of Jewish life will help ensure a stronger future for American Jewry in the months and years to come,”
Beyond that fund, experts in American Jewish philanthropy say that large individual donors and family foundations are likely to eschew putting their money in a giant pool. While federations used to dominate the Jewish giving scene, they and their ethos of collective giving have ceded more ground to private foundations, as large donors have become more involved in the causes they fund and more particular about how their money is spent.
“If we’ve seen any trend in philanthropy over the course of the last number of decades, it’s to targeted giving,” said Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “Donors are leery of giving large amounts of their philanthropy to a pot that will be divided up, not according to their own wishes but according to the directives of some body that would make the decision. Federations obviously have suffered from this.”
But there’s still interplay between large donors and federations, said Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim, a visiting scholar at Brandeis University who focuses on American Jewish philanthropy. Many Jewish family foundations give to their local Jewish federations and, in turn, sit on their boards or have influence over where the federation money goes.
“The golden rule of, the size of your donation impacts the size of your involvement, is very relevant to the world of Jewish federations,” said Bar Nissim, who is also deputy director of the Ruderman Family Foundation. “The more you give, the more you can have a say and become involved.”
No matter how the debate is settled — or whether it is at all — it’s clear that funders must move quickly if they are to blunt the effects of the pandemic, which has rendered at least 20 million Americans jobless in just four weeks.
Other Jewish philanthropies have also started doling out funds. New York’s UJA-Federation has announced $43 million in grants to social service organizations, JCCs and individuals in need.
And the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which usually gives approximately $3 million annually to Jewish camps, has announced an additional $10 million in matching grants to help camps survive whatever financial damage this coming summer may bring.
The foundation’s leadership understands that $10 million is not nearly enough to fill camps’ anticipated needs — that would take about $150 million, the foundation estimates. Still, Sarah Eisinger, who heads the foundation’s camp initiative, said she hoped the $10 million dollars would set an example and give the camps a measure of hope.
“It’s only one intervention,” she said. “It’s only one slice of a much larger pie. But the early impact of that money and the psychological lift of a shot in the arm will fuel a sense of optimism and a possibility to raise resources.”
The foundation moved quickly in part because its president, Winnie Grinspoon, realized that hewing to longstanding giving practices, or waiting for them to be renegotiated, would deepen the financial devastation that is already unfolding.
“This is an unprecedented situation, as we all know, and the rules and restrictions we might operate under at a normal time go out the window,” Grinspoon said.
She added, “This is the moment to give boldly, to go beyond our normal giving structure and limitations for those who are able to reach deep into their pockets, so we don’t look back with regret.”

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Brothers Arnie & Michael Usiskin’s Warkov-Safeer a throwback to days of long ago

Arnie (left) & Michael Usiskin

By MYRON LOVE Step into Warkov-Safeer on Hargrave in the Exchange District and you’ll feel like you’ve walked back in time to an earlier era. The shelves are crammed full of shoe-related accessories – soles, heels, laces, polish, threads, needles, dyes – and other leather-related needs. 
“There used to be a shoemaker on every corner,” says Michael Usiskin, whose family has operated the wholesaler for more than 50 years.  “People used to keep their shoes for years.  They might resole them ten times.  Now you might have five pairs in your closet – different shoes for different occasions, and buy a new pair every year or two.”
Usiskin adds that “there is no place else like us between Toronto and Vancouver.  When we moved here in the 1970s, this area was buzzing with garment workers and sewing machines. This was a hub of activity. It’s a lot quieter now.”
While the Usiskin Family has been connected with the company for 85 years, Michael Usiskin points out that the company – originally catering to the horse trade – was actually founded in 1930 in Winkler by the eponymous Warkov brothers – Jacob, Mendel and Morris – and their brother-in-law, Barney Safeer.  Larry Usiskin, father of Michael and his brother and partner, Arnie, went to work for the company in 1939, four years after the partners moved the business to Winnipeg (to a location at Selkirk and Main).
The late Larry Usiskin and his late wife, Roz, were leaders in Winnipeg’s secular Yiddishist community.  The Usiskin brothers received their elementary schooling at the secular Sholem Aleichem School at the corner of Pritchard and Salter in the old North End.
“Our dad was maybe 16 or 17 when he went to work for Warkov-Safeer in 1939,” Michael Usiskin notes.  “He would do deliveries on his bike to shoe repair shops.”
He never left.
Michael Usiskin relates that, during the war years, the company relocated to larger premises at King and Bannatyne to accommodate a growing demand for its expanding product lines.
Larry Usiskin bought the business in 1969 – with a partner – in 1969.  It was not a given that either Michael or Arnie would join the family endeavour.  Michael was the first of the brothers to come on board. That was in 1984.
Michael had been working for Videon Public Access TV for the previous seven years.  “I was a producer, editor and camera man,” he recalls. 
Among the programs he worked on were Noach Witman’s Jewish television hour and such classics as “Math with Marty”  and Natalie and Ronne Pollock’s show.
“Dad began talking about retirement,” Michael recounts.   “With budget cuts and lay-offs coming to Videon, it was a good time for me to get out and join Dad in business.”
Michael became Warkov-Safeer’s managing partner in 1995 on the senior Usiskin’s retirement.  Arnie joined his brother in partnership in 1998.
“I had been working for CBC for 17 years as a technician,” Arnie relates.  “A confluence of events presented me with the opportunity to go into the family business.”
Although Arnie bought out Michael’s previous partner,  he continued on at CBC for another four years before accepting a buyout. 
“I went from show business into shoe business,” he jokes.
Today, Warkov-Safeer has customers from Ontario to the West Coast. “Things have changed considerably over the years for our business,” Michael notes. “Our shoe market is now solely more expensive brands. And we also supply a lot of leather and leather-related products for hobbyists.”
He reports that a lot of their marketing has long been done by word of mouth.  “We used to go to a fair number of trade shows, but not so much anymore,” he adds.  “We now have a number of sales representatives throughout Western Canada and Ontario.”
“We’re not high tech,” Arnie points out.  “We have a niche market.  What we sell is a form of recycling – allowing people to look after and fix their shoes.  We see a trend developing in this area.”
While Arnie and Michael Usiskin have no plans to retire quite yet,  they do acknowledge though they are not getting any younger and would welcome someone younger to come into the business who might be willing one day to lead Warkov-Safeer into the future. 

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Winnipeg-based singer/songwriter Orit Shimoni spreading her wings again after being grounded by Covid lockdown

By MYRON LOVE In the spring of 2020, Canadian-Israeli singer/songwriter Orit Shimoni was in the midst of a cross Canada tour. She had started in Vancouver, had a show in Edmonton and stepped off the train in Winnipeg just as the Covid  lockdowns were underway.  Shimoni was essentially stuck In our city, knowing virtually on one.
Four years later, she is still here, having found a supportive community and, while she has resumed touring, she has decided for now to make Winnipeg her home base.
“I really appreciate the artistic scene here,” she says.  “I plan on being away on tour a lot, but I have understanding and rent is affordable.”
Our community also benefits from having such a multi-talented individual such as Shimoni living among us.  Over the past 15 years, the former teacher – with a Masters degree in Theology, has toured worldwide as well as producing 12 albums of original works to date – the most recent being “Winnipeg”, a series of commentaries on her life experiences, wishes and dreams over the past couple of years – which was released last fall.
She has also produced an album of songs for Chanukah.
According to her website, Shimoni expounds on her “truths, her feelings and tells her stories” in venues that include bars, clubs and cafes, coffee houses and folkfests, theatres, back yards, living rooms, and trains.  Her music is described as a potpourri of “bold and raw, soft and tender, witty and humourous,” incorporating  empathy and condemnation, spirituality and whimsy,” and crosses different genres such as blues, folk and country and “speaks to the human condition, the human heart and the times  that we find ourselves in”.
She observes that the inspiration for her songs can come from anywhere, including conversations with others, nature, history, news and her own lived experiences.
In response to the ongoing situation in Israel today, she reports that she is trying to use her music to create positive energy in trying to foster a commonality between people.

Red Door Painting by Orit Shimoni

In addition to adding to her musical corpus while in Winnipeg these past four years, Shimoni notes that she has used her enforced lockdown downtime to explore other ventures. One of those new areas that she has been focusing on is art.
“I have always had an interest in painting,” she says.  While she hasn’t had an exhibition of her painting yet, she has prints for sale and is available for commissions.
“My last two albums have my paintings as the cover art,” she points out.
Another area that the singer/songwriter has been developing over the past four years is writing and performing personalized songs for special occasions.  “I can bring to birthdays, weddings and memorials personalized songs to mark the occasion,” she notes.  “It is another way that I have diversified what I can offer.”
One project she completed last year – with support from the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba – was “singing the songs of our elders” in which she interviewed several Jewish seniors – with the help of Gray Academy students – and told their stories in song. 
Among other performances she has given locally over the past year was a special appearance before a group of Holocaust survivors at the Gwen Secter Creative Living Centre, a self-written, one woman show – called “The Wandering Jew” at Tarbut in November and, most recently, a concert last month at Gordie’s Coffee House on Sterling Lyon Parkway.
Another new area of exploration for Shimoni is animation.  In an interview with Roots Music Canada last fall, she embarked on an ambitious animation project based on her song “One Voice,” which she wrote a few years ago, and which perfectly reflects the anxiety that many people are feeling in these troubled times.
 Last October, she was back on tour – with renowned American songwriter Dan Bern  – after three years away from the road.  She did two weeks’ worth of concerts in American West Coast states and Colorado  – and. in late January, she began a month-long journey that started with shows in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal and stops throughout the Midwest as far as Texas.
She recently returned to Montreal for a show and is currently doing a series of concerts in Germany – with further stops in Belgium, Holland and England.
“It will be good to be back in Europe,” she says.  “I have developed a loyal following in Germany and elsewhere.”
A writer for one publication in Berlin described Shimoni as ‘one of the most interesting singer/songwriters I have met in a long time.”
Here at home, Winnipeg concert promoter Ian Mattey observes that “with each concert, her audience has grown – a testament to the wonderful balance of her lyrical genius, haunting voice and musical talent.”
The singer/songwriter feels grounded – in a good way – in our fair city – and we hope that she will be with us for some time to come.

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A Backwards Family Tree

author Janice Weizman/cover of "Our Little Histories"

The following review first appeared in the February 15, 2024 issue of Lilith Magazine Reprinted with permission.
What does Jennifer Greenberg-Wu, an American-Jewish museum curator working on a reality show in rural Belarus, have to do with Raizel Shulman, a Russian mother desperate to save her triplet sons from being drafted into the czar’s army? The answer spans three continents and nearly two centuries, and it is the spellbinding tale that Janice Weizman weaves in Our Little Histories (Toby Press, $17.95), a novel that unfolds back-wards to tell the story of a family’s history one generation at a time.
Each of the book’s seven chapters focuses on another branch of the family tree that connects Jennifer back to Raizel. We witness the encounter between Jennifer’s mother Nancy Wexler, a young feminist hippie from Chicago, and her distant cousin Yardena, 25 years old and happily pregnant in Tel Aviv in 1968. In the next chapter we meet Yardena’s mother, Tamar, who, while smuggling guns for the Haga- nah, engages in a fateful act of betrayal with a visitor to her home on Kibbutz Hadar, where she has made her home ever since her parents sent her off on a train from Minsk in 1927. In the next chapter we meet Tamar’s distant cousin, Gabriel Schulman, a literature teacher in Vilna, who is attacked in a dark alley in Tamar’s impassioned letters pleading with him to come to Palestine before the situation in Europe gets worse for the Jews. “To be a Jew in Vilna, or Poland, or perhaps anywhere, is to find courage where you thought you had none, to feel it flowing through your veins like blood,” Gabriel thinks in the seconds before he is attacked.
Set one year earlier but thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean, the following chapter focuses on a third branch of the family—not those who stayed in Europe or settled in Palestine, but those like Nat Wexler, a first-generation American journalist in Chicago who is also Tamar and Gabriel’s cousin. Nat understands Yiddish but cannot speak it, and prides himself in his assimilation into American culture; he dreads bringing his fashionable, light-hearted Jewish-American girlfriend to the Yiddish theater with his mother, who is eager to meet her. The penultimate chapter takes us back forty years earlier to turn-of-the-century Belarus, where Gabriel’s father Yoyna is sent on a mission by his own father to reunite with his father’s two brothers; all three brothers were separated at a young age. In the book’s compelling, heart-wrenching final chapter, we meet three triplet boys, one of whom is Yoyna’s father, and we learn the reasons for their tragic separation by their mother Raizel in the shtetl in 1850, where “every year, right around the short dark days leading up to Hanukkah, the boys of Propoisk become scarce…gone for weeks or even months at a time.”
Like A .B. Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani, which follows a Sephardi family back in time, Our Little Histories is a book that demands re-rereading, backwards, from the last chapter back to the first. Connecting threads link one generation to another, and serve as leitmotifs through out the book, like the poem in three stanzas that Raizel Schulman pens just before she parts from two of her triplets so as to spare them from the czar’s army; each son receives one stanza, and the poem is published in a 1914 Yiddish anthology which Yoyna gives to Gabriel, who mails it to Tamar, who donates the slim booklet to the Yiddish library in Tel Aviv, where Yardena and Nancy find it; Nancy will give that booklet to Jennifer to take with her to Belarus for her reality show. When Jennifer’s mother hands her that booklet, she is convinced she has seen it before, and her deja-vu mirrors that of the reader, who will encounter and re-encounter the anthology, and Raizel’s poem, in each of the book’s seven chapters.
Our Little Histories is masterfully constructed, such that the book’s final chapter is both inevitable—it couldn’t possibly have been any other way—and yet impossible to predict. The three branches of Raizel’s family, who make their homes in Europe, Israel, and America, offer us an intimate window into aspects of Ashke- nazi Jewish history—pogroms and Zionism, yeshiva culture and the assimilation, the kibbutz and the shtetl. We have all tragically witnessed how the legacy of persecution has reverberated even in the Jew- ish homeland, a reminder of the unbear- able sacrifices and the acts of raw courage that continue to forge us as a people.

Our Little Histories is available in paperback and kindle on Amazon.

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