As Funders Abandon Support for Jewish Arts and Culture, Nonprofits Are Closing


Editor’s Note: This article was first published on April 12, 2019.

When BimBam recently announced that it was shutting down for lack of sustainable funding, people involved with Jewish arts and culture were upset—but not shocked—by the news. “Everything is ending,” sighed Alicia Jo Rabins, a Jewish songwriter and musician, referring to several notable Jewish arts and culture groups that shuttered in the past few years.

“There’s no money for the arts” from Jewish funders, said Aaron Bisman, a co-founder of JDub Records, the influential Jewish label and music management company that introduced Matisyahu to the world. Though JDub was hailed as being at the leading edge of Jewish innovation, it folded in 2012. “It doesn’t feel like anything has changed in the Jewish sphere,” Bisman told Inside Philanthropy. Today, Bisman is director of brand, sales and marketing at Jazz at Lincoln Center, a $50 million organization. “Anyone I know touching Jewish culture is feeling this strain. It is not the priority it once was. Jewish culture is in a really bad place,” Bisman said.

BimBam created sophisticated animations of Torah stories and Jewish rituals, carving out a unique niche. Named G-DCast when Sarah Lefton started it in 2008, it created more than 400 videos clever and irreverent enough to appeal to both children and adults. Think The Simpsons, but focused on holiness rather than crudeness and sass. The videos were watched literally millions of times, in homes and Jewish schools, on computers and portable devices, by kids from preschool on, and grownups alike. Now, the Reform movement’s website will house most of BimBam’s library.

“We were unable to sustain our budget at a size that would let us produce high-quality content without compromising our approach,” said Lefton in a statement issued April 2nd, announcing the closure. In an interview, she told Inside Philanthropy that since the announcement was made, “there have been a lot of expressions of sorrow by people who could have made a difference. There is no one I hadn’t approached for backing.”

BimBam joins a growing graveyard of now-defunct Jewish and culture organizations that have died for want of sustaining financial support.

Shifting Priorities

There was a time when sustaining Jewish artists and culture makers was more of a priority for the Jewish philanthropic world. But much as art and music classes are the first to be eliminated from public schools when budgets are cut, Jewish arts funding has been reduced and then cut some more.

Today, Jewish funders’ focus is primarily on Jewish engagement—whether through Birthright Israel or the study of Jewish texts. Most seem not to appreciate that art and culture are major connection points for young Jews, particularly in the coveted demographic of 20- and 30-somethings, who are far less likely to engage religiously than their parents were.

Art and culture “is an important point of entry and way of committing to the whole Jewish enterprise,” philanthropist Lynn Korda Kroll told IP. She was president of the Foundation for Jewish Culture, where, with her husband Jules, she established the Kroll Fund for Jewish Documentary Film, which gave critically needed funding to Jewish documentarians to finish their films. Among them was the Oscar nominee Waltz With Bashir.

“Not everybody is going to go to synagogue or keep kosher, but most people relate to expressions of Jewish life through the arts,” Kroll told IP. “Art is another way for people to locate themselves in the plentitude of the Jewish experience.”

But today, that idea is simply not recognized as valuable by most Jewish philanthropists. “There is a general attitude in America toward career readiness, and the Jewish community is embedded in that” orientation, said Aaron Dorfman, president of the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, in an interview. “The devaluing of the arts is systemic.”

Lippman Kanfer has provided some funding to two Jewish arts organizations; $30,000 to Asylum Arts in 2017 to convene artists to talk about socially conscious arts and democracy, and $30,000 in 2018-19 to the Jewish Studio Project in the San Francisco Bay area, which uses the visual arts to connect people to Jewish texts.

“Real culture costs money. Art is expensive to make, it’s resource-intensive work. If we want culture that is Jewish in meaningful ways—that is connected to texts and traditions—that has to be supported by the community,” said Bisman. “We won’t have any of those if we don’t figure out a Jewish source of involvement. It is not an optimistic time.”

To be sure, some philanthropists are providing some funding to support Jewish artists and culture makers, but the money is relatively little and efforts scattershot.

The Decline of an “Ecosystem”

Moreover, funding is generally available for projects, but there is little support for Jewish arts organizations’ operating costs, say those in the field.

The Foundation for Jewish Culture had more than $2 million in assets when it folded in 2014. The national group funding its operating expenses, the Jewish Federations of North America, which is an umbrella group for 147 local Jewish federations and 300 communities too small to support their own federation, had included FJC among the short list of agencies considered worthy of being supported by the national network.

JFNA was providing FJC with about $1 million a year for operating expenses when Bernhardt started as the culture group’s president and CEO in 2006. Then JFNA started cutting its funding by $100,000 each year. “The board didn’t want to replace it and no foundation wanted to pay for operating costs,” said Bernhardt. “Unless the board was going to step up, we’d have to let go of staff. They said ‘Jewish culture is doing fine’ without their funding. Yeah, except no one had anywhere to go,” said Bernhardt, who went on to become the Brooklyn Youth Chorus’s executive and now owns a flower shop in Brooklyn.

Established in 1960, the FJC brought together Jewish musicians and filmmakers, visual artists, playwrights and academics with others in their disciplines for conferences and to explore what it meant to be a Jewish artist. It created the New Jewish Culture Network and spent over $50 million in its 54 years supporting Jewish artists.

“We were the connecting fiber and community builder,” Bernhardt told IP. “That’s what went down the toilet when the board decided to sunset, which to me, is very sad. Today, people think about their own individual projects and don’t think about the ecosystem. The foundation was an ecosystem. Now, you have a patchwork of things.”

Asylum Arts may be the closest thing to an FJC successor, and has, tellingly, a tiny fraction of FJC’s reach and funding. Asylum was established in 2013 by Rebecca Guber and focuses on convening artists’ retreats and providing some direct money to Jewish artists. “I’m one of the few left standing in Jewish art world,” she told IP in an interview, “we all know the impact of culture because we experience it on a daily basis.”

For Asylum Arts, working with a tiny staff of two in addition to Guber (they hire freelance local producers when running conferences) and an annual budget of $500,000 which has been flat from year to year, raising sustainable money is a challenge, says Guber. Now in the final year of a four-year grant from the Schusterman Foundation, “we are in a step-down phase and have not been able to push over that hump,” she told IP. The Schusterman Foundation grant was $340,000, according to the foundation’s 2016 tax filing.

Artists Struggle for Support

At a time when funders increasingly measure the success of their funding through metrics, the impacts of art and culture are harder to quantify. “The arts work in emotional, non-straightforward ways,” says Guber.

Guber recently wrote that Asylum’s Small Grants Program has funded 165 Jewish arts projects, making it the largest current direct funder of Jewish artists internationally. Asylum’s artist grants are usually $3,000.

“It’s always difficult to raise general operations money. We’ve been doing well raising project-specific money. We have more trouble raising money for our grants program than for our retreats. Donors in the Jewish community understand bringing people together for immersive experiences” more than direct funding of Jewish arts creation, she said.

There are a handful of Jewish arts fellowships around the U.S. today. One is the New Jewish Culture Fellowship, which is run by Brooklyn Jews and housed at Brooklyn’s Congregation Beth Elohim. Nine young Jewish artists each receive a $2,500 stipend and spend the year focusing on non-ritual connection points with Judaism, said Rabbi Matt Green, the Reform temple’s assistant rabbi and director of Brooklyn Jews, whose constituency is millennials and Gen Xers. “Many of these people identify as “cultural Jews, and many feel ambivalent about engaging with traditional Jewish ritual,” he told Inside Philanthropy. With a growing number of people identifying with a loosely defined cultural Judaism, “artists play a key role in both articulating and advancing what that is.”

The $34,000 in funding that sustains the New Jewish Culture Fellowship came from UJA-Federation of New York, which bills itself as “the largest local philanthropy in the world.” It reported $251 million in revenue and made grants totaling just under $210 million in 2016, according to the most recent tax filing publicly available.

Little of that went directly to support Jewish arts and culture. True, the 92nd Street Y—a temple of Jewish arts and culture on Manhattan’s Upper East Side—received $767,000, according to the organization’s 990 tax form. And Brooklyn’s Congregation Beth Elohim received a total of $56,000, of which $34,000 went to the arts fellowship.

The New York Jewish Federation has about $23 million currently allocated to funding Jewish life, said Kroll, who has for many years served on the Jewish Life Commission there. Almost none of that underwrites Jewish arts, she said.

The few philanthropists funding Jewish arts and culture strive to remain anonymous. One California philanthropist is backing several artists in a fellowship program, but recipients of his support made it clear that the donor did not want to be identified in any way. Requests to speak even on background, conveyed by those who know the funder, were turned down.

Key executives at major Jewish foundations providing funding for Jewish art, including at Schusterman – and from Jewish foundations providing funding for art in general, but not specifically to Jewish artists, like a joint venture in Boston between the Klarman and Barr Foundations – did not respond to emails or phone messages.

Elise Bernhardt: “There’s a big difference between a $1,500 grant and a $20,000 to $40,000 grant” to an artist, she said. “When I think about how Schusterman funds on the ROI model, which is spreading a lot of money to seed the field, out of that, you’re only going to get a couple of trees.

“But not with mid-career artists. There is a huge benefit to bringing them into conversation. They need support. Everybody’s all about the young people, but they need someone to learn from. People who are mid-career will become the big people.

“There needs to be a more cohesive approach,” said Bernhardt.

“Red Alerts” for Jewish Funders

Fortunately, there is an effort to create that, though it is slow-moving.

Lou Cove, senior consultant to the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, along with leaders from Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation, put together two reports over the past four years for the Jewish Funders Network. The reports include surveys of the existing Jewish arts and culture field, background of past funding sources, current snapshots and issues to consider for future potential funding. They can be read here and here.

At the March 2019 Jewish Funders Network conference in San Francisco, Cove and Righteous Persons Foundation leaders called a private meeting with potential funders of a new, as-yet undefined national Jewish arts and culture funding resource. It is premature to say anything more about concrete plans, he said, since they are in early stages of talks with potential funding partners.

But “I’ve been working with JFN and Righteous Persons Foundation to engage the funding community in an active conversation, looking at how we influence the Jewish arts and culture space in a material way that is measurable and meaningful,” he said. “Jewish arts is super-important work not valued by funders. We ignore culture at our peril.”

Shayna Rose Triebwasser is a senior program officer at the Los Angeles-based Righteous Persons Foundation and working on this project. She would say only that “we have been in conversations with artists, filmmakers and other funders about the possibility of what new funding around film could potentially look like, and hope to reinvest in film in a more significant way in the future.”

It is an uphill battle to get funders to appreciate the value of supporting Jewish arts and culture at a time when they all want measurable metrics and results, say those in the field.

“There’s an increasingly urgent disconnect between the priorities of the funding community and the amazing creativity that is inspiring and engaging new generations of Jews and others,” he said. “The demise of the Foundation for Jewish Culture and projects like JDub and BimBam; the underfunded budgets of organizations like the Council of American Jewish Museums and Asylum Arts—these should be red alerts for the Jewish funding community. But the recognition that this is a challenge that can be met is starting to dawn, and a growing cohort of funders is banding together to find solutions.”