symptomatic, of course

Many of you know all about this, but here's the background and the update.

I won an award this spring for my work in the Jewish community. Associated with the award was an $1800 gift to be given in my name to "Jewish organizations" of my choosing. I found out, after traveling to Israel to receive the award, that half the money was supposed to go to an Israeli organization. I asked whether there was the possibility of petitioning for a change to that (previously unmentioned) policy, in order to direct the money to the organizations in my community (i.e., the work for which I won the award). They said yes, I could ask.

Then I asked and was told that it wasn't really possible. I wrote the below letter anyway, sending it to my contacts there. I doubt that it was forwarded to Lynn Schustermann, the living philanthropist whose money funds the program. I spoke with my contact there today and basically got told that it's not negotiable; there's no way to direct the full $1800 here, half must go to an Israeli organization or they can just "not give it" if I choose that.

All of which really bothers me! I'm sure it was an oversight that they didn't say anything about the distribution of the funding, but it has this sort of sneaky feeling. Moreover, it fits the pattern of what I see in the mainstream Jewish community: the older generation sees a need for young leadership, but isn't willing to trust or respect the choices of younger people. Their support is highly conditional; they want to find and raise up the people whose beliefs are the most like their own.

The result as I see it is that many young people (by which I mean anyone under 40--or even, 50!) don't want to participate in the organized community, because we don't see our values reflected there. I'm not even talking here about Israel politics.

So, what now? I have to choose an Israeli organization. I have to figure out how to break it to my good people here that they're not going to get the money that they helped me win for them. I have to discharge this anger somehow.
to: Lynn Schustermann
c/o: [some people who shall remain nameless]
from: Rebecca Ennen

Dear Lynn,

I am writing to propose that my Charlie Award tzedaka gift be allocated to two organizations in my home community. I am aware that you, and the Foundation, expect the gift to be divided between local and Israeli organizations. I deeply value the experiences that the Charlies trip provided me, and the opportunities that the award offers. I hope this letter will clarify my request and open a dialogue with you.

I am honored to have been selected as part of this program, and awed at your generosity and dedication to the Jewish people everywhere. With the great privilege of receiving a Charlie Award has come the great responsibility of selecting organizations to receive tzedaka from your foundation. As a professional artist and writer, I live frugally. Though I try to give as much tzedaka as possible, I never have the opportunity to make a large gift. It is with humility and gratitude that I consider where your donations will go.

I propose that the $1800 gift be split between two Philadelphia organizations, which are discussed in detail on my “tzedaka selections” form. I’ll briefly describe them here. Kol Tzedek is a young, diverse, and growing synagogue in a neighborhood with a huge Jewish population but no other synagogues. Jewish Dialogue Group is an educational nonprofit that facilitates dialogue within Jewish communities on contentious or taboo subjects. I attend and serve on the board of Kol Tzedek, and I work as a writer for the Jewish Dialogue Group. Each of these organizations has a tiny budget, one long-term employee, and little support from traditional/mainstream Jewish philanthropic sources. Both reach large numbers of people despite limited funding and would benefit hugely from a gift of $900.

As a young leader of my Jewish community here in Philadelphia, my primary responsibility is to cultivate and support the people, projects, and institutions around me. Of course, I want to support worthy work, wherever it is happening, and I think there are many who prioritize Israel for a variety of very good reasons. [name withheld] as discussed with me, both while in Israel and since then via email, the standard expectation of the Schustermann Foundation that half the Charlie Award tzedaka will go to an Israeli organization. He mentioned that though mine is an unorthodox request, previous recipients have successfully petitioned for a nonstandard allocation of funds. I highly value, and share, your commitments to Israel; yet as a leader in my home community I wish to first address my local responsibilities. That is why I have written to you.

For me, especially given my personal leadership roles in both of the organizations listed above, it is crucial to support these institutions I am helping to build. Further, I know from personal experience that my home community’s needs are great and that this gift from the Schustermann Foundation will go far.

It is impossible for me to describe how deeply I am committed to this community and this work. It is my Jewish home, and it is where my calling lies. For these reasons I respectfully request that your generous gift be given to these two worthy organizations.

With admiration, and gratitude,
Rebecca Ennen

Why am I so frustrated by this? I think it's because my little corners of the Jewish world are so underserved, and so disrespected at times, that I get so angry when I'm not taken seriously. More lightness and humor are needed, for sure. Again it all comes down to my current psycho-rhetorical obsession: how can we live right, and work for justice and beauty, without feeling crazy all the time?

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