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Students at Epstein Hillel School in Marblehead.

Donors rally to meet soaring demand at area Jewish nonprofits

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Donors rally to meet soaring demand at area Jewish nonprofits

Students at Epstein Hillel School in Marblehead.

When the COVID-19 pandemic  hit in 2020, Epstein Hillel had fewer than 60 students. But within a year, that number doubled as dozens of Boston-area Jewish families, desperate for in-person education while public schools went virtual, enrolled their children in the Marblehead Jewish day school, which serves kindergarten through eighth grade.

To meet the additional costs, Epstein’s community rallied, donating funds to pay for lunchroom plexiglass and classroom supplies. “The pandemic was a catastrophe, but it had silver linings,” observed Michael Slater, Epstein’s director of Finance and Operations, who anticipates enrollment will reach 140 within a few years.

Around the Boston region, Jewish nonprofits have seen enrollment and engagement soar over the past several years. Initially, Jewish institutions picked up some of the slack left by pandemic school and daycare closings. But the momentum has continued and charitable giving continues to rise, fueled in part by the communal urgency many Jews feel at a moment of rising antisemitism.

Yet with a recession looming and society still in the throes of pandemic turmoil, Slater and others caution against philanthropic apathy. While revenue is up, demand for services is higher than ever – and costs are ballooning, reflecting inflation as well as the higher salaries needed to attract and retain employees in a tight labor market.

Nonprofits have also had to rethink their approach to fundraising with the persistence of COVID-19. The traditional charity gala, where hundreds of donors congregate indoors, has taken a back seat to gatherings that are frequently smaller or more creative, such as online celebrity Q&A events, outdoor activities and virtual global get-togethers.

Epstein Hillel pushed its fundraising gala – the centerpiece of the school’s annual campaign – to spring from winter and held it outdoors, at Tewksbury’s Connemara House. The school also hired a development director to grow its $3.5 million operating budget in creative ways, like doubling down on alumni appeals.

“A single gala is much more exposed to boom or bust,” Slater explained. “We’re telling people, if you care about continuity and Israel, Jewish day school is a wonderful place to invest and pay it forward. We want to ensure that it’s here for our children’s children.”

Another Marblehead Jewish fixture, the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore, has seen engagement rise in recent years. Enrollment for every children’s program – from pre-K to after-school to summer camp –
has hit record numbers since 2020.

Marty Schneer, the JCC’s executive director, said his $8 million budget is more than double what it was a decade ago, with individual philanthropy an increasingly large share. “When people have felt that we were perhaps endangered, they’ve been more generous,” observed Schneer.
Much of the increased revenue goes to higher salaries aimed at recruiting and retaining staff.

“That has probably been the most lasting challenge of the pandemic,” Schneer reflected. “We’re all fighting for what seems to be a smaller labor pool.” Membership still lags pre-pandemic figures by at least 10 percent, which the director attributes largely to older patrons who remain wary of communal activities.

Schneer, who came to the JCC in 2012 to help turn around its flailing finances, noted that successful fundraising takes into account an increasingly individualistic generational trend.

“Going back 15 years, someone would stand up and make a pledge and there would be a sense that you’d have to respond,” he pointed out. “That generation would say, ‘We like the job you’re doing, spend my money as you see fit.’ Whereas younger donors prefer targeted giving to specific programs. They’ll say, ‘I like that you serve children with disabilities, and I’m going to give you money for this program that I’ll come witness myself.’”
At Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Boston, director of Philanthropy Lauren Korn takes a similar approach to recruiting both donors and applying for the grants that make up an ever-larger share of the $2.4 million budget.

“Some of our programs are very specific – LGBTQ, Type One diabetes, college mentoring – so we’ll look for funders who are interested in those topics, or grants specifically for those issues,” Korn said. She recently hired a grant writer and applied for 45 grants this year, up from the usual eight.

JBBBS serves about 800 clients with one-on-one youth mentoring and a peer program for adults with disabilities. About a quarter of the 103-year-old organization’s budget comes from Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Boston’s Federation affiliate. But Korn said diversification is essential as a hedge against future uncertainty.

Since 2020, Korn has reduced the organization’s average event expenditure by 75 percent. “It’s not worth the risk and it’s not fiscally responsible,” she opined. “In this world of economic instability and ever-changing Covid protocol, we’re not going back to rubber chicken dinners.”

Instead, Korn has boosted giving through coffee klatches, an outdoor cocktail party, and online donor events featuring celebrities like the popular West Wing actor Joshua Malina. “We got the message out that we were still here, our mission was as important as ever, and that resonated with our donors,” Korn reflected.

At the Lappin Foundation, Executive Director Deborah Coltin has successfully grown the budget – from $1.6 million this year to nearly $2 million projected for 2023 – by holding fundraisers themed around speakers and experiences. An example was last year’s online fundraiser featuring Dov Glickman, a star of the popular Israeli TV show “Shtisel,” who Zoomed in to honor the 50th anniversary of Lappin’s youth Israel program.

“Covid opened our doors up to the world; we’ve had participants from Europe, Australia, all over,” Coltin noted.

The Foundation was a victim of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, and the longtime director has been gratified to see fundraising rebound – reflecting community support for programs that include PJ Library’s free book subscriptions and a school antisemitism initiative that has reached 4,000 students.

Despite the labor shortage, Colton has increased Lappin’s full-time staff to five people since the pandemic began. “But we know we can’t take this for granted,” she reflected. “We have to be ready to pivot if things change.”

Nearly every Boston-area Jewish organization receives funding from Combined Jewish Philanthropies, one of Massachusetts’s largest nonprofits, with some $50 million in annual grantmaking. In recent years, that figure includes emergency funds dedicated to COVID-19, Ukraine and Afghan refugees.

Much of it comes from Zoom, which has shifted from pandemic necessity to another tool in the fundraising tool kit. Jennifer Weinstock, CJP’s senior vice president of philanthropy, said online briefings on Jewish topics have engaged Boston’s many so-called “snowbirds” – retirees who, spending half the year in Florida, might otherwise forgo fundraising events up north.

CJP’s Pre-Shabbat Zoom bringing together Jews from Boston and its sister city, Haifa, draws dozens of enthusiasts who previously would simply have waited to visit Israel in person. Weinstock has also found success with smaller in-person gatherings.

“We can raise the same amount of money, if not more, in this new way,” Weinstock reflected. “Giving is a core expression of a person’s Jewish identity and commitment to the Jewish community. Within this new normal, it’s our responsibility to make that as easy and joyful and meaningful as we possibly can.”

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