Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ) was established in 2006, when its legacy organizations — the Jewish Fund for Justice, the Shefa Fund, and Spark: Partnership for Service — merged to form JFSJ. With offices in New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Los Angeles, JFSJ’s mission was to “mobilize the resources of American Jewry to combat the root causes of domestic economic and social injustice.” By JFSJ’s reckoning, chief among those root causes were the inherently negative by-products of capitalism – most notably racism and “gross economic inequality.” Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, JFSJ’s vice president of programs, maintained that “the concentration of wealth harms a society” and must be counter-balanced by “mechanisms for wealth redistribution.” Toward that end, JFSJ sought to “bring about social change” by making grants to grassroots organizations — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — that “support economic development in marginalized neighborhoods.”
A major conduit for JFSJ’s grantmaking was its Opportunity Fund, which invested in “grassroots organizations engaging in new types of organizing, based on a model of personal, organizational, and field-wide transformation.”
JFSJ also disbursed money through its Tzedec investment program. Launched in 1997, Tzedec pooled low- and no-interest loans from Jewish philanthropists and reinvested those funds in Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) “to serve individuals, businesses, and nonprofits typically neglected by mainstream banks.” The ultimate objective was “to increase Jewish investment and involvement in the work of revitalizing and rebuilding healthy low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.”â€¨ As of June 2007, Tzedec had collected more than $20 million in donations from the American Jewish community for projects in Washington DC, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and the Gulf Region.
By no means, however, were JFSJ’s efforts to redistribute wealth limited to private philanthropy. Lobbying the federal government to help bankroll CDFIs, JFSJ exhorted Congress to allocate some $300 million to those institutions. In a related endeavor, JFSJ trained community organizers to effectively agitate for increased government funding of JFSJ projects, on the theory that “by transforming leaders, we are better able to transform society” and “create a more just world.” JFSJ’s Selah Leadership Program, subsidized through a grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, was designed to provide this type of training. As of mid-2007, more than 200 leaders from 165 organizations had gone through the program. Among these past participants were Midwest Academy founder Heather Booth and Working Families Party executive director Dan Cantor.
JFSJ also developed seminary programs to prepare rabbinical students for “the challenges of engaging their communities in the critical and profoundly Jewish work of meaningful social justice” — i.e., the redistribution of wealth. These seminary programs were outgrowths of JFSJ’s emphasis on “congregation-based community organizing” (CBCO), which was described by Benjamin Ross, JFSJ’s director of organizing, as “a social change strategy developed by Saul Alinsky.” Aiming to “challenge [religious] congregations to address systemic issues relating to poverty and social injustice,” this type of organizing was spearheaded by four major national CBCO networks: the Direct Action Research and Training Center, the Gamaliel Foundation, the Alinsky-founded Industrial Areas Foundation, and the PICO National Network. JFSJ worked in partnership with local affiliates of each of these organizations.
JFSJ focused its advocacy and philanthropy on the following major concerns. In each case, it viewed taxpayer-funded government programs as crucial components of enlightened social policy:
* Child Care: Noting that “poor parents are less likely to take time off for their child’s birth and they are denied access or assistance for quality child care,” JFSJ supported organizations that lobbied for greater amounts of federal financial aid to parents with child-care needs.
* Civil Rights: JFSJ viewed the United States as a nation where “discrimination is still a reality for too many,” particularly for nonwhites, females, and homosexuals. Thus the organization favored race-and ethnicity-based affirmative-action preferences; it lamented that “a woman is raped every 6 minutes and battered every 9 seconds”; it claimed that “at the federal level and in most states gays and lesbians lack even basic civil rights protections”; and it contended, misleadingly, that “for every dollar white men earn, women earn approximately 77 cents, Latinas earn 56 cents, and African-American men earn 75 cents.”
* Education: Lamenting that government-funded education grants “are scarce,” JFSJ said: “The most recent data on urban 12th-graders finds that 84% are not proficient in math and 83% are not proficient in science.” “For students who do graduate,” added JFSJ, “attending college now means taking on substantial debt.”
* Environment: “Our world is waking up to the implications of the damage we have done to our environment,” JFSJ declared. “The flow of ice from glaciers has doubled in the past decade. If nothing is done, sea levels could rise up to 20 feet. There are twice as many Category 4 and 5 hurricanes as there were 30 years ago. Without action, global warming will cause an estimated 300,000 deaths a year by 2035.” To head off such calamities, JFSJ called for Americans to dramatically reduce their reliance on coal, oil, and natural gas as energy sources.
* Health Care: Prior to the passage of the healthcare reform bill in 2010, JFSJ said: “46.6 million Americans, including nine million children, are uninsured, and the number of uninsured is on the rise…. Tens of thousands of people die from medical errors each year.” In September 2009, JFSJ rabbi-in-residence Jill Jacobs emphasized what she depicted as the Jewish mandate “to create a society that takes collective responsibility for all its members.”
* Housing: “In many parts of the country,” said JFSJ, “affordable housing is scarce…. For every family that receives federal housing assistance, there are 3 eligible families waiting in line.” To address this problem, JFSJ called for the creation of more taxpayer-subsidized low-income housing.
* Immigration: Claiming that “today’s immigrants face an atmosphere of hostility, violence,… a badly broken system of laws … [and] worker exploitation,” JFSJ stated that justice for illegal immigrants must include a pathway to citizenship.
* Wages: “Millions of working families struggle to make ends meet because their jobs fail to pay a living wage,” said JFSJ. As a solution, the organization proposed the implementation of living-wage laws mandating that every worker be paid enough to afford basic expenses such as food, clothing, housing, transportation, and medical care. Citing what he perceived to be a biblical mandate for a living wage, JFSJ’s vice president of programs, Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, urged city governments “not [to] contract with anyone who does not pay a living wage to its employees.”
* Green Jobs: JFSJ actively worked “to create good jobs in the green economy” that would “benefit low-income workers and communities.” These included jobs related to wind and solar power, alternative fuels, and energy-efficiency retrofits to items like the insulation, duct sealing, water heaters, windows, roofing, and doors in existing homes.
* Service Corps – Atlanta (SCA): Pronouncing that “we have taken President Obama‘s challenge to serve seriously,” SCA was “a domestic service and learning travel program” where young Jewish adults (aged 20-40) partnered with community-based organizations throughout the southeastern United States to do volunteer work in low-income neighborhoods. Examples of such projects included: priming and painting a hurricane-damaged home, planting trees as part of a reforestation project, door-to-door canvassing in support of a campaign to create resources for youth, and organic farming initiatives.
* Hurricane Katrina Recovery and Redevelopment Project (HKRRP): Launched in 2005, this program aimed “to focus the resources and attention of the Jewish community” on those “who were disproportionately affected by the [Katrina] disaster,” namely “the region’s poor and working-class residents, especially immigrants and people of color.” Much like the Tzedec program, HKRRP made grants and low-interest-rate loans to local community-development banks and credit unions which would “play a critical role in the redevelopment of homes and businesses of poor and working families otherwise unable to access credit.” It also supported “grassroots advocacy” organizations that called for the government to finance relief efforts on behalf of Katrina’s victims. Noteworthy grantees in this program included ACORN, the NAACP, and PICO LIFT (Louisiana InterFaith Together).
In 2010, when controversy arose over a plan by Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf and his American Society for Muslim Advancement to build a 13-story, $100 million mosque/Islamic Center near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, JFSJ leadership supported Rauf’s plan. JFSJ president and CEO Simon Greer characterized opponents of the mosque project as “shrill voices of division” who were guilty of “fear-mongering” and “scapegoating.”
JFSJ ceased to exist as an independent entity in June 2011, when, in an effort to “expand local base-building and organizing capacity nationwide,” it merged with the Progressive Jewish Alliance to form a new group called Bend The Arc.