Old-School Jewish Activist Faces the Future as Project Ezra Prepares for Merger

End of an Era?: Misha Avramoff, co-director of Project Ezra, at his desk. The organization will merge with Selfhelp.
End of an Era?: Misha Avramoff, co-director of Project Ezra, at his desk. The organization will merge with Selfhelp.

By Joy Resmovits

Published November 03, 2010, issue of November 12, 2010.
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Misha Avramoff, 71, has a little problem with his pronouns.

“We bombed the King David Hotel,” he said in an interview is his office in Project Ezra’s space, on New York City’s Lower East Side, as an aside in the self-narrated — and decidedly nonlinear — story of his life.

It is hard to picture Avramoff — a life-long teacher; co-director of Project Ezra, a grassroots not-for-profit group that services the Lower East Side’s Jewish elderly, and wearer of a Save Darfur wristband — partaking in the 1946 attack by a militant Zionist group on the British Mandate’s central offices.

“We did,” Avramoff said, hands hitting the sides of his chinos. “Not me. We Jews! But really, it’s the same thing.”

The Bulgarian-born Avramoff has so immersed himself in the study of “Jewish peoplehood” on trips to Iran, Yemen, India and elsewhere that in conversation, “We Misha” and “We the Jews” collapse into each other.

The pronoun confusion is a manifestation of what he calls his ethos — one he worries may be in jeopardy as Project Ezra, the organization he helped found in 1972, prepares to become Project Ezra at Selfhelp. The name change will coincide with the organization’s forthcoming merger with the much larger Selfhelp Community Services, a charitable group that focuses on legal assistance and home care for Holocaust survivors. As a point of comparison, Project Ezra reported $601,638 in expenses for the fiscal year ending on August 31, 2009; Selfhelp reported about $53 million in expenses in fiscal year 2008, according to IRS filings.

Avramoff also believes the ends do not justify all means, which is to say that he has insisted on curbing certain practical methods that might boost finances but do not seem quite right to him. He refuses to exchange lists of donors without the permission of those donors, and he refuses to accept funding by government or larger federations.

Because Project Ezra draws on the support of upper-middle-class Jews, Avramoff insists that Ezra leave public resources open to less affluent communities. He acknowledges that his stubbornness may have stifled a certain kind of growth, or impact.

Avramoff is not yet sure if he’ll stay on at Project Ezra, and this is not the first time he’s thought about leaving the organization. He has considered embarking on other charitable projects, and advocating on behalf of his homeland. He hopes that Jewish heritage trips that stop at Holocaust landmarks will one day visit Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, to witness a European country unmarred by concentration camps.

Sofia is where Avramoff’s story started. There, his nonreligious Sephardic parents sent him to Catholic school, where he learned French — in addition to the Bulgarian and Ladino he already spoke. In 1949, his family immigrated to Israel.

He moved to America in 1954, and studied at New York’s Columbia University and at the Jewish Theological Seminary during the Vietnam War era. In the classroom, Avramoff encountered the writings of community organizer Saul Alinsky, and Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael.

At Long Island’s Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway, where he taught history, he met student Robert Rothman, who would eventually become a senior vice president at UBS and chair of Project Ezra’s board. “[Avramoff] was the young, cool hippieish teacher who made Jewish education fun,” Rothman said.

Avramoff co-founded Project Ezra with friends who put their activism ideals to work. The mission was tzedakah, a word Avramoff insists on translating literally to its root, “tzedek,” or “justice”: “Give if you can, take if you need.” The group started small, going door-to-door for donations and setting up tabs in the local kosher supermarket for those who couldn’t pay for groceries.

The program grew over the years, as Avramoff found he had a knack for fundraising.

These days, the group helps the elderly by arranging transportation, providing social work and financial relief, maintaining a food pantry and arranging “peoplehood events,” where seniors spend time in various Jewish communities.

In search of the broader Jewish people, Avramoff visits Jewish communities the world over. He was in Cuba from June to July when Selfhelp and Project Ezra signed the merger, which goes into effect upon approval from the New York attorney general. “I was in favor of it, but I didn’t know it was going to be done so fast,” Avramoff said.

Amid the economic crisis, the two groups started talking in the summer of 2009, when, according to Selfhelp CEO Stuart Kaplan, “it became clear to all that the missions of the two organizations are very consistent.”

Selfhelp will have financial responsibility for Project Ezra, which, according to the agreement, will keep its new name for at least five years, Rothman said. Ezra will have access to Selfhelp’s services, such as a program for those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Following the merger, Project Ezra’s board will be dissolved, with two members joining Selfhelp’s board. The organization will also have an executive director for the first time.

The merger, Selfhelp representatives say, will maintain Project Ezra’s programs. Kaplan said Selfhelp is not currently planning layoffs. Some outsiders say the transaction will maximize Project Ezra’s impact. “Selfhelp will put whatever remaining capacity that Project Ezra has to good use,” said William Rapfogel, CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.

It was a matter of merge or die, explained a Project Ezra board member, Muzzy Rosenblatt, who is executive director of the Bowery Residents’ Committee. “We’ve never been able to grow the organization,” he said. “There’s unrealized potential that being part of Selfhelp will bring to a reality.”

While Project Ezra isn’t currently in dire straits — a woman recently left the organization $1 million in her will — the merger wasn’t only about money. “It’s our hope that [Avramoff] would stay on for a bit of time, but we know that he’s kind of winding down,” Rothman said, adding that the co-directors’ decades-long service could naturally result in a “changing of the guard” as they step down. “No one’s work is more important than anyone else’s, but his visibility makes that a concern of ours.”

Still, Avramoff feels the pull of the past. “When I look into the mirror, I say, leave now, when Ezra has fulfilled its mission,” he said. “Or, should I stay with Selfhelp and work with our elders and raise the funds? You have to look forward to tomorrow.”

Contact Joy Resmovits at resmovits@forward.com

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