Philanthropic Foundation Puts Focus on Education

By Anthony Weiss

Published February 17, 2006, issue of February 17, 2006.
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When San Francisco real estate developer Jim Joseph died in 2003, he received no obituary in any major newspaper. Born in Austria and brought to California as a child, he had built up a fortune and become a major giver to Jewish causes — his charitable trust gave away between $500,000 and $1.5 million per year — but he had operated largely behind the scenes.

This week, Joseph’s heirs announced a new structure that catapults him, posthumously, into the top ranks of American Jewish philanthropy. His trust, the Jim Joseph Foundation, announced that it had been newly incorporated as a private foundation, named a nationally respected executive director and high-powered board of directors and disclosed assets estimated at more than half a billion dollars. In a stroke, it became one of the largest Jewish foundations in the world.

“This is going to be a major player in the foundation landscape of the Jewish community,” said Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

The foundation will specialize in supporting formal and informal Jewish education. Foundation officials said grantees would include day schools, pre-schools, summer camps and youth groups, across all denominations of Judaism. The aim, said the newly named executive director, Charles Edelsberg, is to provide “an enriched quality of education for Jewish children and youth,” with an eye toward “strengthening communities of practice.”

Edelsberg is a vice president at the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland.

The Jim Joseph Foundation enters an increasingly crowded field of Jewish philanthropic foundations, reflecting a trend among wealthy Jews in the past decade to manage their giving through private foundations, often launching their own operating programs, rather than donate to traditional Jewish institutions. These foundations have a variety of individual missions, frequently related to strengthening Jewish identity.

“There’s no doubt that funders over the past 10 years have become increasingly savvy,” said Roger Bennett, senior vice president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. “As a result, foundations are proliferating as an increasingly dominant part of the philanthropic landscape.”

Officials of the Jim Joseph Foundation estimate its assets at more than $500 million. They declined to offer a precise figure, explaining that because much of the endowment’s holdings are in real estate, the value fluctuates and is difficult to measure precisely.

According to federal tax regulations, a non-profit foundation must spend at least 5% of its assets per year to maintain its non-profit status. Conservatively estimating the assets at $500 million, this means that the foundation would be disbursing a minimum of $25 million per year.

The figures put the Jim Joseph Foundation near the top of a rarified world occupied by only a handful of super-wealthy foundations. Among charities giving solely to Jewish causes, only the Avi Chai Foundation, founded in 1984 by investment legend Sanford Bernstein, gives away more money. In 2004, Avi Chai disbursed $46 million worldwide and $29 million in the United States. Avi Chai, which ended the year with $632 million in assets, is in the process of spending down its endowment and expects to close its doors in 15 years.

One other major foundation, the Baltimore-based Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, gives away more to Jewish causes. It ended the most recent fiscal year with $2 billion in assets and distributed $98 million; of that, $52.6 million went to Jewish causes.

The Jim Joseph Foundation will outstrip such philanthropic heavyweights as the Charles and Andrea Bronfman Philanthropies, which donated more than $16 million in the last fiscal year, and the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation, which has generally given about $10 million per year.

Edelsberg told the Forward he would start his new position March 15, when he and the board will start on a formal planning process to determine its strategic outlook. At the outset, the organization will solicit grant proposals by invitation only, a policy Edelsberg expects to revisit at the end of 2007. For the time being, he said he wanted the organization to have a chance to determine what types of programs it planned to support without being inundated by proposals.

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