Mark Zuckerberg “likes” the Bay Area Jewish community.
The Facebook CEO, along with his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, have turned their philanthropic eye toward Jewish communal life, from day schools to summer camps and more. The result: $1.3 million in new grants to 11 Jewish organizations, most of them in the Bay Area.
The gifts come from the couple’s family office, and not from the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, which they founded as an LLC in 2015 with a vow to disburse to charity 99 percent of their Facebook fortune, estimated by Forbes to be $129 billion.
With a few notable exceptions, Jewish Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Zuckerberg have not emerged as major philanthropists in the local Jewish community. Andres Spokoiny, president of the Jewish Funders Network, said this was partly because many are not connected to their Jewish identity.
“To think that somebody who has been estranged from the Jewish community all their life is suddenly going to respond to an appeal because their name finishes in ‘berg’ is a mistake,” Spokoiny said.
In the case of the Zuckerberg-Chan family, it appears that the recent donations followed a period of deeper engagement with Jewish religion and culture. A representative said the grants were part of the couple’s “commitment to building relationships, learning, and deepening their connection with the Jewish community,” although the contours of that process remain opaque. The spokesperson said that Zuckerberg and Chan have been meeting with “rabbis, historians, and scholars” to learn more about Judaism and the community, but declined to detail who these individuals were, when the meetings began or what topics they covered.
Zuckerberg himself has been more public about his Judaism in recent years. In September 2017 he posted a picture of himself giving his daughter a Kiddush cup that had been in his family for a century, and that same year he posted a public apology on Yom Kippur.
Local beneficiaries are thrilled that one of Silicon Valley’s wealthiest and most influential Jews has made the local community a priority.Among the beneficiaries, announced Sept. 20 by eJewishPhilanthropy, is the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, which received $200,000. “This gift comes at a time when the JCC has been a vital lifeline to so many people throughout the pandemic, and when we are responding to greater need than ever before,” said Zack Bodner, CEO of the OFJCC. “We are delighted to welcome [the couple] as one of our top annual supporters, and we look forward to continuing to work with them in the years to come.”
Other local grantees are Contra Costa Jewish Day School (Lafayette), Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School (Palo Alto), Jewish Community High School of the Bay (San Francisco), URJ Camp Newman (Santa Rosa), Camp Ramah Northern California (Monterey County), Camp Tawonga (Tuolumne County) and the Jewish Community Relations Council and Jewish Family and Children’s Services (both S.F.-based). Two national organizations with local impact, PJ Library and OneTable, also received funds, all of which have been disbursed in lump sums.
Outreach from representatives of Zuckerberg and Chan to most of the local institutions began last spring, and much of it came out of the blue, said Dean Goldfein, head of school at CCJDS.
“They said that they heard great things about the school,” Goldfein said of the grantmakers, “and that they wanted to give us support. I spent a good hour talking to them about our school and Jewish life in the Bay Area. It was very positive and a surprise, because we were not seeking the grant, which is usually the way we get foundation support. Usually you reach out, make a proposal and hope for the best.”
CCJDS received $100,000, which Goldfein says will be applied to two of the school’s philosophical pillars: making Jewish day school affordable via scholarships and supporting school staff.
In all cases, the grants were lump-sum, unrestricted gifts, meaning the institutions are free to spend the money in ways they think best.For Jamie Simon-Harris, CEO of Camp Tawonga, the $50,000 gift means a better experience for summer campers during a Covid crisis that has created “a lot of unexpected expenses.”
“We needed to move dining outdoors, do regular testing of staff and campers and acquire more individual supplies,” Simon-Harris said. “Their gift allowed us to keep camp Covid safe.”
The couple said about a year ago they wanted to make grants that would “ripple across the [Bay Area Jewish] community,” according to Tye Gregory, executive director of JCRC. “They were particularly interested in having a centralized impact on Bay Area Jewish life,” he added.
Gregory declined to say how much JCRC received from Chan and Zuckerberg, but said a portion of the gift will help fund the agency’s “Here I Am” initiative, which calls on community members to create videos, for sharing online, that recount personal experiences with antisemitism.Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, head of school at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School, said the gifts to his and other local Jewish day schools make sense, given that Palo Alto residents Zuckerberg and Chan have two young children almost of school age. The couple’s commitment to supporting education was first made clear in 2010, when they donated $100 million to the public school system in Newark, N.J.
“They made a judgment call that Jewish day schools are a critically important part of the Jewish ecosystem in terms of the future of the Jewish community and its leadership,” Lehmann said. “I think their sense of commitment to quality education is deep and abiding.”
The rabbi said the gift to Hausner, which he declined to specify but described as “significant and impactful,” will be allocated in two ways: scholarships to Jewish families in need of assistance with tuition, and launching Philosophy for Children, a new academic program done in partnership with the University of Washington.
The program will “allow us to train teachers and bring philosophical inquiry into the classroom, drawing on the Jewish tradition of asking questions,” Lehmann said. “We will be the only school in the Bay Area that will do this in a systematic way, and the funds will allow us to bring that program this year.”URJ Camp Newman received $50,000, a gift that executive director Ari Vered said “means everything.”
Vered noted that it had been four years since Newman held camp at its Santa Rosa site, which suffered massive fire damage in 2017. The return this past summer was a triumph, but with Covid lurking, challenges abounded.
“We were sold out, but still had a lot more expenses dealing with new things,” he said. “Our staff never left camp all summer. So for people living on site for 11 weeks, how do you help them keep up energy and enthusiasm? That involved a unique investment we never did before.”
Vered, who has never met Zuckerberg and Chan, said “they gave us a vote of confidence in the power of Jewish camping and how it transforms lives. We’re beyond grateful to them for thinking of us, and to be willing partners.”
Bodner said the OFJCC’s $200,000 grant will have a big impact, especially after a rough 18 months. The funds, he said, will likely be used in myriad ways: helping the center recover from the pandemic, ensuring health and safety, supporting staff, creating scholarships and expanding programming in many areas, such as Jewish holidays and the Maccabi Sports Camp, to name just two.
“Our fiscal health is strong, but we are still not where we were pre-pandemic,” Bodner said. “We just hired back our first arts and culture professional after having had to put the entire program on hold. We’re struggling to hire people and retain them because the cost of living has continued to grow even amidst economic slowdown.”
What does it mean to have a figure like Zuckerberg decide to “friend” the Jewish community in his own backyard? Lehmann thinks he has an answer.
“It gives me a lot of hope for the future of philanthropy in the Bay Area,” the rabbi said. “[The grants are] an incredible model of how the resources Silicon Valley has generated can be transformative if applied to the Jewish community. I hope this is the beginning of a growing movement, not only for Mark and Priscilla … but for other tech leaders who have enormous resources. The impact they can have on the Jewish community is profound.”
Dan Pine is a reporter for the J: Jewish News of Northern California. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Arno Rosenfeld covers Jewish organizations for the Forward. Follow him on Twitter @ArnoRosenfeld or email email@example.com.
Which Jewish groups shared the $1.3 million Zuckerberg-Chan gift?