The northern New Jersey Jewish community received a boost last month when the 43 members of the Berrie Fellows Network distributed $100,000 in grant money to four organizations for programs to further Jewish continuity.

With more than 100 applicants from around the tri-state area and Israel, the fellows had to think hard about how to distribute the funds. They created a set of criteria, focusing specifically on innovation and applicants’ abilities to execute their projects.

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Lisa Colton is president of Darim Online, which received a Berrie Innovation Grant.

“Ultimately,” said Laura Freeman, Berrie Innovation Grant project co-chair, “the goal was to find programs or initiatives that were really going to make a difference and change the landscape in some way of the northern New Jersey Jewish community.” The recipients applied for shares of the $100,000, which the fellows divided among them. Freeman said not every organization received the full amount it had applied for and some had to adjust their programming in response. She would not disclose the amounts of the specific allocations.

According to BIG project co-chair David Rosenblatt, “With the economic meltdown everyone experienced last fall, and the continuing impact even now, … the challenge for organizations was to dedicate time and resources to innovative thinking even when many were trying to determine how to perform their basic charter with less resources or trying to plan on how they could survive.

“Narrowing down the applicants was extremely difficult,” he continued, “but it helps to have a great and passionate selection team. First, we had so many applications to review and be thoughtful about. Second, we had to make sure that a cross-section of Berrie Fellows had the opportunity to review and comment on each application. And third, we had a great group of applicants and only so much in funding. The combination made for intense meetings and discussions on the applicants, their proposals, and their respective merits. At the end, we felt that we did a good job selecting a diverse group of proposals that hit our criteria on the head.”

A BIG opportunity
David Rosenblatt, co-chair of the Berrie Innovation Grants project, said of the recipients, “Each proposal was selected in large part on the sponsoring organization’s ability to execute and for the program to multiply it effects. So, if we look at the grants, there could be a multiplier from Mechon Hadar by having individuals go back in their community and lead programs; from Darim we could see a broader strategic use of online community-building tools to connect more people; from JOI we could see a program teaching intermarried men how to raise their children Jewish rolled out to more communities around the country; and from The Curriculum Institute, we will have high school students become more connected to their Jewish identity, which can have a lifetime impact.

“Overall,” he added, “if successful, the BIG project has the opportunity to produce long-lasting change and impact for our community and others.”

Among the recipients was the Jewish Outreach Institute, which received a grant to create two pilot programs for its “For the Men” initiative. It targets men who are in interfaith marriages and helps them to raise Jewish children, said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the institute. The first program, “The Nuts and Bolts of Raising Jewish Children,” targets Jewish men who will discuss such topics as becoming a Jewish role model, holiday and lifecycle celebrations, and how to answer questions about life, death, and God. The second, “How Should I Know? Answering My Partner’s Questions about Judaism,” is not geared specifically for fathers. Rather, according to Olitzky, it will be open to engaged and married Jewish men who are in or about to be in mixed marriages. This three-session program will offer tips and strategies for creating a Jewish home, as well as provide a forum for voicing challenges the men have faced or expect. “We applied this year, both in response to the need, as part of our continuing effort to segment the population and then reach those segments,” he said, “and because we had just concluded a year of studying men and men’s programs. Were it not for the funding, we would not be able to expand our work into this area.”

Lisa Colton, president of Darim Online, said, “What attracted me to this opportunity was not just the potential for funding but their interest and commitment in supporting our organization throughout the course of the grant.” Darim plans to use its grant to create programming to educate Jewish organizations on how to better use social media such as Facebook and blogs. Darim plans to launch two pilot programs in the fall. The first, funded by the Berrie grant, will be available in northern New Jersey; while the second, funded by UJA Federation of New York, will target Long Island organizations. “We really see this as a major step for the Jewish community,” she said, “to significantly advance the work and set a new standard for how Jewish organizations are using social technology in their work.” The fellows earned praise not only from the recipients, but also from the Russell Berrie Foundation, which coordinates the fellowship program. This marked the first year the foundation has included the grant money in the fellowship. “We have been incredibly impressed with the process [the Berrie fellows] developed, the seriousness with which they pursued it, and the results they came to,” said Ruth Salzman, executive director and CEO of the Russell Berrie Foundation. Whether the foundation will make the grants available again has not yet been discussed, Salzman said. She particularly praised the fellows for following up with the winners after the awards were made. Fellows will liaise with the recipients through the coming year. “From the foundation’s perspective, it really is very interesting and pleasing that the Berrie fellows did not view this process as ending with the funding, but feel invested in being part of the success and trying to ensure the success of the programs,” Salzman said. As for the organizations that did not win funding, Freeman said the fellows are not done with them yet. A new committee will begin looking at the proposals to help the applicants move forward using their existing resources. “We’re planting seeds,” Freeman said. “It takes time for these seeds to fertilize and grow but the key is we’re planting seeds. The network is very committed to making these things happen. If we need to remain involved to make sure the project continues, we are committed to doing that.”