Giving away money isn’t easy.
Not if you want to do it right. Not if you have a sense of mission and are guided by a sense of social justice and the desire to make a genuine difference, not simply pay lip service to a cliché.
Not if you understand that there are far more real needs than you can meet, not if you understand that you must remain focused and that you must use creativity, ingenuity, and an entrepreneurial spirit to move in the right direction, which always is forward — but you have to figure out in which direction forward lies.
Not if you are guided by the spirit of a founder who believed deeply and passionately in philanthropy, did it himself, and cared about his legacy as a philanthropic trailblazer.
Yes, this is about the Berrie Foundation, the foundation created by the Bergen County-based famously philanthropic, forward-thinking, and profoundly Jewish toy magnate Russell Berrie.
Mr. Berrie died in 2002; his widow, Angelica Berrie, is the president of the Russell Berrie Foundation. The foundation’s mission is to fund projects in northern New Jersey, in Israel, and that address interfaith relations and diabetes research and care.
One of those projects, the Berrie Fellows Leadership Program — working with the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, which administers it — trains cohorts of local, mainly midcareer, up-and-coming Jewish community leaders, offering them an intensive program that not only teaches them about leadership and helps them refine their already engaged intellects and intuitions on how and when and why to lead, but also exposes them to each other, and to the vibrant diversity of the Jewish communities in northern New Jersey and in Israel.
Now, for the first time, one of the graduates of that fellowship program is joining the board of trustees at the Berrie Foundation.
David Rosenblatt of Tenafly, a successful entrepreneur with strong ties to Israel and a history of active involvement in nonprofit organizations — mainly but by no means entirely in the Jewish world — has joined the five active trustees and one trustee emeritus on the board.
Despite an impressive list of accomplishments — he’s a lawyer and earned a Harvard MBA, and a very partial clip from his bio shows that he is a co-founder of the Arava Power Company, an Israeli solar development enterprise; a former BlackRock managing director; a founder of QuickenLoans; and a board member of the Technion, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, Temple Emanu-El in Closter, and the state JCC Foundation — Mr. Rosenblatt was moved by his stint as a Berrie fellow.
“The fellowship is a big honor,” he said. “How many times in your life, after having graduated from school, does someone want to invest money in your education? And they did it for the best reason — to build community, to invest in new leadership.
“We had to dedicate at least three or four hours every other week to be with the group, and then we all went to Israel, where we continued to study and learn about different issues there,” he said. “It is a program to create leaders who know about issues in both the local New Jersey area and also in Israel. That completely reflects where the Berrie Foundation is making an impact.”
“It was a really wonderful experience,” he added.
One of the touches he appreciated immensely was the way fellows are chosen. “Someone nominates you, but you never know who,” he said. Once a candidate is nominated, the process is “a comprehensive one,” with many interviews and questions and recommendations. “That means that everyone who gets to be a Berrie fellow really respects the commitment and investment, and when you invest in relationships like that, good things happen.”
The relationships include “people across the political spectrum, and also across the Jewish spectrum,” he added. “It’s a real opportunity to build bridges not only with each other but across communities, and I think that the community has been well served with it.”
When he finished the program, Mr. Rosenblatt’s connection with the Berrie Foundation continued to flourish. He and Laura Freeman, another Berrie fellow who now is at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, worked with the foundation to create the Berrie Innovation Grant, which gives grants to Berrie fellowship alumns doing nonprofit work.
All his work as an entrepreneur, in both the for-profit and nonprofit worlds, as well as his connection to Israel, situate him perfectly for the Berrie Foundation board. “I like to think that I have some current knowledge and experience about the political, social, and economic challenges Israel faces as it moves ahead,” he said. “And my outlook is that the Jewish people have a tremendous amount to offer the world, and it doesn’t always come with a political agenda. When you think about things like renewable energy or higher education or promoting the use of technology, for the advancement of people everywhere — whether you are Jewish or not, those are universal goods.
“That is what drives me. And I will be part of an organization that is respected globally for its excellence, and whose current trustees are legends in terms of the good they have done, and the impact they have had.
“Everything the foundation does, it does with intellectual and strategic rigor,” he continued. “There is nothing superficial about what they do. They have a very high standard.
“My hope is to work with the foundation in a productive way, in some small part, and to try to promote Russell Berrie’s legacy,” Mr. Rosenblatt said.
Angelica Berrie is confident that Mr. Rosenblatt will be successful as he adds his vision and voice to the foundation.
“He is the thread of continuity,” she said; his having been a Berrie fellow will allow him to weave a firsthand knowledge of the program and the community into the fabric of the foundation.
“We didn’t necessarily expect to have a Berrie fellow as a trustee,” Ms. Berrie continued. “We have criteria. It has to be someone who has had business success in a business they have created themselves or been very involved in growing. Russell was very entrepreneurial. And the person must have had philanthropic experience, and be very involved in the community as a leader and a giver. And there must be knowledge of Israel; it can’t be someone who just has been there.”
The foundation will not continue indefinitely, or be allowed to fade quietly, she added. It will wind down in about 15 years. “Russell left very explicit instructions that we will sunset,” she said. It will leave behind a legacy of leadership and innovation, with no ossified assumptions or protocols.
“The whole point is that we expect leaders to fill our shoes,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what their means are, but they must be able to help the community focus strategically on the right priorities, on the right way to connect with Israel, on the right way to connect to being Jewish. It’s not all just about being fundraisers.”
Mr. Rosenblatt can give the foundation new vision, she continued. “Sometimes we tended to become not really jaded, that’s not the right word, but we tend to know where people are coming from. We wanted someone who could look with fresh eyes.
“We have a vision, and we have been interpreting it to the best of our ability,” she concluded. “David can contribute a lot to it, with his own passion, insight, interests, life experience, and knowledge of the community. In a sense we lose sight of that, because we are not down on street level in the way that he is.
“We need people his age. When he talks about certain issues, he comes at it from his own personal perspective.”
So as the Berrie Foundation continues to build the community, as its founder wanted it to do — working in ways that he could not have predicted, a truth that he would have relished, because if he could have predicted it, then it would not have been new, or innovative, or a fresh response to a changed time — it will welcome David Rosenblatt to its ranks.