Avi Chai preparing for its final decade
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Avi Chai preparing for its final decade

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Teacher Joy Avitan takes part in a program at Park East Day School in Manhattan funded by the Avi Chai Foundation. Courtesy of Avi Chai Foundation

Heading into this decade, the Avi Chai Foundation was among the largest foundations in the Jewish community. It won’t be in another 10 years.

That’s because the foundation, perhaps best known for its work in supporting the Jewish day school movement, is set to sunset in 2020 as it spends down nearly all of its estimated $600 million in assets.

By then it will cease its operations in North America, Israel and the former Soviet Union aside from an endowment the foundation will leave to run its campus in Israel, Beit Avi Chai.

Philanthropies shouldn’t get too excited: There won’t be a free-for-all dumping of money all over the Jewish world, à la some philanthropic version of “Brewster’s Millions.”

Ten years and $600 million may seem like plenty of money and plenty of time, but not to foundation officials as they try to formulate a plan to achieve a lasting, transformative impact on the education of future generations of Jews. Toward that end, Avi Chai is in the midst of some serious introspection about its final goals and how to spend its money in pursuit of them because its investments over the next 10 years will be its legacy.

“Now we are thinking, how is the world going to change – and in that context, how is the Jewish educational world going to change – over the next 10 years, as every nonprofit and every for-profit should be considering,” Avi Chai’s executive director, Yossi Prager, said in a recent interview. “But if you are operating in perpetuity, you don’t necessarily think in that larger framework.”

Until now, in North America, Avi Chai has focused primarily on backing day schools, as well as summer camps. Yet that was a means to an end, the end being the promotion of what foundation officials and officers call LRP – literacy, religious purposefulness, and peoplehood.

For philanthropies, it literally could be worth their while if they can convince Avi Chai that there is a better way to go.

That said, it’s safe to say it would take a great deal to change the consensus view at Avi Chai that day schools and camps are the best vehicles for achieving the three goals.

For now the foundation will continue to support current grantees, but in the future, a significant amount of money will go toward supporting whatever foundation leaders settle on as the final strategy for promoting LRP into the future.

At this stage, Avi Chai is spending considerable manpower, time, and money establishing working groups focused on several areas, including affordability and leadership. The work groups are looking at how each of these areas affect Jewish day schools and camps, conducting research, and convening conversations.

In the end, Avi Chai says, it will settle on an area or two, then direct energy and money accordingly until it spends down.

The foundation was hoping that the focus groups would finish their work by May, but it looks like it may be a few more months beyond that, Prager told JTA.

The spend-down process is being chronicled by Joel Fleishman, the author of “The Foundation: A Great American Secret – How Private Money is Changing the World.” Fleishman will publish periodic reports on the progress of the foundation’s final 10 years, with the first expected to be released in the next month or so.

But for the foundation, the key is achieving its long-term goal in a way that brings in partners to make sure that the work is continued in perpetuity by others after Avi Chai has spent its last dollar.

It’s a significant shift in strategy for a philanthropy that by its own admission has been a “go-it-alone foundation,” according to Prager.

Still, he says, it’s not quite time for the Jewish world to forget about Avi Chai.

“Ten years is a short time, and it is a long time,” Prager said. “None of us are thinking about the end. Ten years is way too long to be saying Kaddish prematurely.

“But we think this is the perfect time to both define concrete goals to achieve over the decade and the right time to begin working with other philanthropies and foundations.”

JTA

This article was adapted from JTA’s philanthropy blog, TheFundermentalist.com.

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