After Shifting its Strategy, a Foundation Gets Behind Jewish Women Social Entrepreneurs

June 6, 2019

Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Evie Litwok got emotional when she opened up a letter from The Collective, a new joint project of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York that invests in social entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders. The letter informed Litwok that her organization, Witness to Mass Incarceration, had been selected as part of The Collective’s first cohort of grantees. It was an especially powerful moment of recognition because just four years earlier, when she was released from prison at age 64 after serving several years in federal prisons, she stepped off a bus at the Port Authority with no money, no one to meet her and nowhere to go.

“For the first two years (after prison), I was scratching and clawing and not making ends meet,” she said in an interview, and for most of that time, was homeless and living in shelters.

Litwok had been convicted on federal charges of tax evasion and mail fraud and served two stints in prison. The first time she entered at 60, but was released when her conviction was overturned. The government re-tried her on one charge, of which she was found guilty and sent back to federal prison at age 63. Though offered plea deals both times, Litwok says, she refused to take them because “I was innocent.”

“At an age when most of my friends were preparing for retirement, I was released from the higher-security prison as a homeless, financially broke, convicted, and aging woman. I had nothing to call my own, and my legal bills had consumed a lifetime of savings. I was full of fear and anxiety,” wrote Litwok.

She was allowed to stay in a halfway house for just six weeks and then moved to a for-profit homeless shelter.

She finally found a subsidized apartment after running into an old friend from feminist circles who helped her. From there, she created Witness to Mass Incarceration, which is building a library of testimonies from former prisoners advocating for change, and has started The Suitcase Project, which matches synagogue volunteers with recently released prisoners to provide them with a suitcase full of basic supplies they will need immediately, and then mentoring and other assistance.

Her aim is to publicize the scale of mass incarceration in the U.S. and give voice to the needs of those newly released, who generally have zero resources with which to restart their lives.

The Collective became the focus of the JWFNY’s work last year, when it shifted away from its earlier giving models. Ten Jewish women are part of this first class. All use Jewish values and a gender lens to shine light on a serious social problem either in the U.S. or overseas. They work in Kenya and Israel, as well as in the New York City area.

Each participant receives $50,000—$20,000 each in the first two years, and $10,000 in the third year, plus training in organizational management and leadership skills, and networking at periodic gatherings, along with a major annual convening.

“Nobody’s supporting Jewish women in this way. Our community, government and world need really strong leaders, and if we can shine a spotlight on these women who are already leading, it will allow them to flourish even more,” Jamie Allen Black, CEO of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, told Inside Philanthropy.

The Collective’s first cohort is made up of an impressive array of civil society leaders, including:

  • Lauren Hersh, founding co-chair and director of World Without Exploitation, a consortium of organizations and individuals working and advocating to end human trafficking and sexual exploitation around the world

  • Miryam Kabakov, executive director and founding board member of Eshel, Inc., an organization that supports and advocates for the full participation of LGBTQ Orthodox Jewish individuals and their families within their faith and community

  • Tania Laden, co-founder and executive director of LivelyHoods, a nonprofit social enterprise that trains and employs disadvantaged youth and women in Kenyan slums to distribute clean energy products in hard-to-reach slum neighborhoods

  • Susan Weiss, founder and executive director of the Center for Women’s Justice, which utilizes legal advocacy, professional training of attorneys, and community outreach to end injustices perpetrated against women by rabbinic courts in Israel. (See the full list of grantees.)

There is no application process. As with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” awards, the winners are nominated, though winning is not a total surprise, since they are interviewed by committee members that make the decision. JWFNY members amassed recommendations and carefully researched each one.

The idea of investing in female Jewish social entrepreneurs is a new model for JWFNY. When the foundation started in 1995, any woman who wanted to join pledged $10,000 payable over four years, and was then a member for life. It funded needs specific to women and girls, projects which got neither attention nor money from mainstream funders.

Over two decades, JWFNY gave $5 million to nearly 250 projects addressing issues related to body image, teen dating violence, bullying, the “stained glass ceiling,” Jewish education, mental and physical health, leadership development, financial literacy and business skill training.

The group shifted some of its focus in 2012, when it created a giving circle called “Women of Strength” to fund projects benefiting women in the developing world, in addition to continuing funding to efforts in New York and in Israel, as it always had. In 2017, after three rounds of global giving, it decided to shift once again and focus on funding Jewish women social entrepreneurs.

Miriam Caslow, a retired physician and past president of JWFNY, told Inside Philanthropy, “After our growth plateaued, we realized it wasn’t sustainable. Our corpus wasn’t giving off as much from the stock market” as it had in the past, Caslow said. So the group moved to a membership model, by which a woman could donate any amount, but in order to serve on a decision-making committee must pledge $3,000 annually, she said.

Of those who selected The Collective’s first recipients, Caslow said in an interview, “it’s many smart people around a table very thoughtfully reviewing who we think will be superstars. Supporting them at this stage will have a ripple effect. It’s good for our community and for the world… It’s high impact philanthropy.”

For Litwok, being selected is, she hopes, life- and organization-changing.

The funding will allow her to hire part-time administrative help. And being selected “offers me the opportunity to learn how to grow my organization,” she said in an interview. “I am a great advocate, but not a great administrator.”