Author Archives: Jason Brzoska

A Blog After My Own Heart

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I don’t post here as often as I’d like, mostly because I spend the lion’s share of my time at MJL trying to make sure we have the resources to accomplish all of the big things we have planned for today and for the future.

Anything that makes it easier to find out what the Jewish funder world is up to is always welcome, which is why I was happy to find out today that the always-informative Jacob Berkman at JTA has launched The Fundermentalist, a new blog covering happenings in Jewish philanthropy.

Today, Jacob fills us in on the disputed origins of Birthright Israel:

Conventional philanthropic wisdom has held that it was some combination of Steinhardt and Bronfman and that essentially Bronfman had the idea to take as many North American young adults as possible to Israel, while Steinhardt came up with the idea to make the trips free – and argued vehemently with Bronfman until Bronfman acquiesced.

That’s only about a quarter right, according to Israeli MK Yossi Beilin.

Beilin told the Fundermentalist in unequivocal terms that Birthright, widely accepted as the most significant Jewish philanthropic endeavor of this generation, after sending some 180,000 Jewish kids to Israel over the past eight years for free, was in fact HIS idea.

Read more

And while I’m on the topic, if you like what you read on MJL and Mixed Multitudes, why don’t you drop a dollar in our pushka?

Posted on June 3, 2008

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Today’s Jewel of Elul — The Sign

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Today’s Jewel of Elul from Craig and Co. is by Harriet Rossetto, the founder of Beit T’shuvah, the first and only residential Jewish addiction and rehabilitation program in the United States.

I was addicted to despair. What’s the point? Why bother? Life is hard, and then you die. In those days I called it existentialism, which cloaked the despair with a veneer of intellectual superiority. I balanced thoughts of suicide with flights of fantasy. The “right” man, the “perfect” guru, the current cause or psychological panacea would give my life meaning, patch the “hole in the soul.” When it didn’t, I wanted to die. At the bottom, I prayed to a God I didn’t believe in. “Show me the way to my mission; what is the purpose of my life?”

The “sign” soon appeared in the L.A. Times Classified: ‘…person of Jewish background to work with Jewish criminal offenders.’ The hairs on both arms stood up. Who better than I? I knew I had a choice, coincidence or divine guidance. I chose to believe, to put my faith in divine wisdom, in the miracle of revelation.

God’s gift to me has been staying power and the willingness to plow through my doubts and fears when the giants loom and I feel like a “grasshopper.” My faith in being God’s partner in healing has sustained me when I wanted to give up and, for the past 20 years, has empowered me to put one foot in front of the other and do the next right thing.

I have found all the things I thought I would never find: a life partner who shares my passion for healing troubled souls, a reason to get out of bed every morning, and the blessing of being witness to the healing power of transformation.

Craig n’ Co. will be posting a new Jewel every day of Elul. To read them all or to order a free booklet of this year’s Jewels, click here or on the banner below.

Jewels of Elul

Posted on August 30, 2007

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Passing the Collection Plate (Tzedakah Box)

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For the upcoming High Holiday season, we’ve made a special arrangement with everyone’s favorite Jewish newspaper, The Forward.

If you donate $36 to MJL today, you can receive a free six-month subscription to The Forward.

If you donate $72 or more, you can receive a free one-year subscription to The Forward.

If you’re already a subscriber, your donation can renew your subscription.

So, please make a donation to MJL today to help us keep bringing you high-quality Jewish content.

Posted on August 29, 2007

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Today’s Jewel of Elul — Teach Them To Swim

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Today’s Jewel of Elul from Craig and Co. is by Jerome Groopman, a professor of medicine at Harvard and a best-selling author.

On the wall of the pool at my Jewish community center is a line from the Talmud, “A father should teach his child three things: Torah, a trade, and to swim.” For years, I read this as inspiration to improve my stroke. But then I wondered if the Talmud was also imparting a profound message about hope and healing.

It is no surprise that the Rabbis would encourage learning Torah to bring us closer to God and mastering a trade to obtain material
sustenance. But why learn to swim?

The Talmud does not say, “be taught to walk” because the ground is our natural habitat. Water is not. In water, there is nothing to hold on to. There is the risk of drowning, so we must learn how to adapt to new, dangerous, and uncertain surroundings.

When we become ill, it is like being thrown into water. Hope and healing are like swimming. To pass through illness, we must change our usual way of functioning and take control of an unnatural environment. At first, we may thrash around, but God has given us the ability to move forward and prevail. This can be taught to our children after we learn it ourselves.

Craig n’ Co. will be posting a new Jewel every day of Elul. To read them all or to order a free booklet of this year’s Jewels, click here or on the banner below.

Jewels of Elul

Posted on August 22, 2007

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Jewels of Elul

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With the beginning of Elul (duly noted by Lili earlier today) our friends over at Craig and Co. have unveiled the first “gem” in the third Jewels of Elul series. Today’s posting is by Jessica Leigh Lebos, a blogger from Yo, Yenta:

My mother-in-law’s mind is full of holes. She spends most of the day in a placid fog, a place where there’s nothing left to do but walk the dog and wonder what’s for dinner. Every time it’s chicken, she rolls her eyes and kvetches, “We had this last night!” No one argues with her anymore.

The situation is undeniably tragic. She’s only in her early 60′s, has already suffered through cancer and a mastectomy, and her dementia has been diagnosed incurable. Yet, her disease has set into motion a certain regeneration: Both of her sons have returned to Savannah to help care for her and to assume their roles as men alongside their father, who is finally learning to treat them like the mensches she raised. Her grandchildren — my kids — sit beside her and sing with gusto while she plunks out the same damn Disney song on the piano: “The Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord, for giving me the things I need, the sun and the rain and the appleseed…”

Whenever there’s music, she remembers exactly what to do. She snaps, she swings her arms; she’s particularly fond of jazz hands. This is endearing when “Funkytown” comes on the radio and she shimmies around the living room, less so when we’re in line at the grocery store and she sashays off in the direction of someone’s cell phone. My husband and I have made a family pact to never let her dance alone. Often we resemble a circus without a tent, a multi-generational band of spastic merrymakers getting down to the sound of the garbage compactor. Helping someone keep her grace doesn’t always look graceful.

We hold faith that God loves us so, and yet still, still, life hurts. Sometimes healing comes from accepting what is. Hope is learning how to dance with it.

Craig n’ Co. will be posting a new Jewel every day of Elul. To read them all or to order a free booklet of this year’s Jewels, click here or on the banner below.

Jewels of Elul

Posted on August 15, 2007

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

New Blog: The New Jew

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I was doing a bit of research this morning on the Areivim Fund, which I wrote about two weeks ago, and stumbled upon The New Jew, a blog that deals exclusively in Jewish philanthropy. It’s still bare as of yet (it just launched last week), but it’s the only blog of its type that I know of. 

The New Jew is run by Maya Norton, who asks, “I hope you will join in my quest to advance my own knowledge of the depth and diversity of Jewish philanthropy as I use the web as a social networking tool for nonprofit change.”

Now, honestly, I have no idea exactly what she means by “use the web as a social networking tool for nonprofit change” or exactly how she intends to accomplish that, but for all of you with an interest in Jewish philanthropy, Maya’s blog may be worth keeping an eye on.

 

Posted on August 9, 2007

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Areivim/The Fund for the Jewish Future — What Do You Think?

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I ended a week of fundraising travel with Daniel (yeah, we’ve gotta do that to keep the Jewish knowledge flowing your way) to find JTA’s headline, “Disappointed Steinhardt vows cuts and changes in funding.” The short of it:

Unhappy with the results of his $125 million investment in Jewish causes over the past 12 years, philanthropic trailblazer Michael Steinhardt says that he is scaling back and refocusing the efforts of his signature foundation…

In an extensive interview Wednesday at his Manhattan offices, Steinhardt told JTA that he will be narrowing his foundation’s attention to three major areas: creating follow-up programs for birthright participants after they return home; building a $100 million Fund for the Jewish Future, also known as Areivim, to transform formal and informal Jewish education, and the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative…

Steinhardt has tapped the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, Robert Aronson, to head the $100 million Areivim fund. The fund, which is co-chaired by Detroit billionaire William Davidson, will include 20 philanthropists who invest $5 million each. Steinhardt said that 13 have signed on so far.

The Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation is a major sustainer of ours here at MJL, so I’m not going to editorialize about this myself. This story could have huge significance for the world of Jewish learning and engagement, but as I did some research online this afternoon, I couldn’t find any other blogger or publication (other than JTA) that had weighed in. So I was curious — what do you think? Let us know in the comments.

Oh, and while you’re at it, why don’t you drop a coin into the fund for our little corner of the Jewish future?

Posted on July 26, 2007

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Sam, the Banana Man

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Before there were Halliburton and Exxon-Mobil, there was United Fruit.

I’ve been spending a lot of my spare time over the last several months reading up on U.S. history, and one of the astonishing things that I’ve found is that before America allegedly/really (it’s not my place to say here) started to intervene in other countries on behalf of the oil industry, it in fact did do so on behalf of the fruit industry.

One of the best sources I’ve come across for info on this rather startling historical phenomenon is Stephen Kinzer‘s recently-released book, Overthrow.

One Russian-American Jew, Samuel Zemurray, played a significant part:

Samuel Zemurray (January 18, 1877-November 30, 1961) was a U.S. businessman. He made his fortune in the banana trade and founded the Cuyamel Fruit Company, which played a significant and controversial role in the history of Honduras. Zemurray later became head of the United Fruit Company.

banana.jpg

Zemurray’s original name was Schmuel Zmurri. He was born in Kishinev, Bessarabia, Russia (present-day ChiÅŸinău, Moldova) to a poor Jewish family that emigrated to America when he was fourteen years old. Zemurray had no formal education. He entered the banana trade in Mobile, Alabama in 1895, at the age of eighteen. His early wealth was largely due to a very successful venture in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he bought the bananas that had ripened in the transport ships and then sold them locally. His success earned him the nickname “Sam the Banana Man.” By age twenty-one he had banked $100,000. He later bought a steamship and went to Honduras. (MORE)

Which, according to Kinzer, is where Sam first immersed himself into geopolitics:

Like many other American businessmen in Central America, Zemurray considered his land a private fiefdom. He resented having to pay taxes and abide by Honduran laws and regulations. That put him in conflict with President Miguel Dávila, who not only insisted that foreign businesses submit to taxation but was campaigning to limit the amount of land foreigners could own in Honduras … Zemurray decided that Dávila was now ripe to be overthrown, and with typical resolve set out to do the overthrowing himself.

President Bonilla handsomely rewarded the man who had placed him in power. Soon after taking office, he awarded Zemurray 10,000 hectares of banana land-about 24,700 acres-near the north coast. Later he added 10,000 hectares near the Guatemalan border. Then he gave Zemurray a unique permit allowing his businesses to import whatever they needed duty-free. Finally, he authorized Zemurray to raise a $500,000 loan in the name of the Honduran government, and use the money to repay himself for what he claimed to have spent organizing the revolution. With assets like these, it is no wonder that Zemurray soon became known as “the uncrowned king of Central America.” He was certainly the king of Honduras. After Bonilla’s death in 1913, he controlled a string of presidents. In 1925 he secured exclusive lumbering rights to a region covering one-tenth of Honduran territory. Later he merged his enterprises with United Fruit and took over as the firm’s managing director. Under his leadership, United Fruit became inextricably interwoven with the fabric of Central American life. According to one study, it “throttled competitors, dominated governments, manacled railroads, ruined planters, choked cooperatives, domineered over workers, fought organized labor and exploited consumers.”

This wasn’t the last time the Banana Man meddled in Central American affairs. According to the United Fruit Historical Society, whose purpose is “is to disseminate educational material about the history of the United Fruit Company and to gather historical information of the company in order to keep this knowledge for future generations,” Sam moved on to Guatemala:

After Zemurray retired in 1951, he remained as chairman of the executive committee of United Fruit. In that position it has been said that he had an important role in engineering the overthrow of the government of Guatemala in 1954, after the democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz began expropriating the company’s plantations in order to follow his agrarian reform project. Zemurray led a campaign that portrayed Arbenz as a dangerous Communist in the American media. Working together with an advertisement company he distributed alarmist propaganda among the press and Congressmen in which he showed Guatemala as a foothold of the Soviet Union in the Western Hemisphere. This campaign was eventually successful, since the CIA sponsored a military coup against Arbenz, in which the rebels used United Fruit boats to transport troops and ammunition.

And, perhaps my favorite part (it’s fun when history is linked):

In 1961, United Fruit also provided two ships for the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

Sam’s Jewish identity led him to get involved in another part of the world, as well. He and his family gave to the Zionist movement as a result of their friendship with Chaim Weizmann.

At least Zemurry was “philan-tropic.”

Just a historical token for the day.

Posted on July 20, 2007

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STAR’s New Blog

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Our partner, STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal), has launched its first blog, CO-STAR.

In his first post, our good friend Rabbi Hayim Herring explains the origin of the name:

I remember Rabbi Harold Kushner, a rabbi who has influenced me, once either saying or writing that you shouldn’t pray for anything which you’re unwilling to act on yourself (my paraphrase). I’m taking cues for the purpose of STAR’s blog from one of the morning prayers before the Shema (the ahava rabbah). It has four key words which will guide our action on CO-STAR:

  1. To learn (lilmod)—about exciting developments in and around the synagogue world
  2. To teach (l’lamed)—or share our learning with anyone interested
  3. To keep (lishmorr)—the focus on things which are working well
  4. To implement (la’asot)—change by sharing ideas of talented, concerned individuals.

That’s why we named our blog CO-STAR. The name reflects our desire to be co-creators of knowledge, innovation and excellence in existing and emerging synagogue life. We arrived at that name by inviting our STAR PEER rabbis to suggest a name for the blog—and they were creative! They recommended about 40 terrific ideas. But we settled on CO-STAR because it best speaks to our belief that through partnership with our readers, we can together share our insights about synagogue life—the good and the bad, the creative with long-term potential and what seems to be an interesting fad. While respecting what’s working, we want CO-STAR to challenge us to think how synagogues can reach and touch a more diverse Jewish community.

Posted on July 3, 2007

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New Journal from JBooks.com — Secular Culture and Ideas

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Our partner, JBooks.com, and our friends at the Center for Cultural Judaism have launched a new secular Jewish online journal called Secular Culture and Ideas. From the press release:

There are more secular Americans than ever before, and nowhere is the trend more pronounced than among Jewish Americans, nearly half of whom consider themselves secular or somewhat secular. So it may be the time to look back – and also forward – at the role of secularism in American-Jewish life.

A new online journal, Secular Culture & Ideas (www.jbooks.com/secularculture), does just that by taking a sharp look at secular Jewish life, culture, and ideas. Recent issues challenge conventional thinking about Jewish pop-culture, Yiddish, and the concept of “Diaspora,� plus an interview with Pulitzer prize-winning science reporter Natalie Angier, who heralds what might be called the “second wave� atheist movement. Next month, the journal will explore the renaissance in Yiddish language and culture.

Fun fact from a piece by Douglas Rushkoff in the current issue:

It was the Jews’ struggle for self-preservation, after all, as well as their deeply held humanist beliefs, that made them promoters of open discussion—so much that third century Romans purchased memberships in Jewish synagogues just so they could take part in intellectual conversations.

 From the same essay:

The reinvention of Judaism as “cool� is also the aim of philanthropies and outreach organizations that have taken it upon themselves to repackage a religion for a vast population of lapsed and disaffected Jews. Outreach organizations define Jews as people who are affiliated with a Jewish organization. Their efforts fail to take into account the sociological research indicating that most Americans define their social, political, or religious affiliations not through centralized institutions, but through a more complex and self-defined set of “loose connections.� Instead of working to strengthen these connections most outreach groups think of Jews as being “in� or “out� based on their willingness to pay temple dues. People who don’t belong to a synagogue are considered “lapsed� and in need of active recruitment. Through focus groups and consumer research, these organizations seek to identify their target market’s barriers to participating in organized Judaism and then appeal to these sensibilities. It all comes down to making Judaism look more hip to a modern audience, even if this means resorting to the tactics of a soft drink advertiser.

Significant food for thought — how many of you are not members of a shul, yet are participating in some sort of study for Shavuot? Does that make you a “lapsed” Jew? Let us know in the comments. 

Posted on May 22, 2007

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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