Helping Recognize Nonprofits’ Creativity

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Six Philadelphia-based nonprofits and three other national organizations with local affiliates here were highlighted in this year's Slingshot guide for their innovative efforts.

A staff member picked up seven clients with the Judith Creed Homes for Adult Independence over the weekend and drove for five hours to and from an apple festival at a farm in Northeast Philadelphia.

That trip would not have been very comfortable — or even possible — in the two-door Chevy Cavalier that Candy Wiater, a program director with JCHAI, had used in the past to drive Jewish adults with disabilities.


This time, the group was able to drive in a new, eight-passenger van, purchased with a grant from Slingshot, a New York-based group that recognizes innovative Jewish nonprofits.

“The majority of our clients do not drive and are not able to use public transportation,” said Wiater. Without assistance, she added, “they would have limited opportunities to participate in community activities, so one of the things that we do is transport, accompany and lead trips.”

In addition to the grant, Slingshot also selected the JCHAI Transitions program, which is specifically targeted at adults ages 18 to 28, for its annual list of the most innovative Jewish organizations in North America.

JCHAI, which also serves older disabled adults, was one of six organizations based in the Philadelphia region to be recognized by Slingshot, which has been producing the guide for 10 years and released its latest — and expanded — list of 82 notable organizations this week.

The other locally based organizations selected were Challah for Hunger; Jewish Learning Venture; Moving Traditions; Jewish Renaissance Project at Penn Hillel; and Ritualwell.

In addition, three other organizations — InterfaithFamily, Hazon and Moishe House — have local affiliates of groups that were cited this year by Slingshot.

A number of these organizations have been selected multiple times, but making the list still generates a certain buzz in the Jewish world.

Groups must apply for the innovation designation, and subsequently reapply each year to maintain their status. Slingshot uses a panel of more than 100 volunteers from different parts of the Jewish world to evaluate applications.

The key to remaining successful, said Julie Finkelstein, assistant director of Slingshot, is commitment to the mission rather than to tactics that once worked but might have become outdated.

“We’re really looking at, not just did you create a new program, but are you continuing to evolve and adapt to the needs of your community,” said Finkelstein, who grew up in Bala Cynwyd attending what became Perelman Jewish Day School and was very involved in the Jewish community. “Certainly, if you’re doing the same thing you were doing 10 years ago today, you’re not likely to remain relevant.”

That approach, said Finkelstein, has taken hold in Philadelphia, which in the past had not been known “as a hotbed of Jewish innovation,” but rather a place of “strong, established, old-time organizations.”

In the guide’s 2012 edition, only two local organizations were recognized; that number tripled this year.

“I have seen in the last few years a lot of interest in innovative work, in startups, in supporting entrepreneurs, in really bringing fresh energy into Jewish life in Philadelphia,” said Finkelstein, who has been at Slingshot for more than two years. “It’s been exciting to see when I go back home; it feels like a very different Jewish community today then it did when I was growing up there.”

JCHAI, for example, began in 1987 but just last year launched the Transitions program to help the disabled young adult population that had long been underserved, said Stacy Levitan, executive director of JCHAI. In addition to socialization events such as the orchard trip, a cinema club and Shabbat dinners, the organization also offers computer classes, cooking classes and resume-writing workshops.

The organization is designed to “allow people who are disabled and Jewish to continue to build their Jewish identity, which they don’t have a lot of opportunity to do,” said Levitan. “It’s difficult enough for people with disabilities to receive quality services. And then to find quality services that also allow them to live Jewishly is even more difficult.”

In order to be included in the guide, an organization must reapply every year and be put through “fairly rigorous paces,” said Levitan. The organization was recognized in a disabilities and inclusion supplement last year but included in the main Slingshot guide for the first time this year. JCHAI was the only local organization to receive a grant, enabling it to buy the van, which will help with another limitation that disabled adults often face — lack of transportation.

But Slingshot is not just looking for new programs or organizations. Finkelstein said she often gets the question, “Is it just about startups?”

Moving Traditions, a Jenkintown-based organization targeted at Jewish teens has been selected almost every year since its founding in 2005. The organization has had successful gender-based programs for girls — Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!, which has reached 14,000 girls around the country — and, more recently, Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood for boys, aimed at ensuring that the teens don’t “drop out” of Jewish life, said founder Deborah Meyer.

But here again, the needs of the target audience evolve, and Moving Traditions is adapting to those needs. In response to the growing concerns over sexting among teenagers and related scandals, the organization is creating a program to help teens develop a “healthy sexual ethic” that draws on the “deep Jewish wisdom” relating to sexuality, said Meyer. The organization is forming a teen advisory council with experts in the field to develop the program and is planning to pilot it in Philadelphia before expanding it nationally.

“We are continually researching and updating our work so that we’re at the cutting edge of issues and challenges that are affecting teens’ lives, helping them explore those issues and address them using Jewish values in a fun and supportive environment,” said Meyer.

Moving Traditions has been recognized repeatedly, Finkelstein said, in part because of the breadth of their reach and how they connect with other parts of the Jewish community.

“They are more than just a nonprofit sort of shopping around their program or bringing in people to help facilitate; they are getting JCC professionals and camp professionals and day school professionals trained in their materials and really embedding their work into the fabric of Jewish institutions,” said Finkelstein.

That need to evolve and adapt could be most urgent for an organization like Ritualwell, which does most of its work online. Affiliated with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the organization provides an online resource for Jewish rituals from the traditional to the gender-neutral. The organization added a blog when it redesigned its website in 2011 and worked to expand its collection of rituals from the various streams of Judaism. The staff now posts daily and has an Orthodox following on Twitter, said Rabbi Roni Handler, who became the site’s editor after graduating from the college in 2011. The site, which was launched in 2001 in conjunction with Ma’yan, a Jewish women’s group, originally started because people were calling with questions about new rituals, back when Google was not yet the automatic search choice.

People from RRC and Ma’yan “were fielding phone calls left and right and at some point they got together, realized this was happening and realized that they could use the Internet as a great way to gather all these materials together and disseminate them into the world,” said Handler.

For its part, Jewish Learning Venture blends pedagogic know-how with new techniques — and technology — as a center of educational and engagement programming. Recognized by Slingshot for a second time, the group was noted for its jkidphilly program, which engages young families, in part through the PJ Library program that sends Jewish-themed books to families with young children. In recent years, the organization launched the Jewish Education Technology Fellowship, which trains religious school teachers.

“To me, we earned the honor because we are doing everything we can to meet the needs of the changing Jewish community in Philadelphia and beyond,” said Deb Lipenta, the group’s communications director.

At the University of Pennsylvania Hillel, Rabbi Mike Uram has not been short on recognition, having been named to the Jewish Daily Forward’s list of the 50 most influential American Jews in 2012, but he has also not become complacent. The Hillel’s Jewish Renaissance Program, first tried in the late 1990s and then relaunched in 2007, takes a peer-driven approach to engaging Jewish students on campus. For example, instead of just having a rabbi lead a Passover seder at the Hillel, the organization provides students with the training, Haggadot and all the fixings for the meal at their fraternities or in their West Philadelphia apartments.

The grass-roots approach, Uram said, has allowed the organization to reach thousands of students, many of whom did not even have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, who would otherwise not set foot in the Hillel. It also has served as a model for a national program, the Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative.

Despite Uram’s national profile, this is the first time the Penn Hillel has been recognized by Slingshot.

“I don’t think this is about funding,” said Uram of the additional attention that a spot in the guide could attract. “I think it’s just a nice that they took a deep look at who we are and ranked us as one of the most innovative organizations in the country.”

That same approach has helped Challah for Hunger, a Philly-based organization, grow to reach college students around the country. Students bake and sell challah which, in turn, raises money and awareness for social justice causes.

“What we do is not a new idea, but we have consistently for many years engaged thousands of college students with a really small staff and a grass-roots, volunteer-driven bridge,” said Carly Zimmerman, who founded a chapter at the University of Pittsburgh and then became CEO of the organization when it moved — because of Zimmerman — from Austin, Texas to Philadelphia.

In the end, the programs are really about the people they reach and serve. Sam, a JCHAI client, moved out of his parents’ home in 2009, looking for greater independence, although he said he still “was going home every weekend.”

With the help of the organization, Sam, now 28, lives in a one-bedroom apartment, cooks most of his own meals and works at a law firm and in the preschool at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood.

“If JCHAI didn’t exist, I probably would still be living at my parents’ house and be miserable,” he said.

In addition to living independently, he participates in programs like traveling to the apple festival. The van they traveled in hit one road block after another, considerably stretching the trip. But there was no road rage here.

“It was nice,” he said. “We had a fun adventure.”

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