By Emily Alhadeff
Connie Kanter envisioned herself driving around Greater Seattle area in her convertible with the top down, hair blowing in the breeze. She was headed from her home in Seattle to visit the Jewish communities of Vancouver, Olympia, Bellingham, and Spokane in a first-of-its-kind exploration of what Jewish educational programming those cities are doing and to spread the gospel of Samis ahead of the launch of its new granting process.
“When the trip got postponed to late October, November, there wasn’t a lot of top-down driving, but that’s okay,” Kanter, Samis’s CEO, says. She was still able to meet with rabbis, synagogue directors, and educators outside the Seattle metro area to intentionally connect them with the Samis Foundation, a philanthropic fund created by the late Sam Israel and dedicated to local, immersive Jewish educational experiences, global disaster relief, and select causes inside Israel.
“One thing I wanted to do was make sure they were aware of some of the opportunities that their community has already,” she explains. While most knew about the Jewish camp scholarships administered through the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, Kanter observed less familiarity with other areas Samis funds, like Israel trips. “If you’re from a community where there’s 40 or 50 kids in the entire Sunday school, having an opportunity to go on an Israel experience or a camp experience can be transformational for those kids.”
Kanter’s Jewish American road trip was part of a bigger picture: Samis’s strategic vision for data-driven investment in programs that prove effective in building Jewish identity and commitment. (See Samis Isn’t Going to Go It Alone.) For the first time, in 2021, Samis commissioned a formal study to evaluate a pilot program that started in 2017 including six Seattle-based organizations. The study, by Rosov Consulting, an agency that assesses the effectiveness of Jewish communal organizations, concluded this October, and the results were encouraging.
“We were thrilled with the results,” says Kanter. “I mean, we were just delighted.”
The study indicated that the programs in the pilot — BBYO, IAC Eitanim, Friendship Circle, StandWithUs, Giving Initiative for Teens, and NCSY–Jewish Student Union — increased Jewish pride, knowledge, and engagement across the board.
“In a nutshell, these programs supported Jewish identity building and serve as a pipeline for future Jewish engagement,” says Ariel Lapson, program officer at Samis. Interestingly, the effects of the programs also seem to have a ripple effect on family members, as indicated by parent responses to the same survey. To Lapson, this makes sense. “If you look at the families that are sending their kids on experiential education programs, it’s oftentimes a different Jewish demographic than, let’s say, families that are sending their kids to day school who likely went to day school themselves or grow up in a stronger Jewish community.”
The survey also indicated a few new things about kids these days. Namely, Jewish experiential education may be effective at helping teens deal with anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem, not to mention anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment.
“A lot of what we saw here resonated with what we know,” says Zohar Rotem, senior project leader for Rosov. The study results mirror other findings around the country. “Not surprising but striking is the range of things teens are dealing with.”
The programs are effective at addressing some, but not all, major stressors that the teens identified. And in a survey of what teens are going through versus what their parents think they are going through, huge disparities emerged. For instance, 40 percent of teens say they deal with gender/sexual identity issues. Just five percent of parents indicated that as an issue for their child. Similar disparities show up for sexism, drugs and alcohol, homophobia and transphobia, and bullying/cyberbullying.
“Using data in decisions means you’re going to be willing to take a little more risk,” says Kanter. In the past, Samis relied mostly on anecdotal data — conversations at kiddush with parents about how their kids are liking school, for instance.
“There’s a place for anecdotal data,” Kanter says. “I think that we really want to get to the space as a foundation to be able to better understand the impact of our philanthropy and data collection and data gathering and analysis as part of better understanding the impact.”
That’s why a portion of this round of funding is considered the Samis Experiential Education Incubator Fund. To allocate the grants, Samis is doing something else it has never done before on the local level: putting out a request for proposals, rather than hand-picking programs for funding. The RFP process opened December 8 and will run through January 6, after which selected applicants will be invited to apply. Grantees will be notified in April.
“One of the things that an RFP allows you to do is to really open up the conversation and the dialogue to learn much more broadly what might be possible. So, I think first and foremost, we wanted to have a bigger funnel in terms of what we might look at in terms of grant making,” Kanter says. “There’s no question that Ariel and I could pick seven, 10, 12 programs right now. We’ve funded phenomenal programs. There would be great results, but we want to have a little broader funnel. And some of that I think is reflective of an orientation at Samis of trying to just be a little bit more responsive to the broader community needs.”
Qualified programs will have to prove they deepen connection and knowledge to Judaism, culture, Israel, or Hebrew; engage with Israel advocacy or fight anti-Semitism; or further philanthropy or citizenship through a Jewish lens. Samis is prioritizing programs that are new to Washington, collaborative, and serving K-8th grade. Realizing that programs are only as good as their coordinators, Samis is also granting for youth program professional development. “It would allow for those youth professionals to get a bit more professional development to really grow their skill sets so they can serve their programs better,” Kanter says. “We’re hoping that will be the side benefit, that they may be more inclined to stay in Jewish communal work.”
Samis has $350,000 to grant, and if Kanter has one prediction, it’s that proposals will come in for three times as much. “I expect we’ll get a million dollars in requests. I really think we will,” she says.
She also predicts that they’ll learn about amazing programs that they didn’t know about, like some she heard about on her road trip. “I think there’s going to be a lot of, Wow, I didn’t know they were doing that right,” Kanter says. “We’re going to just learn. There’s a lot more going on than we realize.”
Originally published on December 10, 2021 in The Cholent: https://bit.ly/3DKK2AD