In 1997, a large, brick-red building that was the birthplace of many of Detroit’s happiest memories was closed, but it soon gave birth to another agency that has sustained and developed some of the area’s most vital lifesaving organizations.
With its founding in 1953, Sinai Hospital became an intrinsic part of the Jewish community. Thousands of Jewish children were born there. Jewish nurses and physicians studied and practiced there. It was an institution. And then it was gone.
But unlike so many other things that come and go and are forgotten, Sinai was reborn. It was sold, and the resulting profits were used to create the Jewish Fund.
Today, the Jewish Fund is a Jewish agency, but not the typical Jewish agency. Because it is completely sustained with money from the sale of Sinai Hospital, it is one of the few Jewish organizations in the world that operates without raising funds. There’s no campaign, no phone solicitations, no letters asking you to dig deep and give generously.
What the Jewish Fund does have is an extraordinary story of benevolence, organization and vision.
It begins in 1996, when Sinai Hospital was sold to the Detroit Medical Center, leaving more than $69 million in assets, with about 5 percent, or between $2.5 million and $3.5 million, for the Jewish Fund to distribute through grant awards each year. The sale reflected huge changes in the health-care industry and attitudes in the country itself: Jewish physicians and Jewish patients no longer needed a specifically Jewish hospital to guarantee their right to practice and receive the finest care.
The board of Sinai then forged a unique partnership — the only one of its kind in the United States — that established the Jewish Fund as an independent agency but also an organization that works in conjunction with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. The goals were to continue Sinai’s mission through support for programs that advocate for health and welfare, to continue Sinai’s relationship with the entire Metro community, to provide for Jews in need and to enhance relations between the Jewish and general communities.
Those are the objectives. The real story, though, is how it all works out.
It usually begins with a phone call.
Margo Pernick is executive director of the Jewish Fund. The former assistant executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit and program officer with the Kresge Foundation, Pernick came to the job with the perfect combination: expertise in nonprofits and philanthropy. Almost every day, she receives a call or an email from an organization that asks for funding.
The first question: Does it fall within the guidelines of the Jewish Fund’s goals? Pernick listens. A lot. She considers: Is this a good fit? Will it be the best use of the Jewish Fund’s money?
Incoming Jewish Fund Chair Penny Blumenstein with incoming Vice Chair Karen Sosnick Schoenberg. (Photo by Brett Mountain
If the answers are yes, there is a review process of about six months. Pernick, and often members of the Jewish Fund board, will go to the requesting organization’s location to see for themselves how it works. They’ll need a budget, look into other possible partners, consider how the group will function in the long term. Then the entire Jewish Fund board meets.
The words “board meeting” may sound like a synonym for “sedative,” but Pernick describes these gatherings as “dynamic.” They always start at 8 a.m. With 30 members comprising a diverse group of professionals including lawyers, physicians, social workers and volunteer community leaders, the board has no interest in just giving their stamp of approval. They want to know everything and they discuss everything — and they almost always come to a unanimous decision.
The scope and details of requests are complicated. Some are completely new grants; some are existing programs. Some need start-up money for only a year; some are in it for the long term (the average grant is three years). Some need emergency support just to continue functioning. Some request much more money than, the board realizes, they actually need; some don’t ask for enough. Members consider: Would there be another agency that would be a good partner for funding?
There’s no single consistent formula to it, Pernick says. What the process does involve is a lot of research, along with “a lot of logic and reason.”
There was a time when requests were focused on wellness and general health.
Today, requests are more often from agencies that focus on at-risk families, preventing child abuse and helping people who are hungry, cold and homeless. So, in many ways, the Jewish Fund is something of a reflection of the present and a cautious indicator of the future.
Pernick reports optimism on one front: Certainly there is more money available now than a few years ago. She also sees increased confidence. Yet, so many requests are still coming in from agencies trying to help families with basic needs, like accessing basic health-care services. And agencies such as Forgotten Harvest are actually expanding, which means that things are getting worse for many families in Metro Detroit, Pernick says.
While the board — headed by Penny Blumenstein, a past Federation president — has authority in determining where much of the money will be awarded, the vast majority of funds are restricted for use in the Jewish community. Almost every local Jewish agency (affiliated with the Federation or not), including JARC, Kadima, Tamarack Camps and Yad Ezra, has received a Jewish Fund grant, and most might find it difficult to function without one.
Other times, key organizations in Metro Detroit were even created with and regularly funded by Jewish Fund money, such as Jewish Family Service’s Project Chessed, which gives the uninsured access to free health care.
There also are plenty of requests that are enough to shatter the heart, like one from a group seeking to train new parents in an effort to prevent Shaken Baby Syndrome. (It was awarded.)
So the grant is approved. This is no time to relax. Pernick and the board carefully monitor every organization they agree to support. Each receives a letter outlining its responsibilities. There are site visits. The group receives half the amount of the annual funding they’ve been awarded and will get the second check once they’ve secured a solid track record. Progress reports must be submitted every six months.
“Even if they’re groups we’ve funded for years, they’re monitored,” Pernick says. “Most grantees are accomplishing exactly what they set out to do.”
But because many grants are for new and innovative services, reality doesn’t always reflect the plan, and changes are frequently made in a project during the grant term. If there are significant challenges that lead the Jewish Fund board to conclude that the project is unable to accomplish its goals, or if major organization problems mean that the project will not be effective, the grant can be canceled.
“We are so proud of the way we have carried on the legacy of Sinai Hospital by filling the void for health and social welfare that Sinai assumed for so many years,” Penny Blumenstein says. “By being the connection to the Jewish and general community, we are upholding our Jewish values of tikkun olam.”