According to the Rambam, the highest form of tzeddakah is enabling someone to find a means of becoming self-sufficient. It is clear that the founders of the Tikkun Olam Women’s Foundation (TOWF) had this precept in mind when they founded the first ever Jewish women’s foundation dedicated to funding programs that bring about social change for women and girls.
TOWF was founded in 2004 when two women, Liza Levy and Robin Hettelman Weinberg, realized that there was no Jewish grant-making organization in the Washington DC area dedicated exclusively to bettering the lives of women and girls. With assistance provided by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the United Jewish Endowment Fund and the Vivian Rabineau Endowment fund, the two set about creating a vehicle that would not only support women’s causes, but would give women the opportunity to exercise their philanthropic muscles by having them fund and run the foundation. By providing women with the opportunity to use their leadership skills and financial resources in a charitable venue, it enables them to use both their talents and their assets to transform their communities, addressing the social issues and concerns they think are most relevant and timely.
The Rockville, Maryland based foundation lives up to its name. Tikkun Olam means “bettering the world” and TOWF strives to do exactly that by preventing social issues before they occur, attacking problems at their roots instead of just dealing with their manifestations.
“Our goal is not to provide social services,” said Sara Gorfinkel, Director of Tikkun Olam and its only full time employee. “We focus on social change, so that women don’t get to the point where they require social services. We don’t want to fund programs that deal with victims of domestic abuse. We want to prevent domestic abuse before it ever happens.”
Currently, TOWF has approximately sixty members, known as trustees, ranging in age from twenty-five to eighty plus. Membership requires a monetary gift to the foundation, payable over a five-year period. A five-year membership to Tikkun Olam requires a donation of $15,000. Lifetime memberships are available for $45,000, but with a $100,000 financial commitment, it is upgraded to an inter-generational membership that can be shared with daughters, daughters-in-law and granddaughters. Women under the age of thirty-five have the option of joining the foundation for three years with a $4,500 associate membership.
“While we do have women who prefer to just make a donation to the foundation, for many of our trustees, becoming part of Tikkun Olam is exactly the opposite of just writing out a check,” explained Gorfinkel. “TOWF gives women the opportunity to be hands on in their philanthropy, reviewing requests from organizations and researching them. It is empowering to see women taking on different leadership roles and responsibilities and getting involved in different committees. Yet every woman, no matter what her financial commitment, comes to the table with the same voice and the same vote, irrespective of how much she is donating.”
Tikkun Olam’s grant cycle runs from July to June, with grants awarded during the summer. TOWF’s first grants were distributed in 2006 and the foundation is currently in its seventh grant cycle. The foundation distributed a record $100,000 in 2011 with grants awarded to nine different organizations that strive to bring about social change for women and girls – both locally and in Israel. Among last year’s grant recipients were Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse, which received TOWF’s first ever multi-year grant to fund a teen-dating awareness and violence prevention program; Jewish Council for the Aging, to provide training, mentoring and support for women over fifty five who face age and gender discrimination in their job search, and the Israel based Mavoi Satum, to ensure the operation of private rabbinical courts which would protect women’s rights during both marriage and divorce. Other grant recipients included Jews United for Justice, Economic Empowerment for Women, Eretz Acheret and Mahut Center. Two Washington DC based charities, CASA de Maryland and Empowered Women International, which serve local immigrant women, were also awarded grants as TOWF trustees felt that as Jews living in America, we understand all too well the plight of those who have recently come to these shores in search of a better life.
While Tikkun Olam takes great pride in its own work, it is also part of a larger network, the Jewish Women’s Collaborative International Fund, which is working to put together a joint grant that will distribute funds in Israel.
“We found that many of the Jewish women’s funds were overlapping in grants they were making to organizations in Israel,” said Gorfinkel. “We decided to pool our resources in order to produce more effective donations to those organizations.”