Portrait of Philanthropy
Davidi and Natalie Jonas: A Passion for Education
By Pnina Baim
Davidi and Natalie Jonas, residents of Paramus, New Jersey, are among the most innovative and passionate philanthropists devoted to education. Not just for their own four children, but for all Jewish children.
Currently in their mid-thirties, the Jonases are elementary school sweethearts who met at SAR in Riverdale, New York, and have been together ever since.
“Natalie is the real gaon of education,” says Davidi of his wife, who is an early childhood educator. “She just gets it. She knows how to speak to kids on their level.”
Hoping to strengthen children’s confidence and self-understanding, the couple sponsored “Foundations,” a social-emotional curriculum at Yavneh Academy of Paramus that helps students learn how to work collaboratively and deal with stress. Launched this past year as a pilot program, Foundations is expected to expand in the coming year.
“We feel that education is the key to training the next generation of Jewish leadership,” says Davidi. “Our community has done a great job [teaching] knowledge and content. We expect our children to be overachievers relative to the general population, and that can put a lot of stress and strain on children.”
While working at IDT, Davidi, who currently runs his own investment company, was asked by a colleague if he would be interested in meeting with the OU’s Teach NJ. “[My colleague] told me that on a return-on-investment basis, Teach NJ is probably one of the most successful non-profit organizations in the Jewish philanthropy world, and most certainly in the education sector.” To Davidi, choosing to support Teach NJ was a sound business decision.
Teach NJ is part of the OU’s Teach Coalition, which aims to secure government financial support for Jewish day schools and yeshivot. Teach Coalition lobbies for equitable government funding, tax credit scholarships, government grants and education savings accounts to benefit Jewish families and schools.
“The people who run Teach NJ do a very good job,” says Davidi. “They’ve developed deep relationships with a broad coalition of co-religionists and bipartisan representatives, which gives private schools the best chance of stable and sustainable support.”
In addition to Teach NJ, the couple supports many other OU programs, including Yachad and NCSY, viewing them as being vital to the community. “Davidi and Natalie Jonas are leaders at every level in the sphere of education within the Jewish community,” says Katie Katz, Executive Director of Teach NJ. “The programs they support show that they are creative thinkers who develop and implement progressive and holistic ideas to address a variety of challenging issues.”
In 2019, Teach NJ achieved an unprecedented increase in nonpublic school security funding by doubling the allocation to $22.6 million. And since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, Teach NJ has been at the forefront of helping our schools and their families by advocating for special services to resume remotely, and distributing over 80,000 free kosher meals to children each week. Currently it serves as a liaison between days schools and the government as schools plan for reopening. Throughout this pandemic, Teach NJ has continued to advocate to ensure schools have the resources they need to get through this crisis. “Through the support of generous donors like the Jonases, we have been able to help schools secure tens of millions of dollars in relief funds, which is a lifeline in these challenging times,” says Katie. “Teach NJ is honored to partner with Davidi and Natalie Jonas on this crucial, important work to fight for safer and more affordable Jewish education,” says Katie. “We need more partners like them to continue advancing this work.”
Singers Battle It Out for Yachad
More than 5,000 people tuned into Yachad’s virtual “Battle of the Singers,” generously sponsored by the Ralla Klepak Foundation for Education in the Performing Arts, raising $150,000. The concert, held in June with Meir Kay as the master of ceremonies, featured entertainers Benny Friedman and Mordechai Shapiro. Funds will be used to help individuals with disabilities and their loved ones deal with social isolation caused by Covid-19.
Paying Tribute to Jewish Educators
Teach Coalition hosted a streaming event to honor the pillars of Jewish education during the Covid-19 crisis and beyond. The event raised $500,000 which will support Teach Coalition’s fight for safer and more affordable Jewish education. “Amid the devastation and financial uncertainty in our communities, we also are witnessing our day schools and parents at their finest, adapting to new ways of learning almost overnight,” said Maury Litwack, Teach Coalition’s Executive Director.
Since 2013, Teach Coalition has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in government funds for school security, STEM education, scholarships, remedial services, nursing and transportation.
Major Foundations Unite To Provide Loans to Help Shuls
With the increased financial pressures placed on synagogues as a result of Covid-19, the OU has partnered with the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund (JCRIF) to facilitate access to a multi-million-dollar interest-free loan program in support of shuls across the country. Designed to alleviate cash flow challenges and to enable shuls, schools and nonprofit organizations to maintain payroll in the coming months, these bridge loans will assist shuls that have been financially impacted by the virus.
“It is groundbreaking and unprecedented for the foundations to be offering this kind of support to shuls,” said Rabbi Yechiel Shaffer, Mid-Atlantic Regional Director for OU Synagogue and Community Services and the rabbi of the growing Pikesville Jewish Congregation in Maryland, who is coordinating the JCRIF loan applications for the OU. JCRIF will provide more than $91 million in interest-free loans and grants to shuls, schools and nonprofit organizations that are facing unprecedented challenges in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, helping maintain the infrastructure of Jewish life that advances Jewish education, engagement, and leadership. The OU is privileged to serve as part of the network to enable Orthodox shuls to access these funds. Decisions with regard to loan recipients will be made directly by the funders.
JCRIF funders include the Aviv Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation, the Jim Joseph Foundation, Maimonides Fund, the Paul E. Singer Foundation and the Wilf Family Foundation.
NCSY Giving Days Raise Over 1 Million Dollars
Throughout May and June, NCSY’s Giving Days successfully raised over $1 million to support its crucial work in engaging teens in Jewish life. Each of the fourteen campaigns, organized by region, either met or exceeded their goal. Nearly 5,000 donors contributed to the campaigns, including twenty-six generous donors who gave matching grants.
Saving the Zula Center, Saving Lives
By Pnina Baim
Twenty years after the OU’s Pearl and Harold Jacobs Zula Outreach Center, known as “the Zula,” opened, it was in danger of closing. Due to the global economic crisis caused by Covid-19 as well as government cuts, the Jerusalem-based haven for at-risk youth from observant families was facing the prospect of being shut down, along with many of the youth-centered programs run by OU Israel. Over the years, the Zula has saved thousands of Jewish young men and women from the dark life of the streets.
Leaping into action, Rabbi Avi Berman, Executive Director of OU Israel, launched a Charidy campaign along with fifteen other organizations. Within a few days, OU Israel raised 1.5 million shekels ($438,298)—more than the other fifteen organizations combined—from 5,300 donors, most of whom donated less than twenty-five dollars. “When the participants and alumni heard that the Zula was at risk of shutting down, they reached out to every relative and friend, asking for help,” says Rabbi Berman.
Rabbi Berman is thankful for another windfall as well: with the Zula facing a 25 percent increase in rent, a grateful couple came to its rescue. Their formerly at-risk daughter who recently graduated law school wrote an emotional thank you letter to Zula staff without whom “she couldn’t have done it.” The couple, full of gratitude to Zula for helping to turn their daughter’s life around, offered the program a spacious new location, a mere few feet away from its original site, rent free. While the new site does require extensive renovation to make it suitable for the Zula’s work, Rabbi Berman is optimistic that the Jewish community will come through. “We are so appreciative of our new place,” says Rabbi Berman. “Once the work on our new home is completed, we will be able to continue our blessed work in saving Jewish lives.”
To help renovate the Zula, please visit ouisrael.org/donate and designate “the Zula.”