The President's Desk: Andrés Spokoiny

Andrés Spokoiny is President & CEO of Jewish Funders Network. Full bio >>

How Not to Become a Beer (Shavuot 5779)

A lost tribe, a brand of beer, the history and future of Jewish resilience, and how Shavuot explains it all.

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“No-Place” Like Home: The Utopia That Came True

The word utopia was first used by Sir Thomas More in 1516. He coined the term combining two Greek words: ou (not) and topos (place), and he thus named an imaginary island that would harbor the perfect society. Utopia was “No-Place”, or, “the place that doesn’t exist”.

It caught on. “Utopia” became a blanket term to describe a dream of something impossible, a society that can’t really be found in any real topos, a goal that can’t really be achieved, and became especially common in describing political programs of (supposedly) impossible concretion. The 19th century was a golden age of sorts for utopias. From utopian socialism to nationalist romanticism to technological utopias emerging from the industrial revolution, all sort of ambitious ideas and implausible political programs excited people’s imaginations.

Among that cacophony of dreams, we Jews also had a utopic idea of our own. It was called Zionism.

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What Prompts Us to Give? Balancing Head and Heart

Published in Sh'ma Now.

Ask most people what motivates philanthropy and they’ll probably say, “generosity.” But generosity isn’t simple. People give charity for many and overlapping reasons: tax advantages, social pressure (my friend asked me), ego (I want my name on a building), enlightened self-interest (I know a society that helps the powerless will be more prosperous and stable than a purely greedy society), admiration for particular leaders or institutions, outrage at injustice, empathy for people who are suffering, passion for culture, religious conviction, gratitude and a desire to give back, or countless other reasons.

Which motivations drive us — or rather, since competing motivations sometimes drive us in opposite directions, which motivations drive us most dominantly — can make a significant impact on how much we give, what causes we choose, what grantees foundations choose to support, how we structure or limit our grants, and every other aspect of our philanthropy. So, it’s worth asking ourselves: What thoughts and emotions are really prompting me to give?

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What All Anti-Semites Have In Common

In The Jewish Week.

On April 16, Alain Soral, a well-known French anti-Semite, was sentenced to one year in prison by a French court for “negationisme”, Holocaust denial. For those of us familiar with Soral’s eclectic political life, seeing him condemned is satisfying, and also instructive. Alain Soral’s career demonstrates how modern society—and even many Jews—misunderstand anti-Semitism.

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The Messenger Who Can't Speak (Pesach 5779)

Do you think that leaders who are assertive, self-assured, speak clearly, and “call a spade a spade” are better leaders?

Think twice.

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From Shushan to Sarajevo (Purim 5779)

A 19-year-old boy was arguably the most influential person in the 20th century and, most probably, you’ve never heard of him.

His name was Gravilo Princip and by sheer luck one day in Sarajevo, he found himself in front of the Hapsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand with a pistol in his pocket. Princip, a member of a Serbian nationalist movement that opposed the Hapsburgs’ empire, seized his moment: he pulled the trigger twice, and set in motion the hecatomb of World War I.

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Looking Past the Flames: Address to JFN 2019

The word focus comes from the Latin for “fire”. The “focus” was the fireplace in a Roman home. 1

Fire draws our attention. It’s impossible to ignore.

Remember the story of the bush that burned but was not consumed? Well, there’s a midrash that says the burning bush had been in that desert since the Creation of the World, but nobody noticed it until Moses. When you look at a fireplace, your eyes go to the flames. You have to look deliberately, long and hard, to see the logs burning. So it’s not that nobody ever saw that burning bush, but that nobody ever looked past the flames.

In the Jewish world today, our attention is focused on the many fires we have to put out: from antisemitism to assimilation; from the breakdown of Israel-Diaspora relations to polarization in the Jewish community.

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Did Judaism Wreck the Planet? (Tu Bishvat 5779)

Antisemites think Jews cause everything bad. We’re to blame for capitalism and communism, ethnocentric nationalism and rootless globalism, and more. But I’m disappointed at their lack of creativity, because there’s one thing they haven’t yet accused us of: causing climate change and environmental catastrophe.

And the fact is, they’d have a kernel of a point if they did.

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This You Call a Miracle?

Question: What did the first three-headed clown juggling live baby goats say to the second three-headed clown juggling live baby goats?

Answer: I don’t know, but if I told you, you’d remember.

We tend to remember unusual and surprising things. That’s how our brain is wired; it’s an evolutionary mechanism that helps us notice new threats and opportunities in our surroundings. From ancient times to the present, memory masters have used this principle. In his book Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer explains how competitive memory champions use strange and unusual images to memorize the order of an entire deck of card in just seconds. The 7 of diamonds alone is just a card, but a 7 of diamonds being held by Einstein as he bounces around in lunar weightlessness is something unforgettable.

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A Tree of Life, and Light for Joy: Philanthropy After Terror

All weekend as I watched the news, I wondered again what I’ve wondered before: why isn’t pain a zero sum game? Why can’t we spread the sadness thin by sharing it, until it almost disappears? Why is it rather that even though we all share the grief, it doesn’t diminish?

Looking at the pictures from Pittsburgh, I wished that the sorrow I felt could ease the unspeakable burden of grief faced by the families and loved ones directly touched. I wish I could take upon myself some of the pain that congregation Tree of Life / Or L’Simcha, and the broader community of Squirrel Hill, faces. But their pain doesn’t diminish, and mine grows. The heartache expands, seemingly inextinguishable. As Jeremiah proclaimed, “Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! Then would I weep day and night for the slain of my people.”

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