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Breaking through: Jewish United Fund awards $1 million in grants to innovative programs

Encouraging smart growth and innovation in the Jewish nonprofit sector are the goals of the Breakthrough Fund, which launched in Fall 2013.

Breakthrough logo image

The Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago is breaking new ground in Chicago’s Jewish community this summer, awarding $1 million in grants to 17 local initiatives through its forward-looking Breakthrough Fund.

Encouraging smart growth and innovation in the Jewish nonprofit sector are the goals of the Breakthrough Fund, which launched in Fall 2013 by awarding $5,000 mini-grants to 10 local programs.

The 17 recipients of this first full-scale cycle of this program, selected from 80 applications, will be awarded grants ranging from $25,000 to $150,000. All told, including the $50,000 in mini-grants, over $1 million was awarded this year to leading-edge local programs and initiatives that meet local Jewish needs and engage community members Jewishly throughout their lifespans.

Of the 17 recipients, 11 will be awarded grants to help start new programs or to make strategic short-term investments that will yield long-term impact, while the other six will receive funding to help proven existing programs flourish and expand.

“The Breakthrough Fund reminds us that innovation is taking place right here in Chicago's Jewish community,” said David Sherman, chairman of the Breakthrough Fund review committee. “The passion and vision of this community is inspiring and we are so proud and grateful to award grants to these 17 initiatives so that they can take necessary and strategic risks that will ultimately impact Chicago’s Jewish future in remarkable ways.”

JUF has focused on supporting innovation for many years, highlighted by the 15-year-long Priority Grants program. But when the recession hit in 2008, the organization's priority shifted to taking care of the community through the J-HELP initiative. Today, JUF has the opportunity to again focus on innovation - this time expanding the grant fund to also support programs outside of JUF agencies. Several of the initiatives funded this year represent partnerships and collaborations among numerous community organizations, many of which do not currently receive funding from JUF.

Serving a range of populations, the programs cover a broad array of activities, including: creating an online community resource for families with young children; educating day school students about how to respond to bullying and anti-Semitism; helping LGBTQ Jews to explore their Jewish heritage; and providing grandparents with tools to connect with their grandchildren around Jewish values.

“An organization like JUF that now allocates more than $150 million per year must have a capacity for R & D—the Breakthrough Fund fulfills that objective.” said JUF/JF president Steven B. Nasatir. “We hope to have the capacity to eventually endow the Breakthrough Fund and keep the creative and crucial work it inspires going for many years to come.”

Ten of the programs receiving funding focus on enhancing opportunities for engagement in Jewish life:

Anti-Defamation League:  World of Difference Institute, pilots this ADL program (previously offered in secular schools) in Jewish day schools to give students the knowledge and skills to thrive in the increasingly diverse and multi-cultural environments they will encounter in the world outside day schools. 

Evanston’s Bayit Afterschool, will research and invest in immersive conversational Hebrew curriculum training for staff and will work with a consultant to assess their current curricula and staffing for special needs inclusion.

Congregation Or Chadash: Journey to Freedom, guides 15-20 LGBTQ Jews through professionally-facilitated art, music, and writing workshops that link stages of the coming out process with steps of the Exodus; the work produced in these workshops will be used to develop a Haggadah to be used at a community-wide Seder celebrating Passover and LGBTQ liberation.

Continuum Theater: Chicago Jewish Play Reading Festival, will produce eight plays and post-performance talk-backs across the Chicago area to engage audiences with Jewish performing arts.

GIFTS(Gratitude, Inspiration, Family, Tzedakah, and Service), a program administered by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, provides grandparents with tools to connect with their grandchildren around Jewish values and philanthropy, including access to a donor advised philanthropic fund they can manage jointly.

InterfaithFamily, will launch a local mentoring program for 10 interfaith couples who are making Jewish choices for their families and futures to share their experiences with 30 others, encouraging these mentee couples to think together about how to make Jewish choices and how to access welcoming Jewish organizations, programs, professionals, and services.

Kveller, a national online portal for Jewish families with young children, will engage in a planning process for Kveller Chicago, a local microsite for the Chicago metropolitan area, increasing access to Jewish community programs and resources for families with young children.

Mishkan Chicago, Going Broad Going Deep, supports expansion of lay and professional leadership opportunities, creates the Neighborhood Captain program, increases programming outside the Lakeview neighborhood, and expands worship opportunities, volunteer involvement, classes, and workshops.

UpStart Lab: Chicago, will establish a network of support for approximately 20 local Jewish project leaders; provide R&D assistance to 6-10 emerging Jewish social entrepreneurs; and model "intrapraneurship" opportunities in Chicago's mature Jewish communal organizations.

URJ NFTY, willpilot a collaborative leadership training weekend retreat that brings together high school leaders and youth workers from USY, BBYO, NCSY, JSC, and NFTY to grow leadership skills and knowledge of relational Judaism, community organizing, and experiential and Israel education.

The remaining seven programs focus on local human needs:

CJE Senior Life: A Medication Abuse and Misuse Measure, will create the first ever validated assessment tool to identify medication abuse and misuse by older adults.

CJE Senior Life: Art in the Moment, creates four Jewish-themed Art in the Moment modules for CJE's existing mobile app, increasing opportunities for older adults with dementia and their caregivers to engage around Jewish holidays and culture.

Hire U, a collaboration between the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago’s Campus Affairs & Student Engagement department and Jewish Vocational Service, plans and pilots a career curriculum geared toward metro Chicago and University of Illinois college students, including workshops and one-on-one counseling, focus groups, research, and analysis.

Jewish Child and Family Services: Synagogue-Community Partnership, expands JCFS' successful model to the Lakeview neighborhood and west suburban Naperville, deploying JCFS staff to local Jewish sites and bringing social and support services, consultation, information/referral, and educational programming to community members.

Jewish Child and Family Services: Jewish Center for Addiction will work with Response to implement youth prevention and support programs in a Jewish context, including educational programs, individualized case management and referral, support groups, and recovery retreats for youth and young adults in recovery.

Jewish Vocational Service: Customized Employment Planning Initiative, provides training, program design, community engagement, resource development, and evaluation to create a pilot program to offer customized employment assistance to individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities.

Yozma: A Gap Year in Israel, provides support for this nascent gap year program in Israel for young adults with neurobehavioral differences (including learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, depression, etc.), to finish developing its business plan and launch a pilot with Nativ in Fall 2015 for 5-8 participants.

For more information about the Breakthrough Fund or to learn how you can apply to be a future recipient of a Breakthrough Fund grant, contact Sarah Follmer, Senior Planning Associate, Strategic Partnerships at (312) 357-4547, email or visit

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