Rabbi Menachem Schmidt said that he had no idea he was even being considered for a fellowship from a major foundation. But several weeks ago, the founder of the Lubavitch House at the University of Pennsylvania learned that he had been awarded a $225,000 grant to a project of his choosing.
At a March 12 press conference at its New York offices, the Avi Chai Foundation, dedicated to promoting Jewish education and identity, announced that it was handing out $1.5 million over the course of three years to four individuals and a team of two.
The recipients were selected from an initial pool of more than 40 nominations. Throughout the process, the identities of the nominators, as well as the selection committee members, were kept anonymous, said the foundation.
"Obviously, it's not something we expected. [But] it's nice to know that somebody thinks you are doing something right," said Schmidt, 54, who has spent roughly 30 years in Philadelphia as a rabbi affiliated with the Chabad Lubavitch movement.
Schmidt said that he plans to use the money to bolster two organizations he's created: the Old City Jewish Art Center and the Jewish Heritage Programs.
The art center opened in 2007. It hosts rotating exhibitions and, on nights corresponding to the first Friday program — when Old City galleries remain open until well after dark — Chabad hosts a Shabbat dinner in the space.
Schmidt envisions a lot more happening there, from regular lectures and classes about the intersection of art, personal expression and Judaism, along with a series of musical performances.
"Whether or not a person is in services on Friday night or not is really immaterial. There are many opportunities to connect Jewishly, as well as portals of engagement," noted Schmidt, who also plays guitar for a group called the Baal Shem Tov Band.
In 1993, Schmidt started the Jewish Heritage Programs in order to facilitate peer-to-peer programs that would focus on Jewish identity. Begun at the University of Pennsylvania, it now holds events throughout Philadelphia, as well as in New York and Florida.
Specifically, Schmidt is hoping to upgrade JHPs mentoring program, which pairs college students with young professionals who offer both career and life guidance. He said that the mentoring program has existed as a kind of side project; he wants it to become more formalized.
He acknowledged that $75,000 a year is not nearly enough to pay for all the programs he'd like to put together. In fact, he said the recognition may be at least as important as the monetary award.
The other, nonlocal recipients were: Betsy Dolgin Katz, North American director of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, co-founder of the New York-based Mechon Hadar: An Institute for Prayer, Personal Growth and Study; Rabbi Dov Linzer, head of academics at the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in New York; and Ariel Berry, the current editor ofPresentense magazine, and Aharon Horowitz, who along with Berry co-founded a group called the Creative Zionist Institute.