By ALAN SMASON, Exclusive to the CCJN
For more than a quarter-century – 27 years to be exact – Saundra Katz Levy has been the executive director of the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Louisiana (JEF), the affiliate agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans charged with managing its funds, managing donor-advised funds and dispersing grants to constituent agencies.
“Sandy,” as almost everyone knows her, is a former president of Temple Sinai, who began her first career as a city employee coordinating federal grants to the city. One of her first large grants was what she playfully describes these days as “Joanie on the pony,” the golden St. Joan of Arc statue that occupies the space on Decatur Street opposite the French Market.
After a stint on the city’s Historic Districts Landmark Commission, where she served for 16 years, Levy thought a change in her work might be appropriate. She was already in her mid-40s when she applied for the position being vacated by Helen Mervis as JEF’s executive director.
“I wasn’t sure it was going to be a great fit and it turned out to be,” she told the CCJN in an exclusive interview. The connection between dealing with historic buildings and raising funds for donors and community organizations seemed to click in Levy’s mind.
“I just thought because I was involved with the Landmarks Commission,” she recounted. “It was all about legacy and permanence and preservation. If you don’t remember – if you don’t save those things – you’re not going to know who you are.”
Levy arrived in 1991 to a staff consisting entirely of an administrative assistant and a bookkeeper.
Immediately, she set about charting a new direction for JEF, one that would take it from an already sizable $8 million portfolio with 50 different funds to a full-time staff of six workers managing an incredible $62 million foundation with hundreds of donor-advised funds and its own General Fund.
“This has been incredibly rewarding for me,” Levy continued.
With so much progress and growth, there is little doubt that any organization would be proud of an executive director with so many accomplishments. However, what Levy seems to ignore and what others find inspirational is that she is one of the last of the childhood victims of polio, a disease wiped out in succeeding generations by vaccines. Levy, the overachiever, has accomplished everything – from doing her jobs to raising her family – while largely confined to a wheelchair or mobility device.
“I have always thought, you just push harder,” she explained. “I feel like I have more to give.”
Even those with no mobility or accessibility issues would be impressed with Levy. She has raised the visibility of JEF not only within the Jewish community but also to a nationwide community of professional financial advisors, estate planners and attorneys. “I still don’t think that we are known as we should be, but I do believe our profile has been raised tremendously,” she averred.
She has held positions as the presidents of both the New Orleans Estate Planning Council and the New Orleans Chapter of the National Committee on Planned Giving. Attorneys and financial advisors who got to know her also got to learn about JEF. In many cases they have counseled their clients to invest their funds with JEF.
In addition to the attorneys and advisors who learned about JEF through its professional associations, Levy said there are generational philanthropists, whose great-grandparents, grandparents and parents have set up funds in their names for distribution.
“There are so many quiet philanthropists – they don’t want the recognition,” she continued. “They don’t even say ‘Don’t put my name on anything. I don’t want anything like that.’ That’s been such an important part of my job and getting to see that, seeing the unselfishness.”
She also credits her staff for making her look good. “This is not certainly an achievement I have done myself,” she confided. “I have been incredibly fortunate to have wonderful leadership. My past presidents have all been wonderful. My boards have been absolutely wonderful. The Professional Advisory Committee has been terrific and my staff has been incredible.”
But while she has made great strides, Levy sees some troubling aspects to the future of Jewish philanthropy in New Orleans. “The huge problem that is facing the Jewish community is: Will the next generation be as strongly committed to Israel and Jewish values, but not to just Jewish values, to Jewish organizations,” she warned. “That’s not just in New Orleans. It’s everywhere.”
She is not so optimistic about this next generation and what their focus will be. “I’m certainly am not trying to throw cold water over all of this because I think that one of the things that’s so important about the Jewish Endowment Foundation is that we are trying to secure the future,” she said.
One aspect of what JEF has been able to accomplish in impressing that next generation can be found in the B’nai Maimonides Funds, where children and young adults are allowed to invest in funds and to disperse portions of their investments to charities of their own choosing. JEF received a national award for that program, which today totals more than 100 different donor-advised funds.
Levy pointed to the importance of the General Fund, which has unrestricted funds JEF can use where it sees fit. The General Fund was considered essential in helping to rescue the community during those dark days following Hurricane Katrina. Levy noted that last year, for example, they took in almost $7 million. Out of that total, donors and JEF distributed $4 million.
“The amount of money that we have been able to give and to put out in the community through our donors and through our own General Fund is really just a testimonial to the philanthropy and the generosity of this Jewish community,” she beamed. “ I just feel like I’ve been very privileged to get to see all that.”
Following Katrina, an unprecedented number of charities sprang to the relief of the Greater New Orleans Jewish community including individuals and organizations like the United Jewish Communities (now the Jewish Federations of North America or JFNA) and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ).
Last year’s unprecedented rain event in Houston and a destructive hurricane in Florida failed to yield the kind of charitable response New Orleans received in 2005, Levy noted.
“We need to have that General Fund money because we’re going to have to save ourselves,” she added in speaking about the future. “They are the hardest dollars to raise, but they can be the most significant.”
Levy mentioned a number of significant partners she has enjoyed in her work at JEF. Among them are William Goldring and the Goldring Family Trust and Woldenberg Family Trust. She added Edie and Paul Rosenbloom and Cathy and Buddy Bart to her own list of philanthropists who have altered the local scene through their gifts and also suggested that the Oscar J. Tolmas Charitable Trust is in position to assist a number of other organizations and worthy causes. She added her admiration for others like the late Sara Stone, whose commitment to Jewish causes and organizations, in turn, inspired others.
One other thing JEF accomplished on Levy’s watch was a name change. Originally called the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Greater New Orleans, Levy and the board pushed for the foundation’s name to its present Jewish Endowment Foundation of Louisiana. “We did that because we were holding money for a synagogue in Monroe, we had donors from Monroe and we hold the money for the Baton Rouge Federation and I think we saw (the) potential for us to be ‘of Louisiana,’” Levy said.
She pointed with pride to JEF’s relationship with several funds for non-Jewish entities. “We hold money for Covenant House and have a custodial fund for Le Petit Theatre,” she observed. “I think that we could do more things like that. It’s part of our reputation to be trusted, to be confidential. We can do anything that any other place can do that’s a foundation. The personal service we give to people, I think, is important.”
In typical non-laudatory fashion, Levy looks forward to the next chapter in her life. “My third act will also be for advocacy for people who have disabilities,” she announced. “I have not been able to pay attention to that. I see it all the time and I get so frustrated.”
There is little doubt Levy will succeed in whatever she sets out in front of her. There was a broad smile across her face as she concluded: “Of everything that I’ve done, my family means everything to me,” she said. “My children are such joy and I am so proud of them and the things that they’ve done and now I have grandchildren!”