As you can imagine, there have been a lot of ups and downs for me since starting InterfaithFamily.com, Inc. ten years ago. I have a very distinct memory of one of the high points. Although I’m not completely certain where it happened – I believe it was at the then-United Jewish Communities General Assembly in Cleveland in 2004 where we had a booth in the exhibit hall – I specifically remember a man I didn’t know stopping by our booth and starting to talk. It was the start of a wonderful and sustaining relationship with Newt Becker, who sadly died two days ago.
If the Jewish world had more philanthropists like Newt Becker, we would be in much better condition. Not that it was easy to gain his support – in fact he was very inquisitive and he was very tough-minded. I have six pages of notes from a phone call with Newt in October 2005 filled with his questions on what we were doing and suggestions for projects we should undertake. He gave me many names of people to call and I noted “use Newt’s name” by each one of them.
I have an email Newt sent to a colleague, a professional fundraiser, after that call. He said he had made a commitment to IFF “but Edmund needs more than money.” He asked his friend to critique my powerpoint and pointed out a slide that he thought was important and missing. Fortunately, although the presentation needed improvement, Newt said that I was a “serious person.” The commitment he made was the largest individual gift we received in our early years.
We talked once or twice a year and the calls always lasted at least an hour. Newt wanted to know what was going on and when it was something he knew about – like distance learning and web based instruction and local chapters in our case – he shared his experience, made suggestions, and asked to review what we came up with. But he was very generous, and he was a committed funder over the years, and one of the nicest things he ever did was increase his gift by 25% – without being asked – after Madoff and the economic downturn in late 2008. The last time I talked to Newt this fall, in response to a matching challenge, he increased his gift again, this time by 33%.
Engaging interfaith families in Jewish life was not a popular funding area in 2005 (it still isn’t popular enough) but I don’t think Newt cared much about what was popular or not. He didn’t hesitate to support our efforts and my notes and emails are replete with his comments that the federations and movements should be doing more.
I didn’t really know Newt personally but I’m fortunate to have gotten to know his daughter-in-law Ann a little more. I’m sure Newt was a loving parent and grandparent because he often spoke to me proudly about his family, and because Ann has often mentioned happy family occasions like her son’s recent Bar Mitzvah. I hope Newt’s family will find comfort in what should be an outpouring of affection and gratitude for the very positive impact he had on our world.
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