Grants on the Ground

“I get to sit in a room where it’s happening”: How Paula Pretlow is Cultivating Justice in Philanthropy 

By: Tova Ricardo 

“There is a JoC movement on foot nationwide, worldwide,” said Paula Pretlow, and how beautiful, because for us to survive as a people, we have to embrace all of who we are.” Pretlow believes that the visibility of Jews of Color in the American Jewish landscape must be coupled with an increased distribution of resources to initiatives and organizations in the JoC community. Serving as a trustee for the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, Pretlow is in a position where she has a direct hand in building equity into the philanthropic world 

As the first Black Jew or Jew of Color to serve on the 5-person board of the Weinberg Foundation, Pretlow has catalyzed discussions and actions around investment in racial equity in philanthropy in the Jewish community, combining knowledge from her own identity and experiences with her professional expertise as a senior vice president of 1.4 trillion-dollar investment firm, with a zeal for making philanthropy work for all Jews. Although Pretlow serves in leadership roles that, while very esteemed, lack Jews of Color, she knows that she is not alone in these efforts. 

“It is my responsibility, I feel, to raise those voices and help Jews of Color-led organizations and people who have been doing the work far longer than I have.” 

One of the ways Pretlow has elevated JoC-led projects was by encouraging the Weinberg Foundation board to fund the Jews of Color Initiative’s (JoCI) Counting Inconsistencies, our 2019 study on the population of Jews of Color in America, which found that JoC comprise 12-15% of the Jewish population.  

While it’s often the case that  JoC leaders’ efforts require championing—especially in resistant environments, Pretlow has found the Weinberg Foundation enthusiastic about supporting JoC efforts. Pretlow said that the Weinberg Foundation expressed enthusiasm about the proposal to fund Counting Inconsistencies, and that the positive reception of the Initiative’s work is a testament to the strong values of the Foundation.  

“I felt that this would be a tremendous opportunity for the Weinberg Foundation to make a statement, get involved, and lift up a fulfilling initiative and the work around the demographic study,” explained Pretlow. The study gave Jews of Color a much-needed tooldemographic data.  The data helps anchor and tell our story.  There’s tremendous value in that. 

The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation is a $3 billion Jewish philanthropic institution based in Baltimore, Maryland, offering grants to underrepresented causes and Jewish organizations in the United States and Israel.  

Also on the Board of Congregation Emanu-El, San Francisco and the Kresge Foundation, Pretlow’s extensive dedication to philanthropy work in the Jewish community serves as a powerful vision for the future, in which conversations transform into tangible resources for opportunity and equity. I get to sit in a room where it’s happening, where discussions are made about where a hundred million dollars a year gets directed and who gets to share in that, she explained. 

While Pretlow commended the Weinberg Foundation’s commitment to diversity, which has allowed them to support projects in the JoC community, she acknowledges that the demographic study may not have been picked up by a major Jewish philanthropic organization without the voice of a JoC at the table. 

“We all know it’s proven, that more great stuff happens when there is a diverse side of people sitting at the table, bringing different perspectives, different kinds of opportunities, and just different insights to the room,” said Pretlow. Even though Jews of Color are gaining more recognition and acknowledgement in the broader Jewish community, Pretlow believes that representation without resources cannot ensure a financially self-reliant infrastructure for the JoC community. “I feel it’s part of my responsibility as a Jew of Color sitting in rooms where resources and funding are available to help push that agenda forward because so much of the work we have to do requires resources.”  

Part of Pretlow’s commitment to Judaism has revolved around advocating for and uplifting other JoC in largely white, Ashkenazi-centered organizations. During the months of June, July, and August in 2020, Pretlow and another congregant hosted a “Jews of Color Virtual Gathering” for members of the synagogue who identify as Jews of Color. As one of the largest Jewish congregations in the country, Pretlow hopes that the magnitude and urgency of these events will set a precedent for other synagogues to follow.  

“We have been heard. People are being educated. People are learning.” 

By serving as a leader on numerous organizational boards, Pretlow told JoCI that her dedication to the Jewish community reflects a dedication to Judaism, or “the call of my soul.“I chose Judaism as an adult. I believe each of us who are Jews, every day we wake up, we choose Judaism,” says Pretlow. “I chose Judaism and made it official because I answered the call of my soul. My soul is Jewish.”