Tzedek DC Receives Transformative $1 Million Gift

Participants in Tzedek DC’s financial empowerment program. Photo courtesy of Tzedek DC

Local Jewish legal organization Tzedek DC received the largest donation in its history on March 19 with a $1 million unrestricted gift from MacKenzie Scott’s Yield Giving foundation as part of the Yield Giving Open Call program, which focuses on organizations working with people and places in the greatest need.

The gift comes as part of an announced $640 million in donations to a total of 361 organizations after an open call for applicants for donations in 2023 from the Yield Giving foundation, which was created by billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, as part of her efforts to give away her massive wealth and help reduce societal inequalities.

And this gift goes to an organization in Tzedek DC that draws its mission from the Jewish teaching of “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” according to its website and works tirelessly to “safeguard the legal rights and financial health of DC residents with lower incomes,” as they fight for systemic change and protect those who need help.

“Tzedek DC is grateful for this extraordinary gift, which will deepen our ability to expand access to justice for DC residents through our direct services, systemic reform work, and multi-lingual community education and outreach programs,” Ariel Levinson-Waldman, Tzedek DC’s founding president and director-counsel, said in a statement.

The funds will go to various areas of Tzedek DC’s work, including programs for free legal and financial counseling services, legal community education and outreach on debt collection and identity theft, and advocacy efforts for reform.

“What we do impacts all of our clients on a personal level. We see that most immediately in our direct one-on-one financial counseling and legal services work as well in the community outreach, or when we’re going out into the community and educating individual community members,” Caitlyn Hickman, Tzedek DC’s development and communications manager, said.

The organization certainly fits the bill of recipients that the Yield Giving foundation was looking for when it announced that program, as the organization’s work looks to reduce racial wealth disparities in Washington, D.C., and protect people with lower incomes from predatory financial practices.

According to Tzedek DC’s website, the organization works with a client base that is 90% Black, 60% women, and 25% disabled community members.

“It was a very competitive process to end up with the funds that we’ve gotten, and these are going to be very instrumental for us to keep working toward our mission,” Hickman said.

An added benefit of this donation is that it is unrestricted, meaning that it can be used for any legal purpose the organization deems fit, making the funding far more versatile to help deal with emerging needs across the organization’s coverage areas and programs.

“It’s rare to be able to receive unrestricted funding and it really is such a gift for us. And so, therefore, the funding will be applied to help us work toward all aspects of our mission,” Hickman said.

And that funding will help with two exciting new programs that the organization is working toward expanding, according to Levinson-Waldman.

He said that the organization is building up its young adults’ financial empowerment program, as well as another program focused on improving the chances for adults returning from incarceration to have stable lives when they return home.

The results [with the empowerment program] have been extremely positive. And this [donation] is going to allow us, along with the enthusiasm we’ve seen in the community, and stakeholders and volunteers and donors, this is going to allow us to really expand and deepen that work in that area,” Levinson-Waldman said.

The financial empowerment program has had about four cohorts participate, with about 20 people per cohort, and it’s in partnership with Building Bridges Across the River and Industrial Bank, the largest and oldest Black-owned bank in Washington, D.C.

“We try to center on the community that we work in and all the work that we do, and really try to make sure that the things that we’re advocating for and working toward are things that the community will benefit from and actually want and need,” Hickman said.

And as the impact of the gift is felt by Tzedek DC’s clients, there’s an additional positive aspect that Levinson-Waldman mentioned, with the hope for increased recognition from receiving the funds, especially in the local Jewish community.

“We have volunteers from throughout the Jewish community, the DMV, and we’re hoping the increased name recognition from the donation will bring out more volunteers and people who get involved in different ways,” Levinson-Waldman said.

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