Jennifer Lewin has long been in the non-profit world. From her time helping get J-HAP off the ground to her work now with Paul’s Pals and transitioning it from a fund at the Jewish Community Foundation at the Minneapolis Jewish Federation to a thriving, stand-alone non-profit. Ahead of their big event this week with grantees getting to shop for free toys from Toys R Us (as well as hosting a Food For Your Soul party), Who The Folk is Jennifer Lewin?
Are you from the Twin Cities?
Yes. I grew up here, left and came back. I went to college in Washington, D.C. So I spent some time out there and ended up moving back here.
How long have you been involved with Paul’s Pals?
Yup, I’m coming up on my second year as executive director. So it will be two years in July.
Were you with the company before that?
No, not with Paul’s Pals. I was with a different organization.
What made you want to join Paul’s Pals?
So my whole career I’ve been in the disability field. I started out as a special education teacher. I worked for other non-profits. Most recently I was executive director of Jewish Housing and Programming, also called J-HAP. Then, I transitioned out of that project just because my background is in disabilities but also in non-profit management. So with the Cornerstone Creek project, I helped the organization get off the ground, formulate their ideas into a mission and a vision and reality. I did the project from conception to funding but I always knew that I was never going to be the property manager or the person who ran the building once the building was up. That’s just not my skill set. I was looking for other opportunities and I heard about what at that time was called the Paul Adelman Fund which was a family fund at Minneapolis Jewish Community Fund through Federation. They were looking to take the fund and grow it to make a larger impact. Their goal was to take a philanthropic fund and make it, their own, independent non-profit organization. So with my skill set, it was a perfect fit for me.
Yeah, so what I like to tell people is that it’s a 20-year startup. The fund was started in 1995 in memory of Paul Adelman. He was a young man. The fund was started by his parents and unfortunately Paul had complications due to some brain tumors. When he passed away, some friends of the family wanted to raise money and start a fund and do projects in Paul’s memory.
So through your two-year journey, what have been some of the challenges?
So, there are always challenges and I would say some of them have been incredibly minor. We needed to pick a database management system. I mean it’s not a huge challenge. We just needed to decide what we wanted. But it’s been great because now we have our own internalized system for keeping track of our donors and our connections and our relationships throughout the community.
Paul’s Pals works to fund capital projects. What have been ones that have stood out to you?
Some of the phenomenal projects the organization has done were well before my time. One of the ones was a park that was the first full inclusive, accessible playground in Minneapolis parks systems. Another one we did was with Ronald McDonald House. This one is always baffling to us. The grant for it was before my time. They came to us for two projects. One was to make their doors into their building handicap accessible because they weren’t. And then to completely redesign their courtyard so it was accessible and user-friendly and able to be used by kids with more mobility issues.
So tell me more about this pop-up shop happening this week.
I have a whole carload of toys right now. So we have a partnership with the Toys R’ Us in Maple Grove. And what happens is, is they may get end-of-season items or overstock, or they may get items they only have a few left of so they have to pull it off the shelves. It could be toys, clothes, sporting equipment, video games. Anything you could find in a Toys R Us store they end up giving us a call and saying “Hey, we have a carload for you.” So we have twice a year, what we call our Pop-Up Toy Shop. We invite all of our grantees over the past 20 years to come to our shop and they get to shop for free. They can take anything and everything they may want and then take back to their organizations and use however they want with their kids and families.
Favorite Jewish holiday?
This is going to sound weird so I need to qualify it. I love Passover because I host the Seder every year and that’s the one time in the year when my whole family comes together. We do a little skit along with our Seder and I cook all the food. It’s just a really fun family time for us. When my husband and I were looking for a house, our goal was a four-bedroom house and a Seder for 40. Because I have a large family.
Favorite Jewish food?
I really love chocolate covered halvah.