Legacy magazine: Q&A with Rabbi Aaron Lerner
Rabbi Aaron Lerner Takes the Helm
Rabbi Aaron Lerner, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation, brings a unique blend of financial, rabbinical, and nonprofit expertise to the position. He cares deeply about the community and is passionate about impactful philanthropy.
Question: Tell us about your family and what you like to do in your spare time.
Answer: I live in Carthay Square with my wife, Dr. Rachel Lerner — a Jewish educator who empowers teachers — and our three kids. We drive them to schools all over Los Angeles, from Studio City to near LAX. In my spare time, you might find me at the beach surfing or on a run around the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.
What are the initial impressions of The Foundation?
It’s the best-kept secret in LA. We donated nearly $160M to over 2,500 nonprofits last year, yet we still fly a little under the radar. It’s also wonderful to arrive at an already strong and thriving organization. This allows for creativity and growth. The staff is incredibly dedicated, are experts at what they do, and care deeply about the community.
In my experience, many Jews want to conduct philanthropy through a Jewish lens, and The Foundation is the option.
Before you took the top position, what was your relationship with The Foundation?
Hillel at UCLA, where I served as executive director, has benefited significantly from Foundation grants and was already building an endowment at The Foundation. And Rachel and I had already established a Donor Advised Fund here. Now I’m blessed to be leading an organization I had already invested in and partnered with, both personally and professionally.
You’re known as “a rabbi who can read a spreadsheet.” Say more about that and how it will influence your work.
In my former life working in finance, I managed large commercial real estate transactions requiring a great deal of technical knowledge. Closing deals, however, often hinged on emotional intelligence. That has been directly transferable to running a complex operation at Hillel and, now, at The Foundation. We manage nearly $1.3 billion in assets and work with thousands of nonprofits while advising numerous individuals and families. I’m grateful that I understand the finance side as I draw on my rabbinical training when I speak with people about their lives and legacies.
Tell us about your relationship with Israel.
I’m a proud Zionist. I met my wife in Jerusalem, where we were both studying. My brother served in the Israeli Special Forces, and my kids fell in love with Israel on our recent trip there. It’s a complicated place working through many challenges — just as it was nearly 70 years ago when part of the rationale for establishing The Foundation was to provide a permanent pool of funds for newly created Jewish state. We have never deviated from that mission and commitment.
What do you think the future holds for philanthropy?
People want to be involved and understand their impact. As trillions of dollars change hands through the largest-ever intergenerational transfer of wealth, which is occurring right now, the organizations and foundations that provide value in these areas will thrive. And that will ensure the generations to come. Jews are always investing in the future, and this moment will drive the largest inflow of charitable funds ever.
In terms of structure, Donor Advised Funds are generally the smartest vehicle. They’re elegant in their simplicity and incredibly tax efficient. That’s why they’re growing at record rates and receiving $70+ billion in inflows annually. They grew even during the height of the pandemic. Multigenerational families with $10M+ to commit might consider other options, such as our Family Support Organizations, but DAFs will likely rule the day for now.
What about The Foundation’s future?
In my experience, many Jews want to conduct philanthropy through a Jewish lens, and The Foundation is the option. Regardless of their denominational preferences, political affiliation, and so on, we’ve helped thousands of donors express their Jewish values and invest in our community’s future, here in LA and in Israel. That work will grow exponentially. And as it does, the pool of assets dedicated to supporting nonprofits today and in the future will also multiply. Now is the time to ensure the next 10, 50, and 100 years.
This article was featured in The Foundation’s Spring 2023 Legacy magazine.