Two Generations – One Commitment

A profile of Donor Advised Fund holders Arlene and Emma Mayerson

Emma Mayerson remembers her grandfather’s eyes sparkling whenever he talked about his philanthropy. Growing up with two parents working in the social justice space, and taking her grandfather’s powerful example, it felt like destiny to spend her life at the crossroads of philanthropy and social justice. And that she has. Emma was born into a socially minded community that is committed to social justice and engaged in it on a daily basis. She watched her mother, Arlene, lead counsel for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, live her values by helping make change both professionally and philanthropically.

Arlene and Emma Mayerson

Arlene’s father came to philanthropy after a successful business career and applied his business learnings to his philanthropy by looking for the gaps and filling that niche to move issues forward. From a young age, Arlene dedicated her life to social justice, allowing her to have a broad perspective on philanthropic work, understanding the needs of both grantees and grantors. She builds relationships and trusts her grantees to do their work well. She believes that effective social work simultaneously addresses both overarching issues and the individuals affected.

Arlene and Emma have been able to use their Donor Advised Fund at the Federation to effect positive change, both in a larger context and for flesh and blood people. As a funder, Arlene’s focus is on reducing barriers for people with disabilities and fighting for systemic and cultural change in that arena. Her decades of work have, ultimately, impacted the lives of millions. This was made real for Emma as she watched her mother advocate for and help pass the Americans with Disabilities Act. The work that Arlene does is tangible to Emma, and she grew up steeped in the knowledge that change comes through advocacy.

For both Arlene and Emma, their philanthropy is still evolving. They actively work together to gain clarity about their direction and approach as their philanthropic dollars grow. They have chosen to work with the Federation because of the connection between Judaism and its impact on their giving.

For Arlene, her way of being Jewish is about tikkun olam. Growing up in the 1960s, she developed a strong consciousness about wanting to make the world better and making a positive contribution to civil rights. Arlene engaged in the culture and humor of Judaism, but was not tied to the religious aspect. Subsequently, she chose to open her Donor Advised Fund at the Federation, which allowed her to have conversations with staff, in part to help engage Emma in their family philanthropy.

This was a transformative time for Emma, who had a strong connection to Judaism, borne directly of her social justice work. Emma became involved with the development of a youth philanthropy program, now known as the Federation’s Jewish Teen Foundations. She was able to truly become a part of the philanthropic Jewish community by meeting her peers, helping to develop programs, and participating in the programs. The experience was an opportunity to have mentors and create a community outside of her family, while learning about the transformative power and joy of philanthropy. Engaging with the Federation has allowed Emma to find community – one that is multigenerational, committed, and Jewish. For Emma, Judaism is about celebrating, learning from, and integrating her roots. She has found peers who are committed to family and to Judaism, and to honoring their families’ legacy. Emma has continued to be involved in the Federation’s Young Funders Impact Grants Initiative, Young Funders Network, and Day of Philanthropy.

For both mom and daughter, one thing they truly value about Judaism is the role of the Jewish community as an extended global family. That value of community has been present for the Mayersons through their philanthropy and in career and life choices. They hold dear the idea that community is worth investing in and is part of humanity, that community creates quality of life. They have seen this in the Jewish community, and extending into communities elsewhere – such as Arlene’s community of disability rights advocates and Emma’s current work building communities of purpose with girl–serving organizations (ensuring girl-serving organizations and champions are more connected and, therefore, more effective and better able to prepare the girls of today to be the leaders of tomorrow). They have found that they can engage and experience strong connection and a deep engagement in social justice work while always counting on their Jewish community. They feel lucky to have this community to lean on.

Categories: Community, Philanthropy


May 28, 2015


Ruth Bender