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Conversation with Rabbi Joshua Ratner

Former JCRC director helps investors put their money where their Jewish values are

By Stacey Dresner

For nearly four years, Rabbi Joshua Ratner served as executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven, advocating for the local Jewish community and Israel and working on issues like immigration reform and the environment.

Now Ratner is director of advocacy for JLens, a New York-based network of more than 9,000 investors, who “seek to apply a Jewish lens to the modern context of values-based impact investing.”

Founded in 2012, JLens’s mission is to “empower investors with the knowledge, tools, confidence, and Jewish inspiration to make the world a better place” – something that Ratner has been aiming to do his entire rabbinical career.

A native of San Diego, California, Ratner worked as an attorney for five years before entering rabbinical school. He was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in May 2012, and earned a masters degree in Midrash and a certificate in pastoral care. While in rabbinical school he was a Rabbinic Fellow for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. He served as rabbi of the now defunct Congregation Kol Ami in Cheshire from 2012-2014.

While working for the New Haven JCRC, he also served as associate rabbi and director of Jewish Engagement at Yale University.

Part of the original student cohort of Rabbis Without Borders fellows, he also recently completed the American Jewish World Service’s Global Justice Fellowship.

Ratner recently spoke with the Ledger about JLens and the importance of focusing a Jewish lens on investing.

JEWISH LEDGER (JL): What is “impact investing?”

JOSHUA RATNER (JR): Impact investing is a mission-driven process of aligning one’s values with one’s investment strategy. It aims to generate specific beneficial social or environmental effects in addition to financial gain. The “impact investing” or “responsible investing” movement has become mainstream in recent years driven in part by demand from millennial investors.

JL: Explain how JLens puts a “Jewish lens” on investing.

JR: Jewish values can serve as an impact investing rudder when navigating between seeking financial returns and making a measurable social or environmental impact. The notion of ethical business transactions is not new to Judaism; in fact, Judaism has embraced this value for millennia. The rabbis of the Talmud remarked that, at “the moment of Divine judgment in the World to Come, the first question a person will be asked is not “did you pray,” nor “did you keep kosher”, but “did you transact your business dealings ethically?” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 31a). JLens puts a “Jewish lens” on investing by focusing on environmental, social, and pro-Israel issues that are consistent with Jewish values in order to meet financial goals while generating a positive societal impact.

JL: And what does “focusing on…” entail? Does JLens actually invest money for clients or does it help direct their investments based on Jewish communal concerns?

JR: JLens has three primary areas of focus: First, we serve as the bridge between the Jewish community and the impact/responsible investing movement by providing educational resources and events, including JLens’ upcoming Jewish Impact Investing Summit in New York City on December 5. Second, we provide guidance for Jewish institutions (federations, foundations, pensions, endowments) on investing through a Jewish lens. Third, we oversee the Jewish Advocacy Strategy, which invests in public companies on behalf of Jewish institutions and conducts advocacy as investors for communal concerns.

JLens is a growing network of over 9,000 individual and institutional investors who receive our monthly newsletter, educational resources, and event invitations.

Our consulting services and Jewish Advocacy Strategy are only available to institutions at this time.

JL: What are some of these “communal concerns?” I would imagine Israel and responding to the BDS movement must be high on the list.

JR: JLens conducts advocacy on communal concerns in three areas – social, environmental, and Israel.

Jewish wisdom has a great deal to say about contemporary social and environmental issues. We seek to positively impact corporate behavior on many issues, such as product safety, human trafficking, worker conditions, public health, climate change, and food waste. To maximize our impact, we often collaborate with other socially responsible investing organizations such as the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investing, of which JLens is a member.

With respect to Israel, JLens supports a vibrant Israeli economy and welcomes the growth of impact investing opportunities in Israel, and impact investing and corporate initiatives that support peace and coexistence globally. Unfortunately the anti-Israel BDS movement has been active in the responsible investing movement for many years to encourage institutional investors and companies to avoid ties to Israel. JLens is committed to the fair treatment of Israel in the business and corporate arena, and opposes economic warfare against Israel and efforts to discriminate against Israel. JLens is the only responsible investing organization that has an anti-BDS position.

JL: What are some of the companies that JLens invests in, and what is it about these companies that makes them good candidates for impact investing?

JR: At JLens we know that no company is perfect. We invest broadly in large powerful US public companies and effect positive change through our shareholder advocacy efforts. We do avoid investments in a few sectors where no degree of advocacy will be effective. Our screens and advocacy priorities are in large part determined by our annual investor and communal survey.

JL: Can you give a few examples of how you have advocated thus far on Jewish communal concerns?

JR: On my second week on the job, I attended the annual shareholder meeting for the pharmaceutical company, Merck, in New Jersey. Two proposals targeting Israel had been brought up for votes by shareholders. I stood up and spoke out in opposition to the proposals, explaining why, despite the opaque human rights/anti-discrimination language being used, they amounted to efforts to engage in economic warfare against Israel. I was the only Jewish voice speaking in opposition to these proposals, and received applause when I finished speaking. The proposals were both defeated.

Right now I am working on drafting a statement applying Jewish perspectives on the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, a set of 17 global goals aiming to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda to be achieved over the next fifteen years. I will be presenting this statement as part of an interfaith investor gathering in Switzerland this fall.

JL: What prompted you to leave your positions at the JCRC in New Haven and Yale and make the move to JLens?

JR: I had heard of JLens through broader Jewish social justice coalitions I partnered with while I ran the JCRC of New Haven. The more I learned about the scope of JLens’ work, and the exponential growth of the responsible investing field as a whole, the more excited I became about the potential for broad impact JLens had on a number of issues I personally care deeply about. I also had grown somewhat disenchanted with the rancorous nature of politics, especially at the federal level, but was very intrigued by the sobriety and forward-thinking way companies were addressing serious issues like climate change or human trafficking even absent legislative or regulatory imperatives. When JLens posted a new position to head its advocacy efforts, I saw this as a perfect way to meld my passion for advocacy with my commitment to Jewish ethics. I applied, was impressed by the vision of JLens’ CEO, Julie Hammerman, and when she offered me the position I jumped at the opportunity. While I miss my colleagues at the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven and the students and faculty I was privileged to work with at Yale, I have been very happy with my new work at JLens.

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