Lynn Schusterman: Unintimidated Philanthropist

by Eetta Prince-Gibson

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation (CLSFF), chaired by Lynn Schusterman from Tulsa, Oklahoma, is a primary supporter of Bat Kol, the Israeli organization for religious lesbians.

CLSFF is one of the largest Jewish-centric philanthropic foundations and donates, according to most estimates, some $70 million annually to a wide range of primarily, but not solely, Jewish projects. Bat Kol is part of ROI, one of CLSFF’s flagship projects, which, according to its publications, “aims to support young leaders worldwide who are making Jewish life more exciting and accessible.”

In and extensive and telephone interview with The Jerusalem Report, Schusterman, 70, discusses her support for ROI, her engagement with the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) community, plans for the future, and some of the personal challenges she has faced as she has become of the most powerful individuals in Jewish funding today.

Schusterman is the widow of Charles Schusterman, founding chairman of Samson Investment Co., a Tulsa gas exploration and production company, who died in 2000, at the age of 65, from complications of leukemia. Schusterman speaks decisively with a slight Oklahoma drawl. She generously praises her staff and often speaks in terms of “we.” Aware of her power and impact in the Jewish world, she is forthcoming and frank.

Schusterman is one of the few female leaders in the high-powered world of Jewish philanthropy. “When Charlie died,” she tells The Report, “I was already giving more than most men in the Jewish philanthropic world, but I had to bring other men with me to meetings of philanthropists if I wanted anyone to listen to me. I don’t have to do that anymore. I have earned and gained respect as a philanthropist who happens to be a woman.”

Her support of the GLBT movement began a few years ago, “when I became aware of the great pain that these people feel. We are all created in God’s image, and God would not want us to inflict this on another human being.”

In addition to providing financial support, Schusterman has been very outspoken in her support for the community. She has penned several published articles, calling for an effort to “forge a culture in which inclusivity, diversity and equality are paramount and in which GLBT Jews are embraced as full and vital members of the Jewish family, at home, at work and in every aspect of communal life.” CLSFF has instituted a policy according to which only organizations with a formal non-discrimination directives will receive their support. “Our tents must be inclusive,” Schusterman explains to The Report. “Most Jews don’t keep the 613 commandments, yet we don’t exclude Jews who don’t keep kosher or observe the Shabbat. So why do we exclude others because of their sexual orientation?

But by insisting on inclusivity for the GLBT community, wrote Nathan Diament, director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Orthodox Union, in an op-ed to the Jewish Telegraph Agency, Schusterman is “ultimately prescribing intolerance in the name of tolerance by tramping on the religious liberty of Orthodox Jewish institutions that refuse to condone homosexual behavior.”

Retorts Schusterman, “I know I’ve taken a lot of flack for my position. I’m not on Twitter and Facebook and such, so I probably don’t even know all of it. But our community can only benefit from inclusivity, diversity and equality and not all Orthodox institutions are so rejecting of the GLBT community.”

At the annual ROI reunion and meetings in Jerusalem in July, words like innovation, social entrepreneurship, tikkun olam and social justice – the new terms of Jewish engagement – permeated the air. Schusterman mingled easily and enthusiastically with the hip young Jewish activists. In 2010, CLSFF allocated nearly $500,000 to some 35 initiatives led by members of the ROI international network of young Jewish activists. Operating for nearly five years, ROI offers international gatherings, professional development and financial support to its membership of innovators and activists and has a network of nearly 500 “global Jewish leaders.”

Explains Schusterman, “ROI is for young Jewish innovators. It is our way to think out of the box and encourage others to do so. Our focus is on creating community rather than the individual and on building partnerships and collaborations between organizations. These were ideas that were always important to Charlie and this is an important way to build strong Jewish communities in Israel, America and around the world. I may not have the same interests as these young people – and I don’t watch YouTube – but I want to encourage young people and to provide them with opportunities that resonate for them. I want to encourage them to be innovative.”

Schusterman acknowledges that the Foundation is in a process of restructuring and refocusing. Of particular note, the Center for Leadership Initiatives, founded by CLSFF in 2006, will now be an independent agency dedicated to developing Jewish leaders and promoting managerial excellence throughout the Jewish community. “We are definitely honing our mission and examining our own place in the Jewish philanthropic world,” she explains. “We want to focus on Jewish identity, based on creativity and innovation.” CLSFF will continue, Schusterman promises, “to be one of the major funders of Birthright and we will also be involved with NEXT, the follow-up to Birthright.”

In addition to ROI, the Foundation will also continue its long-term commitment to working with professionals to prevent and treat child abuse in Israel and is also sponsoring cultural activities in Jerusalem, including the establishment of the wide-reaching Jerusalem Center for Arts and Culture. “As a lover of the arts, it is a privilege to be able to assist artists in their efforts to reach new artistic and institutional heights,” she says.

Why the changes? “I turned 70,” she answers quickly. “I was a housewife, I loved raising our children and gardening and cooking,” she continues. “When Charlie died, I had to make changes and change is scary. I still don’t understand Twitter or the I-phone – but I do know how to hire people who do. And I am very fortunate to have found people in whom I can put my total trust.

Being a philanthropist can be intimidating, but it is a role model for young people. I have been truly blessed.”

This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Report; reprinted with permission.