Reinvigorating Jewish Community

[Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma Now, a curated monthly conversation on Jewish Sensibilities. These articles, examining the differences between philanthropy and tzedakah, originally appeared in October 2001.]

A Conversation Between Sandy Cardin
and Michael Steinhardt

[Sh’ma asked Sandy Cardin, Executive Director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, to speak with Michael Steinhardt about his philanthropy. Michael, who has devoted most of his career to managing funds in financial markets, now focuses his attention on Jewish issues. He has been instrumental in creating and funding Birthright Israel, MAKOR, and the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education. Susan Berrin is Editor of Sh‘ma.]

Sandy: What is the role of the major philanthropist, what many refer to as the mega-donor, in terms of stimulating innovation, sustaining the existing institutions, and creating new institutions?

Michael: The issue of philanthropic democracy is one that is hard to resolve. Should people be able to do with their money things that the community has not endorsed? The creation of the federation system and the UJA was a democratic answer to Jewish communal needs, but somehow over the years that system has grown brittle and weakened. Out of frustration, lack of communal choice, and particular visions, some of us have created our own initiatives that have gone around the bureaucracy and structure. There remains a level of discomfort that should be resolved – how, I’m not sure. But it is those people, whose philanthropic contributions are noteworthy, that are making an enormous contribution to today’s communities. I hope that the community reinvigorates itself, and builds a positive partnership between individual philanthropists and communal structure.

Sandy: Do you think philanthropists are doing enough to help the community reinvigorate itself?

Michael: Yes, but there are very few people who are truly committed to a Jewish future in the way of some “mega-individuals.” Are they doing enough?

Sandy: Let’s set aside the innovative things they do. Are the mega-philanthropists sufficiently engaged in the communal conversation? Are they providing resources and leadership for that conversation?

Michael: Most new philanthropic initiatives are overwhelmingly communal. Wexner programs, for example, train young people in ways that are unavailable elsewhere, bringing young people back into the community as leaders. I’m not discomforted by the specific choices that the philanthropists have made. Indeed, there are so many gaps in what is provided by the institutional community it is not difficult to find worthwhile opportunities for improvement.

Susan: Michael, could you address that tension between those two systems – the need for a philanthropic democracy and the desire of mega-donors to work outside of the communal infrastructure?

Michael: Well I think the decline of philanthropic democracy is a story unto itself. Why have the federations over the last 10 to 20 years had meaningful declines in their contributions while the Jewish community has become extraordinarily prosperous? The fact is, there has been a decline that the institutional Jewish world has not been willing to face squarely. This leads many people to conclude that the Jewish philanthropic world has not attracted the best people as its professionals, nor has it attracted perhaps even the best people as its community leaders. There is nothing more important in my mind than this reinvigoration. How that should happen is again a subject for a broader discussion but I think it’s extraordinarily important that Jewish philanthropic democracy be reinvigorated.

Sandy: Let’s imagine ten years from now. How do you see the interplay between the federation system, or communal structure, and major philanthropists, and how will this be different from what we’re seeing today?

Michael: Let it be clear that it is my view that if present trends continue, the federation system will become increasingly weak, less relevant, less central, and will not attract the best people. Moreover, Jewish communal organizations never die, they just persist in perpetuity whether their raison d’etre of long ago disappears or not. How many organizations still exist to help Soviet Jews get out of Russia? Rumor has it they can leave whenever they want to. Some organizations like the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, the Wiesenthal Center, and the ADL, are spending too much Jewish money, duplicating services, and focusing on issues of minor contemporary relevance. This is horrifically backward-looking and it does no service to the Jewish future.

Sandy: How do we create a bridge between those who have ideas and vision and those who are not necessarily inclined to work through the consensus-building communal organizations?

Michael: I don’t know but I do know that it is pitiable that JESNA, which is the national Jewish educational organization, has a budget of gornisht. Its budget represents the smallest fraction of the budgets of a range of backward-seeking organizations while there are teacher shortages and a lack of money to create Jewish schools that effectively compete with secular schools. This is our future. If you were to measure the average Jewish 20- or 30-year old in terms of his or her Jewish knowledge on a scale of one to ten, he would be at a two. One being lowest in my view.

Sandy: Let’s come back to the philanthropic issue. To what do you attribute the fact that your efforts and the efforts of so many others, in terms of generating new sources of significant giving from individuals, have largely fallen on deaf ears?

Michael: I don’t know that to be the fact. I am not an active fundraiser. I, and other mega-donors are substantial givers but not so much fundraisers. If these efforts have fallen on deaf ears, then we have to make new efforts. I’d like to think that we really haven’t made a very serious effort as yet.

Sandy: What kind of efforts can we make as a community to get on track?

Michael: I still am of the view that the reinvigoration of the central organization to American Jewish life, the federation, is probably the most efficient way to reinvigorate the Jewish community.

Sandy: Are you familiar with efforts to upgrade the professional ranks of the Jewish community?

Michael: So far those efforts are scattered.

Susan: What role does Jewish journalism play in enhancing Jewish communal life?

Michael: If you speak of the Jewish media like the Jewish newspapers and Moment magazine and The Jerusalem Post and those sorts of publications, the first thing one has to acknowledge is the fact that a very small number of Jews cumulatively read these publications – and particularly painful is the small number of young people. So first, we have to get a more vibrant media that will attract our next generation as regular readers because they care about subject matter. It seems to me that when a society declines, it declines in many ways, and our non-Orthodox Jewish society is declining. One indicium of such decline is that it doesn’t have a vibrant media and another is its lack of role models.

Sandy: Is your approach then to work with young people – high school, college, and immediately post-college students?

Michael: And nursery schools and kindergartens and primary schools and Hillels and MAKOR type organizations. I would focus on a continuity of quality Jewish educational services and cultural services to our young people.

Sandy: So how long and how universal is that approach and do we have that much time? Or do we become irrelevant before then?

Michael: I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

Sandy: In your non-Jewish philanthropy, about which I know relatively little, it appears that you’re much more of a traditional philanthropist, giving to large institutions to establish chairs and develop programs. Can you talk a little bit about the different approach you may have to giving in the non-Jewish world than you have in the Jewish world?

Michael: Well there’s one generalized difference and that is in the Jewish world I give in response to my perception of need. And in the non-Jewish world I often give in response to my own interests. So I make contributions in art because I’m interested in art. One giving is in relation to interests, and the other is a result of something deeper.

Sandy: How does the leadership of the organizations you work with play into the equation?

Michael: In general, you cannot diminish the importance of leadership. As a matter of fact, it’s hard for me to think of an organization that I’m intensely committed to in which I don’t feel a positive involvement with the leadership, both Jewish and otherwise.

Sandy: Are you as proactive in your non-Jewish giving as you appear to be in your Jewish giving?

Michael: No.

Sandy: Was there a point when you decided to become very public in terms of Jewish philanthropy and Jewish causes? And is there a reason?

Michael: I don’t think about being public even though perhaps it’s an accurate statement. I really believe in my being just – let me step back. When I stopped managing money in 1995, I had a very clear vision of what I wanted to do, and it was narrow and it was fairly well articulated. I was able to direct my energies to those innovations that I thought would be of value, and the fact that they were innovations perhaps made me more public than I might have thought. The public part was of no particular interest.

Sandy: But you realize, do you not, that you are among the most, if not the most, accessible of the major Jewish philanthropists? You probably write more articles and give more speeches than your contemporaries and peers.

Michael: Well I repeat the statement, Sandy, that my peers are few – you can count them on your fingers and toes – and that’s the great concern. I don’t think there are enough of us.

Sandy: How will you know when, in your own view, the Jewish world has turned the corner and is beginning an upswing as opposed to the dire predictions, the dire sense that you express both publicly and privately?

Michael: That’s a good question. I’m not sure I have an answer to that. Sometimes when I walk in Manhattan or I dance in the street on Simchas Torah, I’m almost persuaded to be more optimistic. I’m subject to anecdotal stuff as most everyone is. Raising the number of non-Orthodox children going to day schools from the present 10 percent to 15 or 20 percent would be a major achievement toward that goal. When federation giving turns around and its growth is greater than the change in inflation, that would be a major turnaround. When there’s a shift in focus from the past to the future – when people don’t have to rely on the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and the birth of the State for a philanthropic response, but rather think about a joyous Jewish future, hopefully I’ll be able to recognize that difference. I don‘t have any one particular measure.

Sandy: Are you beginning to see any of those signs as a result of the projects you’re funding?

Michael: Yeah, I would say that there are, in President Bush‘s expression, some thousand points of light. There are at least a lot of isolated points of light that can give one hope and I am often chastised for being too much of a pessimist. I will defend my pessimism for the time being and say that I hope that I prove to be too negative.

Sandy: Are you willing to share with Sh’ma readers that perhaps you’re not really as pessimistic as you sound but that you use that pessimism to leverage people to start thinking and reconsidering their own positions?

Michael: That‘s a good question, Sandy to which I answer no. Are you guys finished with me?