Sandy Cardin Reflects on 25 Years of Schusterman Foundation Leadership:
The Interview

Sandy Cardin at the 2017 ROI Summit; screen capture YouTube.

By Esther D. Kustanowitz
eJewish Philanthropy

For the last 25 years, it’s been hard to imagine the work of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation without Sandy Cardin as its President. As Cardin transitions from that role to Senior Advisor, he shared highlights of his work at the Foundation, and observations on today’s national and global Jewish scene.

The Early Years

Cardin grew up in a home where “the notion of being an active citizen, a participant in the world around you, was the essence of the household.” Working in the family law firm and real estate business, he realized that nonprofit volunteering actually brought him more happiness. In February 1994, he met Charles and Lynn Schusterman.

Charles and Lynn Schusterman; courtesy.

“Charlie did a lot of probing to make sure he could trust my judgment,” Cardin recalled. Once satisfied, Schusterman hired Cardin for what proved to be the start of a very long and mutually beneficial relationship with the family.

While the Foundation is known today for initiatives geared to young Jews – ranging from BBYO to Hillel to Moishe House to ROI Community and the REALITY program – Cardin admits that they didn’t start with much of a roadmap.

“We began by focusing on organizations with significant reach and thinking about how to help them become more effective,” he said. “We did our best to help them achieve their full potential.” But many organizations were harder to help than they originally anticipated.

As venture philanthropy started to become a buzzword in philanthropic circles, the Foundation added a second strategy: partnering with other foundations, notably with the Steinhardt Family Foundation and Samuel Bronfman Foundation, on STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal). When Charlie died in late 2000, Lynn took the helm of the Foundation and young people, not just the organizations serving them, became an additional focus. This was when Lynn became one of the biggest champions of Birthright Israel.

Engagement Beyond Birthright

When Birthright started, the founders expected that the American Jewish community would figure out how to engage the participants once they returned home from their ten-day experience. When follow-up didn’t happen organically, the Foundation created “The Charlies,” a modest international leadership development program named in memory of the Foundation’s late co-founder and geared toward outstanding Birthright alumni. After a few years, the Charlies program morphed into the ROI Community, which “took on a life of its own as it grew into a global network of young Jewish activists,” Cardin said. This dovetailed with the 2006 decision to open a Schusterman office in Israel.

“We realized the limits of what we could offer our grantee partners, and recognized there was also only so much foundations could do by themselves,” he recalled, as the awareness dawned that the most important thing was “to do our part in the effort to develop literate, informed leaders for the global Jewish community – people who see the world for what it is – and help identify, train and motivate them to become deeply involved in Jewish life.”

In addition to ROI – now an international network of 1,300 Jewish activists, entrepreneurs and innovators, mostly in their 20s and 30s but with earlier alumni approaching their mid-40s, who are enhancing Jewish engagement and fostering positive social change globally – the REALITY program was “the next piece of the Schusterman puzzle.” Working initially with Teach For America, and later with all kinds of networks and communities, REALITY enabled Schusterman to reach “a diverse group of outstanding emerging leaders with extensive contacts and social capital with the chance to visit Israel and use that experience to reignite their passion and potential for repairing the world,” Cardin said.

Approaching Israel

As the subject of Israel becomes more complicated, especially for those who are conflicted about what they hear in the media and on campus regarding the occupation, Birthright has been pressured to include Palestinian narratives in their trip program. While Cardin thinks that there is plenty of room – and a definite need – in the Jewish community for Israel experiences that focus on the internal challenges Israel has with the Israeli Arab population, as well as with the Palestinians, he doesn’t think Birthright needs to make major changes to its core educational curriculum in order to address these particular issues.

“That’s not why Birthright was created,” he said. “It was established to help young Jews in the Diaspora develop and authentic sense of connection to their Jewish homeland and heritage. Since research suggests the vast majority of participants still gain a greater appreciation for Israel and their Jewishness as a result of the trip, Birthright should stay true to its original mission even as it has to adapt to each new generation of participants.”

Jewish Community Life and Organizations

Asked which area is the most underfunded in Jewish life, Cardin said, “For me, it’s not as much a question of underfunding as it is where the community puts its attention. Every element of Jewish life could use more resources, not simply to subvent the expense, but to help our institutions become centers of excellence that will make them places people will seek out to explore and engage in Jewish life.”

While Schusterman focused its attention primarily on teens and young Jewish adults, Cardin also noted appreciation for institutions with a broader or different demographic target.

He identified JCCs as having “the capacity to deliver on the Jewish experience in a way that few other institutions enjoy because they offer a full range of activities to people regardless of their age or their interests: providing recreation, education, sport, arts, culture and so much more.” The key, Cardin said, “is figuring out how we can help them serve the community better than they have in the past.”

Early childhood and families with young children are two other important areas for investment, Cardin said, because “it’s a ‘two-fer’: you can simultaneously reach both the children and the parents.” Unfortunately, he said, economic realities often force institutions serving those constituencies to act more competitively than communally, “a loss for all concerned.”

In addition to turf challenges over which community organizations “own” Jewish education, “we have not decided what it is that we want our children to know by the time they become young adults,” he said, noting the lack of a “core curriculum” for Jewish literacy, and not enough of a communal priority on learning and speaking Hebrew.

“We are constantly in search of a ‘common language’ to connect Jews all over the world, and yet, we already have one: Hebrew!” he said. “Tikkun olam [seeking to repair the world] is important, but many other people besides the Jews believe in working to help make the world a better place; it’s a universal notion that we’re trying to express in a particular fashion. Hebrew is a solution to the problem; it takes us back to our roots and to our texts. I always felt my inability to speak Hebrew was one of my major shortcomings as a Jewish philanthropic leader, and I find it ironic that the American Jewish community does not place as high a priority on it as they do in other parts of the Diaspora.”

Demographic Shifts

“I don’t think the leadership in American Jewish life fully recognizes the paradigmatic shift in our Jewish community,” he said, pointing to an intermarriage rate of 80 percent among non-Orthodox Jews, that Millennial Jews of color could be as high as 10-15% of non-Orthodox Jewry, and LGBTQ Jews could be as high as 10%. “There’s a total disconnect between common perceptions of contemporary Jewish life and reality. For example, far too many people still talk about intermarriage as if it’s the exception rather than the rule, and consider a ‘typical’ Jewish family to be one comprised of two Jewish parents with Jewishly engaged kids who attend synagogue, JCCs, Jewish summer camp, and Israel programs.” Cardin believes that embracing the “new normal” of our much greater diversity and demographic shifts can enrich us.

Another challenge Cardin feels we do not fully appreciate is what we will need to provide for those in our community living into their 80s, 90s and even 100s.

“Our tradition teaches us to respect and care for our elders, and their numbers will be greater in the near future than at any time in our past,” Cardin said. “And while some work is already being done locally in this area, it has yet to receive much attention from more than a few of the large, national funders.”

Jewish Life as an Ecosystem

Cardin said those working on behalf of the Jewish community “need to remind ourselves why we are doing what we’re doing. What’s the big picture here to which we’re dedicating our professional and personal lives to achieve?” Too often, he said, “we end up spending the vast majority of our time thinking about the specifics of the institutions and programs for which we’re responsible than we do about the betterment of the community as a whole.”

Cardin equated the current need to think differently about Jewish communal life with the way people are approaching climate change.

“The Jewish community is an ecosystem,” he said, “and it is imperative that Jewish leaders and organizations truly consider the future of the environment, not just the success of their individual institutions. Addressing climate change means making tough choices that place the interests of society as a whole over those of a few,” Cardin continued. “I believe our community has to adopt the same approach or face the threat of a breakdown of the Jewish ecosystem.”

Equality and Inclusion

An important part of that ecosystem is being a force for equality, Cardin said, noting the Foundation’s work in that area, especially the commitment to the SRE (Safety, Respect and Equity) Coalition, calling the leadership in that realm of Lisa Eisen, now President of the Foundation, “significant and important.”

“Gender equality is a place where the Jewish community has the chance to truly be ‘a light unto the nations,’” Cardin said. “We have the capacity to change because we’re small. We can show the world at large how to treat people with dignity, respect and equity.”

In terms of women’s leadership development specifically, Cardin said, “It’s up to all of us who care about the Jewish people to make sure it happens.” He applauded the recent appointment of women to lead the Cleveland, Houston and Milwaukee federations, and hopes to see more diversity in the future.

“In this issue, I think the Federations are the bellwether of our community. Only when the senior leadership of the Federation system has gender and compensation equality, will the stigma of gender inequity in Jewish life have a chance to come to an end.”

“The time is now and we all have a role to play,” he said. “It’s a matter of discipline, saying ‘if this is important, we’re going to make this happen.’ We’re going to make the jobs as attractive and rewarding as possible for all kinds of candidates and, if the pools we see are not diverse, we will have to dig harder. We can no longer make excuses. We have to make it happen.” He added that foundations can set the bar as to gender equity for senior positions, since they have influence with many of their funded projects and organizations.

“Where we need to start is by asking ourselves, how we can enhance leadership in the Jewish community, thereby ensuring that our community has the best people doing what we need done.  … We always have to remember the bigger picture, that our common goal is building a vibrant, meaningful fulfilling Jewish community that contributes significantly to society at large.”

Strengthening Jewish Professional Leadership

Cardin proposed greater fluidity between and among Jewish organizations and programs, citing leadership training and professional development as vital tools in growing Jewish communal professionals’ opportunities. It is an issue he first began exploring at Schusterman and continues to be engaged in as chair of Leading Edge.

“The organized Jewish world is not an oxymoron; it is one big enterprise,” he said. “We have to move people between organizations in a way that helps both the individuals and the institutions that employ them. If we can get that right, just think about how we will be able to strengthen Jewish life.”

He also addressed the financial realities of being in the Jewish professional world. “It is inexcusable that our community does not compensate many of its professionals in a manner or at a level that enables them to pay what it costs to live a full Jewish life, including a day school education for their children,” Cardin said, calling for a communal response to this challenge.

Moving Forward; ‘Making It Happen

“I’m not ready to ride off into the sunset,” Cardin said, noting that his colleagues at the Foundation are constantly in conversation with community leaders about new ideas and approaches, how to improve existing institutions, reach more people and do a better job.

Cardin says that, in addition to the organizations Schusterman has helped to launch, “we also provided seed funding to individuals who came to us with a vision.” In those cases, Schusterman’s role was “understanding the person and their capacity to successfully implement their idea. We believed in betting on the jockey.”

Cardin noted Lynn’s famous approach to funding, that she “makes it possible” but that the people who are doing the work “make it happen.”

“Once you think about your philanthropic initiatives as ‘making it possible,’ you are proud of something every single day. You realize you’ve been blessed and extremely fortunate to help others achieve their dreams and objectives, and to have played some small role in their success is very meaningful. I greatly appreciate that the Schustermans enabled me to have that opportunity for so many years. Our relationship has always been remarkably supportive, open, honest and transparent. I have nothing but the utmost respect and love for them and what they continue to contribute to so many every day.”

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a writer, editor and creative consultant based in Los Angeles. Twitter: @EstherK