On a warm Sunday in September, Michael Steinhardt, maverick hedge fund operator turned Jewish philanthropist, was showing a group of fellow donors around his private zoo. Located on his 51-acre estate in Mount Kisco, New York, an hour north of Manhattan, the zoo features free-range zebras, miniature horses, guinea fowl, wallabies, antelopes, blue-necked pheasants, and golden spider monkeys. Delighted at the looks of wonder on his guests' faces, Steinhardt at one point impishly led them into one of the pens. A majestic nine-foot-tall ostrich came over to greet them. Full of curiosity, the ostrich kept stretching out its long neck toward the donors, as if eager to read their name tags. When the giant bird began to get too friendly, Steinhardt quickly herded the group out of the pen. "He's very attracted to Jews," he joked.
Certainly Steinhardt is. Since 1995, when he retired from Wall Street with a fortune in excess of $300 million, the 59-year-old Teddy Roosevelt look-alike has poured tens of millions of dollars into Jewish causes. His Jewish Life Network, run by a small rabbi-rich staff working out of an office building near Times Square, has become a hothouse of ideas for promoting Jewish identity and awareness. In just the past three years, Steinhardt has created a cultural center in New York for Jewish singles, called Makor; helped launch Birthright Israel, a program to send young Jews to Israel free of charge; helped form Synagogue Transformation and Renewal (STAR), a campaign to revitalize America's synagogues; funded a network of Jewish outreach workers on college campuses; and, in his most impassioned undertaking, formed a partnership to build a network of Jewish day schools across the country--an enterprise that, with its echoes of the Catholic parochial schools, has caused much controversy.
In the process, Steinhardt is helping to transform Jewish philanthropy. For most of the past century, Jews have given money through the monolithic Federation system. Each community had its own Federation, which carried out an annual appeal. These campaigns--legendary in their ability to hit up every Jewish household in an area--raised as much as $1 billion a year. Part of that money went overseas to defend Israel and to help Jews in places like the Soviet Union. The rest was spent at home--on "defense" organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress, which fought discrimination, as well as on hospitals, community centers, homes for the aged, and other service institutions. While set up to help Jews, these institutions came to serve needy populations in general.
But the old rallying cries--Israeli security abroad, anti-Semitism at home--no longer serve. Jews today tend to be wealthier and more secure than ever, and, as the nomination of Joe Lieberman for vice president shows, no quarter of American society is off limits to them. Moreover, Jewish donors want more say over how their money is spent.
Today, there are more than 4,000 foundations that give to Jewish causes. Of these, 20 or so "megadonors" stand out. In addition to Michael Steinhardt, they include Charles and Edgar Bronfman, co-chairs of the Seagram Company; film maker Steven Spielberg, head of the Shoah and Righteous Persons foundations; Leslie Wexner, owner of the Limited and Victoria's Secret; Laurence Tisch, chairman of the Loews Corporation; Charles Schusterman, head of a lucrative oil-and-gas business in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Mort Mandel of Cleveland, a retired distributor of electronics parts.
Every year, these men (and they are all men) give as much as $300 million of the more than $1 billion given by Jewish foundations. And their influence is magnified by their tendency to collaborate. Twice a year or so, the megadonors meet for a night and a day to discuss their faith and their money. They listen to guest speakers, study Jewish texts, and, most importantly, exchange ideas on how they might work to save Judaism.
And Judaism, they believe, desperately needs saving. With American Jews no longer facing annihilation or suffering serious discrimination, they are now thought to face a more insidious threat: assimilation. And so these philanthropists have launched a movement to expand and revitalize old institutions like schools and synagogues, and to set up new ones like singles centers and Israel tours--all part of a gathering movement to kindle a Jewish renaissance.
To a degree, this preoccupation with ethnicity seems very American. The more prosperous and tolerant American society becomes, the more its subgroups are savoring their differences. So just as African Americans celebrate black history month and Mexican Americans parade on Cinco de Mayo, Jewish Americans are wearing kippahs (skullcaps), studying Talmud, and sending their kids to day schools.
The candidacy of Joe Lieberman exemplifies this trend. While making campaign stops, he agonizes over what he can and cannot do on Shabbat. And when it comes to morality, he asserts that it must be based on faith. Perhaps never before has so prominent a Jewish figure so publicly asserted his Judaism.
From a political standpoint, the new stress on Jewish identity poses a real risk. Ever since the days of Jeremiah and Isaiah, Judaism has maintained a strong tradition of tzedakah, or charity, which includes giving to others. As Rabbi Hillel asked, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?" American Jews, in warding off attacks on themselves, have long made common cause with other persecuted groups. They have marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., spearheaded the fight for civil liberties, and championed the cause of public education. Today, of course, Jews do remain active in many social causes. In fact, an estimated two-thirds of giving by Jews goes to non-Jewish causes. Yet in subsidizing trips to Israel and funding Jewish day schools, are Jewish philanthropists retreating into a narrow tribalism?
Michael Steinhardt likes to poke and prod. In the world of Jewish philanthropy, he is known for speaking his mind, and, when I dropped by his office, he did not disappoint. Located on the 17th floor of a Madison Avenue tower, Steinhardt's office is lined with baroque Torah ornaments, antique menorahs, and other items from his world-class collection of Jewish memorabilia. On his large semicircular desk sits a computer that flashes stock prices, which Steinhardt checks every minute or so. When asked about the current state of Jewish philanthropy, Steinhardt, who is stout, bald, and bespectacled, paused a moment, then declared, "I feel that the durability of some American philanthropic organizations is far greater than is justified by their effectiveness. It's a shame some of these organizations don't just go away." Asked to be more specific, he did not hesitate: "The American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Wiesenthal Center, which are all dedicated to defense, to protection against anti-Semitism, to Holocaust memory, rather than to addressing the needs of the next generation."
Steinhardt spends a lot of time thinking about the next generation. It's not their religious beliefs that concerns him--Steinhardt himself is an atheist--but their customs and values. Steinhardt attributes much of his own success to his immersion in Jewish values--the emphasis on education, on inquisitiveness, on meritocratic achievement--and wonders if they will survive. For young Jews today, it's entirely possible to reach adulthood without ever hearing Yiddish spoken, or learning about holidays such as Shavuoth, or knowing who Maimonides was. For Steinhardt's generation, these things were inhaled with the air.
The son of a Brooklyn jeweler, Steinhardt was raised in what he calls a "marginally Orthodox" household in a lower-middle-class section of Brooklyn. He attended public schools but, five afternoons a week, schlepped to Hebrew school. He hated the experience. The instruction was tedious and the teachers uninspiring, and, after his bar mitzvah, he stopped going. For the next three years, he put on tefillin, the small leather boxes worn by the Orthodox for daily ritual prayer. But at 16, he rebelled and never looked back. He was drawn to Israel, though, and after the Six Day War, he began visiting it on an annual basis.
In the mid-1980s, Steinhardt became active politically. A centrist Democrat, he gave large sums to the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and in 1985 became its chairman. He also helped found the Progressive Policy Institute, the DLC's think tank. But when DLC member Bill Clinton was elected president, Steinhardt--appalled by his embrace of Lani Guinier and gays in the military--grew disillusioned and quit.
By then, however, he had a new cause. The spark was the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which contained the now-famous statistic that 52 percent of all Jews were intermarrying. The accuracy of that statistic has since been sharply questioned, but at the time it set off tremors of anxiety in the Jewish establishment. While the Hasidim, with their separatism and large families, seemed safely protected against the gusts of modernism, secular Jews seemed in danger of being blown away. The prospect filled Steinhardt with dread. Judaism's main institutions struck him as flabby. The synagogues were dry and unwelcoming. Hebrew schools were drab and alienating. Jewish community centers attracted only nerds, and the Jewish Federations seemed interested more in tending the aged than in capturing the young.
In his despair, Steinhardt sought out Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg. A modern Orthodox rabbi with two degrees from Harvard, Greenberg was a legend in Jewish education circles. In the late 1970s, he served as executive director of the commission that led to the creation of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington; later he would become the museum's chairman. For years Greenberg directed CLAL (the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), teaching Jewish adults in search of spiritual guidance. Among his students was Judy Steinhardt, Michael's wife, and through her the two men got to know one another. When the Jewish population study came out, Greenberg, too, was deeply troubled. "I felt I'd been asleep at the switch as this disaster was coming," he says. "Here I was building CLAL, and the patient was dying in front of me."
Greenberg told me this while sitting on a bench in Steinhardt's zoo in Mount Kisco. Tall and lanky, with wisps of white hair escaping from his skullcap, Greenberg had been tagging along with a group of Jewish donors, but I convinced him to sit for an interview in one of the zoo's stone-walled pens; our conversation was interrupted by the constant braying and hooting of animals. At one point, a straggling donor came over to say hello. "I heard you gave Joe Lieberman permission to eat on Tisha B'Av," the man said, referring to the day that commemorates the destruction of the Holy Temple, a fasting day for the Orthodox. Greenberg, who is Lieberman's religious adviser--he gave the benediction at the Democratic convention on the day Lieberman made his acceptance speech--shyly acknowledged that he had.
Recalling his meeting with Steinhardt after the population study came out, Greenberg said they both agreed on the urgent need to rejuvenate Jewish institutions and to make them more appealing to young people. At Steinhardt's request, Greenberg spent several months surveying the work of more than 100 Jewish organizations and interviewing dozens of people who worked at them. From this he compiled a list of 13 areas that needed immediate attention. Impressed, Steinhardt decided to throw himself into the cause of saving secular Judaism. Soon after, he set up the Jewish Life Network and persuaded Greenberg to head it.
The two make an odd couple--Steinhardt the irascible money manager and Greenberg the soft-spoken rebbe--but the former's entrepreneurial drive and the latter's spiritual knowledge have helped make the Jewish Life Network a key actor in the push for a Jewish renaissance. The organization has pioneered a new trend in American Judaism: using corporate management techniques to market religion. The goal is to sell a product (Judaism) to a target audience (young Jews), using focus groups, management consultants, and five-year growth plans.
Makor (Hebrew for "source") arose out of Steinhardt's concern that single Jews in New York had nowhere to meet. From focus groups, it was learned that young Jews would frequent a night spot that was both hip and Jewish (as long as it was not too Jewish). So Steinhardt, putting up $11 million, purchased an elegant brownstone on West 67th Street--one of Manhattan's most exclusive blocks--and turned it into a culture and performance space. The ground floor features a sleek bar and a night club offering jazz, klezmer, and folk performances arranged by the downtown-chic Knitting Factory. Upstairs are a reading room, a screening room (funded by Steven Spielberg), and seminar rooms offering courses in the Kabbalah, Buddhist meditation, and "Inner Torah." While reconnecting with their Judaism, it's hoped, young Jews will also connect with one another. Steinhardt has gone so far as to offer his vacation home in Anguilla to any couple that marries after meeting at Makor.
Another place young Jews have traditionally met is the synagogue. Steinhardt has joined two other megadonors--Edgar Bronfman and Charles Schusterman--to create STAR. Its goal is to enliven services, warm up sanctuaries, and improve adult education. Consultants from firms like McKinsey and Arthur Andersen are to be sent to counsel rabbis in a campaign to, in effect, "reengineer the synagogue." At a recent conference held in Chicago to launch STAR, Steinhardt offered some characteristically blunt comments about the moribund state of contemporary synagogue life, giving offense to many of the rabbis and educators present.
Steinhardt had also been active in the effort to revive Hillel, the Jewish campus organization. Founded as a ministry for Jews in college, Hillel on most campuses had become mainly a refuge on Friday nights for students with nothing else to do. In 1994, however, a smooth-talking law professor named Richard Joel took over as president and, intent on resurrecting it, corralled Steinhardt and other megadonors; today Hillel's budget stands at $43 million, up from $15 million five years ago. Seeking as always to put his own stamp on things, Steinhardt has financed the Jewish Campus Service Corps to reach out to unaffiliated Jews. The outreach workers--students who receive $25,000 to remain on campus for a year after graduating--give talks, organize a cappella singing groups, and hold kosher sushi-rolling parties. There are 83 "Steinhardt fellows" around the country, constituting what Richard Joel calls "a Jewish peace corps."
Far larger in scope, and visibility, is Birthright Israel, a program that sends young Jews to Israel. The idea originated with Yossi Beilin, the prominent Israeli politician who helped open the back channel to the Palestine Liberation Organization that ultimately led to Camp David. Concerned over young Jews' flagging interest in Israel, Beilin hit on the notion of offering all Jewish youths in the world a free trip to the Holy Land. Given that tens of thousands would qualify annually, the project struck many as foolhardy. But when Beilin approached Steinhardt about the idea, its sheer scale helped win him over. Steinhardt, in turn, recruited Charles Bronfman, and together they set out to persuade other donors. Resistance was fierce. Many of the qualifying youths came from affluent families that could easily afford to pay for the trips; why subsidize them? Once the kids were in Israel, whose view of the country would they receive? And on their return, what follow-up would there be?
Steinhardt and Bronfman persisted, however, arguing that making the trip a gift would enhance the kids' appreciation for it, and that the magic of Israel would inevitably assert itself. Each agreed to put up $8 million. Eventually they convinced 10 others to join in, for a combined commitment of $70 million over five years. The Israeli government and the Federations have each promised a like amount, for a total of $210 million. Last year--Birthright's first--8,000 young Jews traveled to Israel. This year, the target is 14,000. Ultimately, it's hoped that 50,000 young Jews will make the trip every year. "Everybody makes fun of Birthright, but everybody feels good about it," says J.J. Goldberg, editor of the Jewish Forward (of which Steinhardt happens to be vice chairman).
For all of the attention Birthright has received, however, Steinhardt's activities in the area of Jewish education are likely to be far more consequential, and controversial. It is here, he believes, that the real battle for Jewish survival is being waged. Today, most Jewish kids get exposed to their religion after school and on weekends in Hebrew school, but few attend beyond their bar or bat mitzvah.
Rather than seeking to repair Hebrew schools, Steinhardt wants to create more Jewish day schools. Comparable to Catholic parochial schools, these schools devote part of the day to general education and the rest to Jewish customs and history as well as to Hebrew. Currently, there are 700 such schools in the United States, with an enrollment of about 200,000. More than 90 percent of the students, however, come from Orthodox households. Secular families--wanting their kids to experience the full diversity of American life--have traditionally shunned day schools. Indeed, most Jews have insistently sent their kids to public schools, seeing them as a gateway into the American mainstream.
Gradually, though, Jewish day schools are catching on with secular parents, and not just in cities with bad school systems. Today, there are such schools in Columbus, Ohio; Austin, Texas; Northampton, Massachusetts--even Las Vegas. The Atlanta area alone supports seven such schools. And whereas 20 years ago non-Orthodox Jewish high schools were virtually unheard of, today there are 15 of them, with another 15 scheduled to open soon.
One major constraint, however, is money. Building a Jewish high school can cost $15 million or more, and maintaining a staff adept in both general and Hebrew studies adds to the load. And since these schools are ineligible for government funds and do not have an institution like the Catholic Church behind them, the tuition can be crushing.
Into the breach has stepped Michael Steinhardt. In 1997 he created the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), which provides grants, technical expertise, and encouragement to day schools across the country. Putting up $1.5 million of his own money, Steinhardt convinced 11 others to pledge a like amount, for a total of $18 million. That's a tiny sum, however, compared to the estimated $1 billion a year needed to keep these schools running, and so PEJE is working to rally other donors around the country.
The event I attended at Steinhardt's Mount Kisco estate in September was part of that drive. About 275 people attended; all had given at least $100,000 to day schools over the past three years. Prior to the lunch (brisket and couscous), Steinhardt, standing before a billowing white tent, told the group that "we are committed to making day schools the bedrock of Jewish education for klal Yisrael," the people of Israel. Reading from notes--Steinhardt is much stiffer in public than in private--he declared, "We gathered here hold the future of American Jewry in our hands."
Mingling with the donors at the Steinhardt estate, I got the sense that most were in the business world. One man who had made a killing on Wall Street and sunk part of it into a new day school in Brooklyn told me that he himself had attended public schools. Wistfully recalling how he had said prayers at the start of the school day (this before the Supreme Court's ruling against it), he launched into a diatribe against the New York school system.
Not all day school parents are so hidebound, however. On the leftish Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I live, good liberals are clamoring to send their kids to the Abraham Joshua Heschel School. The school, which opened in 1983 with 28 children, now has close to 500. The kindergarten, with 40 openings a year, is nearly as hard to get into as Harvard. Responding to demand, Heschel, which currently goes up to the eighth grade, is about to open a high school; to house it, the school has purchased a property for $25 million.
The school's name is intriguing. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, before his death in 1972, was a leading Jewish humanist and activist. Drawing on rabbinic texts to preach against segregation, he was deeply committed to the civil rights movement, and he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., at Selma. Yet the school bearing his name seems to embody a form of voluntary Jewish segregation. Furthermore, owing to the school's high tuition ($15,000 a year) and the relative scarcity of scholarships, many students come from an exclusive world of country homes and vacations abroad.
To make sense of this, I arranged to see Peter Geffen, Heschel's founder and director. His office, located on the second floor of the school's cheery brick building, features photos of him in various activist poses. One shows him with Martin Luther King during a summer when he worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; another, from 1978, shows him in Egypt with Anwar Sadat. Today, when Geffen travels, it's usually to advise administrators at other Jewish day schools. How, I asked, did he square his current work with his activist past?
A serious, silver-haired man in his mid-50s, Geffen talked about the special values a school like Heschel offers. "What we are asking is whether school should simply be about tests and achievement, or whether it should be about community, about social justice, about a linkage to heritage and tradition," he said. Geffen told me about the introductory session he holds for new parents every year. In it, he said, he describes Heschel's life and teachings and shows a tape of the rabbi in action. "The part that's most electrifying for them," he said, "is when they learn about the relationship between Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King. The power of that story really grabs them." On Martin Luther King Day, Geffen continued, Heschel students are asked to imagine what it's like to be in others' shoes. More generally, Jewish texts are taught in such a way as to stress their linkage to the outside world.
"I believe in public schools," he said. "I'm only in this because as a Jewish educator I struggled for many years with the problem of how to get the breadth and depth of our tradition into the lives of families so that they can make an informed contribution to their communities. There's no doubt in my mind that there's a child in one of these Jewish day schools who will one day solve the problem of world hunger, who will have the power of a Gandhi or a King, who will change the universe."
Listening to Geffen, I couldn't help but feel stirred. At the same time, I was disappointed by his refusal to acknowledge that Jewish day schools might have a negative effect on public schools. Bethamie Horowitz, a social psychologist who has published several studies on Jewish identity and who likes Heschel's curriculum so much that she sends her two kids there, observes that "Jewish day schools may be good for Jews but bad for America. More American Jewish parents are sending their kids to private schools--secular as well as Jewish--than in the past. If all rich people's kids were in public schools, those schools would be much better off." To make matters worse, Jewish day schools are aggressively recruiting teachers and administrators from colleges and from public schools themselves, which can only further undermine the quality of public education.
It's not even clear that Jewish day schools will accomplish their boosters' immediate goal of preventing assimilation. Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of PEJE, says that, at the upper limit, perhaps 20 percent of all secular kids might one day attend Jewish day schools. But what about the remaining 80 percent? The Forward's J.J. Goldberg, whose kids attend Heschel, says, "People at risk of assimilating aren't going to send their kids to these schools. I want my kids to be very Jewish, but most Jews don't. There's a growing murmur that day schools aren't the answer. Nobody's dealing with Hebrew schools--which are the answer."
In our conversation, Peter Geffen mentioned the concept of tikkun olam--of repairing the world. This notion--that Jews have an obligation to make the world a better place--came up repeatedly during my discussions about Jewish day schools and about the Jewish renaissance movement in general. The more Jewish values are taught and inculcated, it was asserted, the more the rest of the world will benefit. Rabbi Andrew Bachman, the director of Hillel at New York University, told me that, of the 42 students who participated in Birthright last year, many returned from Israel with an interest "not just in Judaism, but in the world at large. It shook people up. It said, 'You're part of a very special people. You have a commitment to make the world a better place.'" Twenty of the returnees, he said, signed up to work in soup kitchens in New York and to do hurricane relief in El Salvador.
The El Salvador mission was sponsored by the New York-based American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Its director is Ruth Messinger, who joined it after losing her mayoral race with Rudolph Giuliani in 1997. The AJWS is one of several established Jewish groups explicitly dedicated to social goals. Others include the New Israel Fund, which promotes religious pluralism and human rights in Israel; Mazon, which raises money through synagogues to feed the hungry; the Shefa Fund, which invests in community causes; and the Jewish Fund for Justice, which provides grants to antipoverty groups in the United States.
In the past few years, these groups have been joined by a host of newer ones. For instance, COEJL (the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life) attempts to apply the principles of Torah to the preservation of the planet. AVODAH brings young Jews together to live communally and read Jewish texts while learning the techniques of community organizing. The Jewish Women's Archive, which seeks to document the overlooked contributions of women to Judaism over the years, is one of a number of new women-run programs aimed at challenging the traditional male dominance of Judaism.
Most of these programs are quite small. The New Israel Fund (the largest) has a budget of about $20 million--a fraction of the money being spent on Birthright Israel. The AJWS is able to send just 35 volunteers abroad a year. "Our budget," says Marlene Provizer, the executive director of the Jewish Fund for Justice, "is coffee money for Michael Steinhardt." If one of the goals of the Jewish renaissance is to spread the concept of tikkun olam, shouldn't more money be going into such efforts?
John Ruskay, the executive vice president of the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York, notes that, during the past decade, as Jewish wealth has exploded, the number of poor Jews in New York City has increased, too, from 130,000 to 185,000. About one-third of them are immigrants, one-third are elderly, and one-third are Orthodox. "The new hidden Jewish poor," he calls them. Jeffrey Solomon, who runs the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, observes, "Before, collective responsibility was a hallmark of Jewish philanthropy. One of the tragedies [of the current period] is the loss of collective responsibility. Feeding people, clothing people, sheltering people, and working with the retarded isn't sexy. Today, people want the flavor of the month."
Michael Steinhardt, Charles Bronfman, and the other megadonors all continue to give generously to the Jewish Federations. Steinhardt also gives to the AJWS (about $20,000 a year) and even to AVODAH. Moreover, his Jewish Life Network is about to launch a new project, called PSALM, aimed at involving young Jews in social projects. Compared to his other programs, though, these seem mere afterthoughts. And this is not surprising. For Steinhardt has repeatedly made clear that his main goal is the particularistic one of combating intermarriage, fighting assimilation, and ensuring Jewish survival. Thus, the Steinhardt fellows on college campuses are serving not the disadvantaged, but other, largely privileged Jews. At bottom, these programs involve yuppies helping yuppies.
Even in terms of Steinhardt's own goal of inspiring young Jews, this seems shortsighted. For many young people, the desire to serve others is strong. And providing more Jewish-oriented opportunities to do so could help stir their interest in Judaism. "Some donors think that the only way to turn out committed Jews in the next generation is to expose them to day schools and the Israel experience," says Marlene Provizer. "I don't agree. For them to promote social-justice work in a Jewish context is a very good way to accomplish that, too." Elizabeth Greenstein, who until recently worked at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, says that "groups like COEJL are attracting people who wouldn't walk into Hillel or join synagogues."
"I don't think there's a crisis of Jewish identity," Greenstein told me. "This is a vibrant time in the Jewish community. Look at these offices." She gestured toward the lovely fixtures, the art on the walls, the dramatic view of Lincoln Center out her giant window. "There's a lot of money around." She added: "There are real crises in the world--wars, people starving, problems in this city. The problems of the Jewish community pale by comparison."
Looking back over 4,000 years of Jewish history, it seems paradoxical to have reached a point where the term "Jewish peace corps" refers to setting up a cappella groups on campus rather than to building elementary schools in Africa. What, one wonders, would Rabbi Hillel say? ¤