You can’t talk about Jewish philanthropy without Michael Steinhardt. One of the best known social entrepreneurs of our era, his contributions to the Jewish world are parallel with the Rothchilds in connecting Jews with Israel and their heritage.
Dedicated to Jewish continuity, Steinhardt’s genius as a social entrepreneur is in identifying gaps in the Jewish world that required visionary leadership and solving them. As co-founder of Birthright Israel, Steinhardt recognized the need for a flagship program that would bring young Jews to Israel connecting them with their Jewish identity. In its gestational stages, the idea was widely met with derision as impractical and stepping on the toes of existing organizations.
“I try and focus on innovation. I’m not interested in contributing to existing organizations, many of which I regard as vestigial… I think the Jewish world needs risk-taking. Unfortunately, the Jewish establishment is glacially slow in doing that,” JTA quoted him as saying in 1997, two years before the program began.
Perhaps my admiration for Steinhardt’s contributions can be attributed in part to the fact that his religious beliefs mirror my own. Although passionately Jewish, Steinhardt is not a religious man.
“I find joy and meaning in the hope that I contribute something to a renaissance in the non-Orthodox Jewish world…The values of our community are the best that humankind has created, and to perpetuate it is, I think, worthwhile,” he says.
Steinhardt is estimated to have donated over $125 million to Jewish causes through his philanthropies, The Judy and Michael Steinhardt Foundation and The Steinhardt Family Foundation.
Despite a formidable arsenal of tools at his disposal and a rate of success that has shown tremendous returns, Steinhardt is not satisfied. He is reportedly scaling back the scope of activities his foundation is involved in to focus more intensely on creating “‘a common Judaism’ and developing programs that speak to the unaffiliated, as opposed to those who are already in some way connected to Judaism.”
He will now concentrate on three primary tasks:
- Creating programs for Birthright alumnae
- Building Areivim, an organization intended to transform informal and formal Jewish education (which will begin its mission with an infusion of $100 million)
- Developing the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative
The Jewish Life Network, a major supporter of initiatives in the Jewish world, includes in its family:
- B’nai Brith Youth Organization
- Foundation for Jewish Camping
- Jewish Funders Network
- My Jewish Learning
- Partnership in Jewish Education (PEJE)
- Professional Leaders Project
- Spark: Partnership for Jewish Service”>
- STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal)
- 92nd Street Y, the most well known Jewish community center in the United States