Michael Steinhardt & The Jewish Life Network: Profile of a Social Entrepreneur

Michael Steinhardt

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.

Steinhardt persevered:

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.

In 2007, Birthright Israel has passed the mark of 100,000 participants and was conclusively found to build Jewish identity.

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:

  1. Creating programs for Birthright alumnae
  2. Building Areivim, an organization intended to transform informal and formal Jewish education (which will begin its mission with an infusion of $100 million)
  3. Developing the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative

The Jewish Life Network, a major supporter of initiatives in the Jewish world, includes in its family:

54 Responses to Michael Steinhardt & The Jewish Life Network: Profile of a Social Entrepreneur

  1. mia says:

    I think you can use the tag. That’s how you do it using the regular WordPress. There should be a button to that effect above your text box.

    That having been said, I think I’d enjoy your blog more if you were a little more critical. Yes, Michael Steinhardt has given a ton of cash to Jewish philanthropic causes, but let’s look at projects like Taglit-birthright israel with its free trips, lavish mega events and questionable long term results. Of course you’re an alumni and BRI served you well but the fact remains that a 10-day trip to Israel, for the vast majority of participants, will not make up for a lifetime neglecting basic Jewish literacy. Yes, I know the statistics show that the effect of BRI has been phenomenal but ask anyone that works for Steinhardt or BRI and they will tell you that th stats are manipulated to show what the funders want to see.

    Steinhardt, an avowed atheist, is moving in this direction with Averim – but I think we may as well call this program Iverim. secular Judaism just doesn’t have any staying power. I wish it did, but it doesn’t.

    I may be wrong of course – Steinhardt is all about bold audacious projects and maybe his efforts will auger in a new era of secular Judaism. Historically that’s never really happened but I am willing to be proven wrong.

  2. mia says:

    PS: View my comment in the edit window and you will see the code for the “more” tag I suggested you use. Of course it’s invisible… I forgot about that.

  3. thenewjew says:

    Hey Mia,

    I think you make a good point and I’ll keep it in mind. I think it’s really good advice.

    My issue is that I want to be more educated myself while the only resource I have to learn anything is the internet. Therefore, this blog will serve the dual role of being both an information aggregate where I will try to process what I know and also, as you say, have a more analytical component. They are tied, of course, but the first stage is slightly more information heavy, which I hope won’t turn anyone away. Also keep in mind that this is Day Two of my blog and this whole process is certainly a learning experience for me.

    I have to disagree with you about Birthright having long term results. Throw away the statistics. Here’s what I know: I went on a long-term Israel program with 65 participants. 45 came to Israel for the first time with Birthright. Fifteen made aliyah. Those numbers are serious.

    I agree with you about secular Judaism. I do think there is a serious– extremely serious– question about the future of secular Judaism and one whose answer I certainly don’t know. I hope to come back to this in the near future.

    As for your advice about how to cut– thanks. It worked. 🙂

    Best wishes,


  4. mia says:

    Your name is really Maya? That’s funny. Who was your trip provider?? Those numbers are outrageous! 33% of your trip participants made aliyah?? Surely you realize that’s exceptional, right?

  5. thenewjew says:

    Hey Mia,

    Yes, it’s actually my name. 🙂

    I went on Birthright with Shorashim in August 2004. It seems like so long ago in so many ways and so close in others. How about you? It sounds like you are also an alumna.

    The number 15 represents the number of alumnae of the whole program who made aliyah, not just the Birthright alumns, but yes, it’s a pretty amazing number. It’s staggering when you think about the implications of this one small sample. That’s one of the reasons that I feel as strongly about the power of Birthright as I do and why I think Israel and Jewish follow-up programs are so important.

    I’m interested in how you found by blog when you first commented. It was so quick. Do you have a blog that I might see as well?

    Thanks for your comments.


  6. Maya-

    I’m trying to find out what funders are involved in Areivim other than Michael Steinhardt, his co-founder Bill Davidson, and Eugene Applebaum. Do you have any idea? If so, if would make for e useful post; no one else seems to know.

    -Jason Brzoska

  7. thenewjew says:

    Hi Jason,

    You ask an important question, one I also want to know the answer to. Unfortunately, I’ll have to add my name to the list of those who don’t know. My impression in my research on this has been that it is a newly formed idea and while the concept is still on the drawing board, Steinhardt used the opportunity of the conference to announce its launch.

    Do you know differently?

    I’ll definitely be updating on this issue as we hear.


  8. Yes, I know differently… I saw Bob Aronson, the head of the foundation, last week, and he told me that they have 13 funders lined up out of the 20 that they’re aiming for. I only know the three I mentioned though; I didn’t have time to ask him for the rest.

  9. […] Read more: “Michael Steinhardt and the Jewish Life Network: Profile of a Social Entrepreneur” […]

  10. Arik and Sunny Makleff says:

    Dear Mr. Steinhardt;

    We have formed a steering committee for the purpose of fulfilling the need for follow-up to the programs of ‘Birthright’, ‘Massa’, etc. We are committed to creating a’Young Adult World Jewish Center’ in Israel for the alumni of the various programs to continue their Israel experience and become the next generation of Jewish leadership. The Center will involve Israelis after military service as well, and thus strengthen local leadership and provide the vehicle for global co-operation.

    The oeiginal steering committe : Prof. Chiam Adler – Recepient of the Israel Prize for education, 2007; Gidi Greenstein – Founder and director of the Reut Institure; Dan Keinan – Diller Fellows Program rep in Israel; Shlomo Lahat – Former Mayor of Tel Aviv, and former Chairman of Beit Hatfuzot; Dr Shlomi Ravid – Director of the Diaspora Museum’s School for Jewish Peoplehood; Sunny and Arik Makleff- Project initiatiors.

    We would appreciate meeting you in person to discuss this. Contact info: E-mail: sunyarik@bezeqint: Phone no: 03-6443711; address: 16 Sasha Argov St. #3, Tel Aviv, 69620.

    Looking forward to meeting you,
    Arik Makleff

  11. Maya Norton says:

    Dear Arik and Sunny,

    This sounds like a wonderful project off to a promising start, but I think you will have much better luck contacting Mr. Steinhardt directly. His information is widely available on his websites, linked above.


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