The largest donor to the ultra-Orthodox umbrella organization Agudath Israel of America is a Christian family from Arkansas.
The Agudah, as the organization is known, represents some of the most stringent, black-hat-wearing Orthodox Jews in the United States. Its backers include wealthy Jewish developers and health care magnates. The organization, however, has received more money in the past six years from the majority owners of Wal-Mart than from any other single giver.
The donations come from the Walton Family Foundation, run by the descendants of Sam Walton, Wal-Mart’s founder. Walton was a Presbyterian, and his home base of Bentonville, Arkansas, didn’t have a synagogue until 2004.
The Agudah’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, warned at a May fundraising dinner that the “Torah must be guarded from the secular forces that seek to corrupt its values.” Yet despite their differences, the Agudah and the Walton foundation have forged a partnership over their mutual support for public funding for private religious schools.
Since 2008, the Walton foundation has incorporated the Agudah into a massive national network pushing its conservative vision of school reform, which emphasizes charter schools and school voucher programs.
The Agudah, in return, has received or been pledged $3.1 million by the foundation, according to Rabbi Yehiel Kalish, vice president of development and state relations. The group spent $18 million overall in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available.
“They saw the Orthodox Jewish community as a natural support mechanism,” said Kalish, who is the group’s link with the Waltons.
Kalish said that the Waltons are paying the Agudah to educate its ultra-Orthodox constituents on school reform issues, in the hopes that they will support Walton-backed groups working to pass school-choice legislation throughout the country.
“Their main concern was that we educate our community to the point that they would be supportive and knowledgeable about those [lobbying] groups and their efforts to pass… meaningful education reform,” Kalish said.
The Walton Family Foundation did not respond to a request for comment.