Billionaire philanthropist Michael Steinhardt delivered a fiery speech last week, calling for a radical reordering of Jewish communal priorities and the creation of an unprecedented fund to promote Jewish education.
Speaking last week to a gathering in Jerusalem of thousands of North American Jewish communal leaders, Steinhardt startled his listeners by demanding that Jewish education become the primary agenda of the community — ahead of combating antisemitism — and he pledged $10 million to make it happen. He challenged others in the room to raise an additional $90 million for the creation of a “Fund for Our Jewish Future.” He also proposed a plan to supply a “newborn gift” to Jewish parents upon the birth of a child.
During the speech Steinhardt appeared to suggest that the Orthodox world was the only segment of the Jewish community that succeeded in passing its traditions to the next generation. But he proceeded to lay out an alternative vision of the Jewish community in which religious ritual took a back seat to “Jewish peoplehood.”
The speech had some in the crowd crediting Steinhardt, a former hedge fund manager, with breathing new life into what they said is a lackluster annual gathering. The General Assembly of United Jewish Communities, which meets each year in a different city, drew about 4,000 delegates from local Jewish charitable federations in North America.
Since the initial excitement, however, some longtime community observers and leaders have begun to complain about Steinhardt’s maverick style and his scathing criticisms of community priorities.
A co-founder of the popular Birthright Israel program, Steinhardt in his speech proposed an enormous, and some say financially impossible, initiative to overhaul early childhood education. He did so without running the idea past the heads of local charities and federations whom he publicly called on to help pay the bill, sources said.
In an apparent swipe at organizations that focus on fighting antisemitism, Steinhardt said: “Many ignore programs of Jewish education and culture and focus rather on yesterday’s preoccupations. In North America, the greatest threat to the Jewish people is not the external force of antisemitism, but the internal forces of apathy, inertia and ignorance of our own heritage.”
The national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, said he endorsed much of the speech but took issue with Steinhardt’s remarks on combating antisemitism. “He’s right, but he’s wrong,” Foxman told the Forward. “He’s not an expert on everything.”
Added Foxman, “If you create committed Jews who are afraid to walk out on the street with a yarmulke, what have you created?”
Jeffrey Dekro, president of the Philadelphia-based Shefa Fund, a Jewish nonprofit organization that funds liberal causes, said Steinhardt should have consulted with other charities before unveiling his project. “My criticism is not ‘it’s a good idea or a bad idea,’ but the process of its development is not necessarily a good idea.”
The founder of Makor, a Manhattan-based Jewish cultural center now run by the 92nd Street Y, Steinhardt has a reputation among charity experts of pulling out of ambitious projects shortly after they launch. One observer in the field of Jewish philanthropy put it this way: “The expression used about Michael inside the beltway is that he is about ‘fire, ready, aim,’ as opposed to ‘ready, aim, fire.’ He is filled with passion and vision, but doesn’t come with the implementation skills and discipline to sustain real change.”
“One of the problems is, you cannot describe quick and easy solutions to these things,” the observer said. “Michael is in search of a silver bullet.”
Steinhardt’s proposals, however, drew praise in most quarters. The president of the Jewish Funders Network, Mark Charendoff, described the newborn fund as “a huge, huge boon.”
“When you have a baby, the first thing you’ll hear from the Jewish community is, ‘We have a gift for you,’” said Charendoff, whose organization advises family foundations. “You’re also putting forth a powerful incentive for young Jewish families to call local communities and say, ‘Hi. I just want you to know I’m out here.’”
But Charendoff also described the proposal as a “romantic effort” that would be “complicated” to translate into a business plan. He also took issue with Steinhardt’s laudatory description of Orthodoxy.
“He overstates the case,” Charendoff said. “There are profound challenges in education, profound challenges in a community that seems to be lurching toward the right, and in the widening schism of Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities,” said Charendoff, who is Orthodox.
One top Orthodox communal leader, who said he was thrilled with most of the speech, criticized Steinhardt for saying that whether Jews “lay tefillin or keep kosher will matter less than whether they throw their lot in with the Jewish people.” The communal leader, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “I believe Judaism is not just a set of guidelines and values…. The reason Orthodoxy thrives is because of discipline and commitment.”
Richard Wexler, a volunteer leader of the United Jewish Communities, the federations’ national roof body, which convened the G.A., dubbed the speech a “high point” of the gathering. Still, he warned, it would be wise for Steinhardt to immediately “determine the federations’ role as a partner” before launching his program.