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Resignations at Center for Jewish History Stir Speculations About Financial Health

Two billionaire philanthropists have resigned as co-chairmen of one of the world’s largest and most important collections of Jewish art, archives and artifacts.

Joseph Steinberg and William Ackman both stepped down from the board of the Center for Jewish History in August.

Steinberg, 70, told the Forward on August 27 that he resigned from the Manhattan institution because he was recently made chairman of his company, Leucadia National Corporation. “I’m sort of just done,” Steinberg said.

William Ackman, 48, of Pershing Square Capital Management, did not respond to a request for comment.

A statement posted to the center’s website on August 28 said Steinberg and Ackman resigned so that they could “devote more time to their business and charitable enterprises.”

Speaking to the Forward before that statement was made, Irene Pletka, a member of the board of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and of the Center for Jewish History, said she did not know why the men resigned, but she added: “I think they are captains of industry, used to having things done a certain way. I don’t know if the world of philanthropy works that way.”

Steinberg and Ackman both supported an idea to streamline the center by bringing the boards of its five partner organizations under one single board.

Amy Goldman Fowler, vice chair of the Center for Jewish History board, confirmed to the Forward such an idea had been considered “at one time.” But she declined to elaborate.

“It’s a new day now and we will consider all options,” Fowler said. “The board will meet and deliberate and find a way forward.”

Fowler said that the center’s board has scheduled a series of meetings for the coming weeks to discuss the management structure of the institution “to create more efficiencies in the operation of the center and reduce costs.”

Fowler declined to comment on the center’s financial health in the medium to longterm. “I can’t speculate about that right now,” she said.

The center was hailed as a symbol of Jewish unity when it opened in 2000 because it brought together five storied but disparate Jewish institutions: YIVO, the Leo Baeck Institute, the American Jewish Historical Society, the Yeshiva University Museum and the American Sephardi Federation.

The concept for the 125,000-square-foot center was that each institution would retain its financial, staffing and archival autonomy while sharing the facilities, which include exhibition space, a library and a 250-seat auditorium. The organizations, along with The Ackman & Ziff Family Genealogy Institute, which is a project of the center, hold a combined total of 100 million documents and artifacts.

Michael Glickman, who resigned as chief operating officer of the center in May, said: “The center is this incredible jewel in the Jewish community and beyond that I think few people have a true appreciation for. The gravity and magnitude of the collections and the expertise of the staff is something that you don’t find in very many places.”

The collections include the AJHS’s handwritten original of Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus,” which adorns the Statue of Liberty, and YIVO’s vast collection of Yiddish language, literature and folklore.

The center stands on a leafy street near Manhattan’s Union Square Park, close to the Church of St. Francis Xavier, a Vajrayana Buddhist center and a brownstone where women’s rights activist Margaret Sanger ran a birth control clinic.

The building’s atrium is dominated by a two-story glass mosaic depicting a page of Talmud, which was paid for by Steinberg’s foundation, the Joseph S. and Diane H. Steinberg Charitable Trust.

The building was bought for $4.25 million in 1995 from the American Foundation for the Blind. And the center spent tens of millions of dollars on renovations.

The center and several of its member organizations, which rely mostly on donations, have struggled financially over the years. In 2006, the AJHS sold several Colonial-era portraits to plug a deficit in its operating budget.

The following year, New York University seemed close to signing a merger deal that would have bailed out the center, but the deal fell through.

Steinberg has been a supporter since soon after the inception of the center. Ackman has been on the board for about ten years. In addition to their personal donations, Steinberg and Ackman led a capital campaign in 2011 that paid off the center’s mortgage. The two billionaires kicked in a total of more than $10 million of the $30 million raised.

It was shortly after that capital campaign that Steinberg and Ackman took over as co-chairs of the center from Bruce Slovin, founding chairman of the institution.

The Forward reached Slovin in the final week of August after Steinberg’s resignation but before Ackman’s.

Slovin said of Steinberg: “He is a terrific guy. We’re sorry to see him go.”

Contact Paul Berger at [email protected] or on Twitter @pdberger

Correction: On September 2, this article was amended to reflect that the amount raised by the 2011 capital campaign was $30 million.

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