Financier Turned Philanthropist
By Emily Sherwood, Ph.D.
What do you do when you’ve risen to the top of your profession and achieved undreamed-of financial success? If you’re Michael Steinhardt, who grew up on the streets of Brooklyn, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School before his twentieth birthday, and became one of the world’s first and most successful hedge fund managers (his firm, Steinhardt Partners, L.P., managed $4.4 billion in assets and routinely boasted annual returns well over 20 percent), you close up shop and devote your life to philanthropy.
“Since I stopped managing money [in 1995], I have devoted just about all my energy to a vision of a very different Jewish future,” explains Steinhardt when interviewed in his spacious midtown office, which is filled with a dazzling array of silver and artwork. Steinhardt’s prodigious talents are indeed shaping the Jewish community in ways that he might not have predicted at his “retirement” twelve years ago. From a founding role in PEJE (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education) and Birthright Israel to major funding roles in just about every prominent Jewish organization on the map—including The Foundation for Jewish Camping, Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative (JECEI), B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO), Hillel, Brandeis University, Tel Aviv University, and the Israel Museum, to name just a few—Michael Steinhardt has lent inspiration and support to, in his words, “take the present, non-orthodox Jewish community to a much better place.”
To illustrate the need for his mission, Steinhardt throws out a challenge: “Name five great Jewish [religious] leaders of the twentieth century.” Aha, laughs Steinhardt at the silence his query evokes, knowing that he’s made his case. It is easy to name 500 great secular leaders who were Jews (Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, Saul Bellow, and Sandy Koufax might lead the list of standouts in their professions), because, he points out, “Jews get their pride from secular accomplishments.” By working to improve Jewish education from pre-school through adulthood, Steinhardt hopes to make his mark on the future of the Jewish Diaspora: “We are a people who are fading, and I’m trying to reverse that,” he adds passionately.
Of the dozens of causes he’s embraced, Steinhardt singles out Birthright Israel, created in 1999 to offer every young Jewish person between the ages of 18 to 26 a living and learning experience in Israel, as “the single, most important program in the Jewish world in the last half century.” Founded by Steinhardt and Seagram heir and philanthropist Charles Bronfman, in cooperation with the Israeli government, private philanthropists, and Jewish communities around the world, Birthright Israel has provided a free round-trip ticket to Israel, combined with an intensive tenday educational experience, to 147,000 young Jewish adults from 52 countries (70 percent of them are Americans). “The trip creates an extraordinary spark…There’s an immediate heightening of Jewish identity,” explains Steinhardt, who has now thrown himself into a sequel program known as Birthright Next, a series of activities intended to connect and engage Birthright Israel graduates. As one of its kickoff activities, Birthright Next staged a globally televised Chanukah party last month in sites as diverse as Russia, Mumbai and Los Angeles. “Through technology, we are now able to celebrate all over the world at once,” adds Steinhardt proudly.
A passionate believer in the power of education to transform all of society, Steinhardt has generously supported New York University (NYU), where he serves on their Board of Trustees and heads up their Trustee Investment Committee. His involvement ultimately led him to donate generously to their school of education, now called the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of their academic programs. (The school offers a Ph.D. program in Education and Jewish Studies, thanks to Steinhardt.) “It is extremely important that the perception of the teacher be elevated in society,” reflects Steinhardt on the long-term viability of public education in America. “It’s not going to be a budget buster for anyone, and it shows that our society really cares about education.”
Not all of Steinhardt’s ideas have hit home runs, and he’s the first to admit that “to be an innovator, you don’t always win.” Several years ago, he tried unsuccessfully with Bard President and educational visionary Leon Botstein to create a secular Jewish high school in New York City, and he’s now hoping to convince NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein to create a Hebrew language charter school in the city. “I will bet I’m going to fail,” he adds with a twinkle in his eye. But one guesses that, whatever the outcome of his latest project, Steinhardt will continue to use his boundless energy and intelligence to explore creative ideas and ultimately instigate meaningful changes to improve educational opportunities for both Jews and non-Jews alike. “It’s a long life you lead, and if you’re lucky enough to find some occupation that’s compelling to you, that touches you at the deepest levels, you are extremely fortunate,” he muses philosophically. Clearly, Steinhardt has found many such occupations, and the world is a better place because of him.#