Her heart's in Jerusalem

Billionaire philanthropist Lynn Schusterman sees no end to supporting a multitude of Jewish identity programs for young Jews worldwide.

August 24, 2009 20:30
Her heart's in Jerusalem

lynn schusterman 248.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)

It's clear almost immediately when one meets American-born Jewish billionaire Lynn Schusterman that she has two great passions in life: The first is her ability to change the way young Jewish people from around the world view Israel and their own Jewish identities; the second is Jerusalem. "It's the spiritual capital of the world," exclaims the 70-year-old Tulsa, Oklahoma-based philanthropist, the proud owner of one of the Israeli capital's most luxurious residences with spectacular views stretching from the heart of Jerusalem all they way to the mountains of Jordan. "Jerusalem has huge potential and I want to encourage more young people - Israelis and others - to come and visit." "Last spring I visited SCAN [Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia]. The college has renovated old buildings all over the downtown area, a move which has brought some 6,000 young people into the city, with more than a fourth planning to stay in Savannah after college," says Schusterman, seeming to veer from the topic of Israel and its capital completely, but then almost immediately returning to her true love: "This is something that I would like to see happen in Jerusalem as well. We have to start reviving arts and culture, encourage young people to come and visit here." Of course her goals do not end with trips for young people; rather her vision expands to include the length and breadth of Israel, which she believes is the only way for the entire world to really grasp the issues here and, perhaps, one day find a solution. "People outside do not understand the complexities here and the [international] media does not convey it properly," Schusterman observes. "I remember bringing five US senators and six congressmen to Israel and only once they were here could they really understand what is going on in reality. "However, some of the worst offenders [of ignorance] are from within our own community - university professors or certain rabbis - and one of my goals is to get more young Jewish people involved in Israel advocacy. I want to see more and more young people coming here on birthright and going back to get involved in their communities." AS ONE of the key sponsors of birthright, an undeniably successful program that has brought thousands of young Jews for a free 10-day countrywide tour, Schusterman takes great pride in this initiative and her other innovative projects, all designed to enhance Jewish identity through a connection to Israel. "I will never forget the meeting I had with a 23-year Jewish man, who works on the New York Stock Exchange," she says as we sit in her high-rise apartment, Jerusalem sprawling out in seeming harmony beneath us. "He told me he felt when the Second Lebanon War broke out that the war's only significance for him was that the price of oil was going up, but a few months later when he stood on the Golan Heights and understood the proximity of Lebanon to Israel, his whole perspective about the issue completely changed." With no end to the stories of her interactions with the young people touched by her ventures, Schusterman goes on to recall a recent trip to India. "[T]he Jewish tour guide took me to see a Jewish wedding there," she says. "The couple handed out a booklet describing how they'd met in 'their homeland' and it turned out they had met on a birthright trip. Seeing how the program had touched these people had a tremendous impact on me." FOR SCHUSTERMAN it is this kind of effect on young Jews' perceptions and, ultimately, their Jewish identities that has spurred her to continue investing millions in the foundation that she established in 1987 with her husband, Charles. Listed by Forbes magazine as one of the wealthiest people on the planet - with her inherited fortune still growing - Schusterman says that her and her husband's interest in Israel advocacy and Jewish identity was initially sparked by the experiences of their daughter Stacey, today the foundation's second director. "We originally got involved in 1983 when Stacey was at Yale University," she explains, describing how Jewish students on the campus were learning to rationally debate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "We realized then the importance of US college campuses in changing opinions and perceptions." Later, after the events of September 11, 2001, and with the second intifada in full swing, she realized that the already established foundation could be even more effective if it worked as a conduit for uniting the work of Jewish organizations. Perhaps the most visible result of her work in this regard is Hillel: the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, which supports more than 250 smaller affiliates at over 500 universities, mainly in North America but also in Israel, South America and the former Soviet Union. It has also been active in bringing thousands of young people to Israel on birthright. Also, Schusterman's dedication to the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization, ROI (Return on Investment) Global Summit for Young Jewish Innovators and various other Israel-focused programs has brought the foundation closer to achieving its goals. What are the biggest challenges faced by young Jews in the Diaspora today? I believe that this has been the worst year ever in terms of anti-Israel sentiment on US college campuses; several universities even held anti-Israel apartheid week. However, we are trying to use all this negative activity to our advantage and are offering certain campuses the chance to develop their Israel programs, including taking on Israeli professors to act as ambassadors for Israel. Another program that that tackles this problem is the American Jewish Committee's Project Interchange, which brings university presidents to Israel so they can get a complete picture of what is happening and prevent problems from springing up on their campuses. How has the economic crisis affected your philanthropic work? We are definitely looking at the grants we are receiving very differently this year. We are asking organizations to pool resources and work together for a common goal. In addition, I constantly travel around the country trying to raise funds for birthright and BBYO; I give conferences to get people involved and to help them understand the importance of Israel activities on college campuses. How do you persuade people to support Israel or Jewish activities when there are so many other worthy causes? It's very difficult, especially when you weigh the needs of a soup kitchen against sending a kid to Israel, but my comment is always that if you want someone to take care of that soup kitchen in the future, then it pays to send someone now on birthright because afterward they will likely get involved and look into giving back. Another thing I do is to talk about a Jewish future. If they are concerned about intermarriage or Jews disappearing, then I talk to them about getting involved and putting their money where their mouth is. What are you doing to reach out to non-affiliated Jewish youth? In a world like ours that is diverse and diffuse, there is no way for us to know exactly where or what types of programs to invest in. It is becoming clear, however, that the days of investing in one singular institution are over and to be effective one must be everywhere and into everything. You need to be on the broadest playing field possible. Our idea is not to find one single person or program to ensure the future of the Jewish people, that is why we have programs like ROI, which has created a whole network of young people working for the future. There are many young innovators out there who are ahead of the curve, but we want to focus on encouraging as many people as possible to be involved in spreading the word.

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