If Gustave Leven is not a household name, that is exactly as the French Jewish philanthropist intended.
Though he built Perrier sparkling water into an iconic brand, Leven insisted on giving his wealth anonymously.
Leven, who died in 2008 at the age of 94, funneled millions of dollars into ultimately self-sustaining educational and social-welfare programs in peripheral Israeli communities through the Rashi Foundation. To keep his family’s involvement obscured, Leven named his foundation after the great medieval French Torah commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki.
One hundred years after Leven’s birth, and 30 years since the Rashi Foundation began making a positive impact on Israeli society, his nephew and Rashi Foundation president Hubert Leven has decided to put a face on the foundation his uncle entrusted to his stewardship.
His goal is not to advance the Leven name but to attract strategic partners.
“We have really operated under the radar, and people don’t want to join forces with an organization nobody knows,” said Leven in an exclusive interview at the Tel Aviv Hilton in mid-March, where the Swiss resident had attended a conference of the international Jewish Funders Network.
This “organization nobody knows” does not merely dole out grants. Its venture philanthropy approach is providing educational and social mobility opportunities for 400,000 individuals (Jewish and non-Jewish) in 160 localities in Israel’s geographic and social periphery – mostly in the Negev and Galilee regions.
In partnership with 170 philanthropies, federations, corporations and government agencies, the Rashi Foundation has developed early-childhood centers and school nutrition programs, science and technology enrichment for kindergarten through 12th grade, community services for youth at risk, college scholarships, pre-army service programs, and sheltered employment and housing for special-needs populations.
Its largesse created Beersheba’s Carasso Science Park, the largest interactive science museum in Israel, Magshimim cyber-education initiative, the Pharmadom Desert Spirit Village, a 12-step rehabilitation center in the Negev, treatment centers for victims of sexual abuse, and Bar-Ilan University’s medical school in the Galilee.
With Col. (Res.) Itzik Turgeman, the Rashi Foundation was the first to support the Atidim program, which identifies high-potential students from the periphery and accompanies them through their studies in the academic elite force.
Turgeman, formerly head of the Defense Ministry’s Society and Security Division, joined the Rashi Foundation in 2008 and became its CEO in 2012.
Four years ago, the foundation established the Darca Network of high schools, which today runs 25 schools, infusing them with strengthened curricula in values, science and technology.
“The results since the first year have been astounding,” said Leven. “We want to create a model that could be replicable throughout the country.”
Three years ago, former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi voluntarily took on the Rashi Foundation’s chairmanship.
“When Gabi offered to work with us, we thought it was a fantastic opportunity, because who better to plan strategy than the head of the IDF? He was one of the best things that happened to the foundation,” said Leven.
Through Ashkenazi, the Rashi Foundation joined forces in 2014 with like-minded Israeli philanthropist Daniel Steinmetz. Not only will this enable the foundation to extend its reach, but an Israeli strategic partner could encourage local philanthropy and give the foundation more credibility with funders abroad, who tend to view Rashi as a European initiative and often ask: “Where is the Israeli money?” The successes of the past decade, coupled with Leven’s awareness of how much more needs to be done, spur his drive to embrace additional projects and partners.
“I understand why my uncle was motivated to do more when he saw results. When philanthropy is not strategic but just giving out money, it doesn’t motivate anyone to do more and go more deeply,” Leven said.
Despite his reticence, Gustave Leven was a colorful character who contributed toward the construction of the nuclear research center in Dimona as well as Israeli universities, colleges, hospitals and museums. In fact, former president Shimon Peres identified him as the biggest donor to Israel since the founding of the state. The much better-known Rothschild family held that distinction in the pre-state era.
Yet even then, before the Levens had acquired any wealth, they were active behind the scenes. The pivotal Mikve Israel Agricultural School was founded in Palestine in 1870 by Karl Netter on behalf of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, an international Jewish organization co-founded by Gustave Leven’s grandfather.
That two French families were intrinsic to the process of state-building is noteworthy in light of the fact that philanthropy has never been a French hallmark, according to Hubert Leven.
“In French society there is no real significant philanthropic foundation, even among very wealthy Christian and Jewish families. Rothschild created endowed foundations that are today still the main foundations in France, not like in the United States where there are new foundations all the time,” Leven said.
Charity is encoded in his family’s DNA. His mother’s forebears from St. Petersburg founded ORT, one of the world’s largest non-governmental educational organizations. His father’s great-grandparents left Germany for Paris in 1838.
Hubert Leven’s great-grandfather Narcisse Leven, while still in high school in 1848, formed an educational association for the betterment of underprivileged peers. This turned into a national movement supported by the great French writer Victor Hugo.
When he finished his law studies, Narcisse and some friends – including French statesman Adolphe Crémieux – started Alliance Israélite Universelle in 1860 in response to attacks against Jews in Europe and the Middle East.
“The alliance was created to defend and obtain civil rights for Jews in anti- Semitic countries like Hungary and Russia, through political intervention and diplomacy. But they also intervened often on behalf of Christians experiencing discrimination,” said Leven.
In 1862, the AIU founded its first of many schools in places where impoverished Jews had no formal education opportunities.
Beginning in Morocco, the AIU built a network of schools throughout Middle Eastern and North African Jewish communities. Secular studies taught in French were supplemented with Jewish education. At its height in the 1950s, the AIU was serving some 60,000 students.
Mikve Israel may be the most famous AIU endeavor. “The objective was to assist young Jewish immigrants and train them to work the land,” said Leven.
“Many kibbutzim and moshavim were started by Mikve Israel graduates, and David Ben-Gurion once said that without Mikve Israel, the State of Israel probably couldn’t have been founded.”
Hubert Leven’s grandfather, Georges, was active in the AIU and other Jewish organizations in France prior to World War II. Georges had five sons and two daughters, among them Hubert Leven’s father, Raymond, and uncle, Gustave.
Born in Paris in 1938, Hubert Leven escaped to Switzerland in 1943 with his mother and sister while Raymond served in the French Resistance. After the war, Hubert attended high school in Paris and New York, and earned a degree in physics at Middlebury College in Vermont. He returned to Paris to join his father’s brokerage firm, and took on leading roles in the French United Jewish Appeal and in the AIU. In the mid- 1980s he joined Gustave at Perrier.
“My father was the only one of Georges’s children who was really involved in Jewish life in Paris,” he recalled. “Gustave was focused on his business. My father used to go to his brother once a year to collect toward a family gift to the UJA and other organizations, and I remember it was always difficult because Gustave didn’t believe in large institutions.
He was quietly making donations elsewhere that we didn’t know about.”
In 1984, Gustave called Hubert into his office and explained that he wished to create a foundation to disburse his assets for the benefit of his Jewish brethren in Israel. He asked Hubert to take charge of establishing such a structure, called the Sacta Foundation, and start running it on a limited basis to be ready for full operation after Gustave’s death.
Together with a friend in Paris, Hubert started making small grants without knowing much about the needs or the existing organizations. Eventually the duo focused on the portfolio organizations of the Jerusalem Foundation. “Our objective was similar to that of the alliance – to help weaker populations and give them access to equal opportunities.”
Gustave’s reaction to these fledgling attempts at philanthropy seemed paradoxical.
“He didn’t want to spend a lot; he just wanted to have a structure ready for the time when he would pass away, but on the other hand he was frustrated by the peanuts we were giving because he wanted to do major initiatives. He got hooked on seeing results, and wanted to give more once he saw what could be achieved.”
Without telling his nephew, Gustave recruited another associate to create the Rashi Foundation with identical objectives.
“Gustave trusted only himself, and always split responsibilities between people, so this was typical of his approach,” Leven said with a smile. “He wanted to see which would be better run and grow the fastest. The problem was, I was being careful not to make mistakes and go forward too quickly, while the other went much faster with major programs and made some mistakes. That is how we found out about this other foundation, which was funding the same beneficiaries.”
He does not recall the scene when he confronted his uncle about his discovery, but he does remember that they mutually agreed in 1995 to merge the two foundations, which they did a few years later after operating side by side to coordinate their activity. The new entity was called the Sacta-Rashi Foundation, until it was shortened (at the suggestion of Peres) to the Rashi Foundation.
“We avoided putting our name on anything, reflecting the European approach of discreet philanthropy,” said Leven.
The foundation’s first major initiative, in cooperation with the Education Ministry, was implementing cutting-edge science and technology education in southern school districts. “Even before the technology revolution, we saw that access to social mobility comes through good education in the sciences,” said Leven.
Within three years, the program was running successfully in all Negev schools, including in the Beduin sector.
“It was tailor-made for each school’s needs and was a fantastic success, dramatically increasing the number of children passing the bagrut [matriculation exam],” Leven said.
Next, the Rashi Foundation began bringing welfare services to at-risk and special-needs populations in the South who previously had to travel long distances to take advantage of government services to which they were entitled.
“We partnered with government ministries to ensure sustainability, knowing we wouldn’t be able to follow forever with huge amounts. If it depended only on us we’d get tired or stop, as happens in many philanthropies,” said Leven.
By 2000, the Rashi Foundation had adopted a model of working with government agencies to identify problems, then brainstorming solutions and funding test pilots, and finally scaling them up with interested partners before turning over successful projects to the government for the long term. Every project that goes forward has an exit strategy; the foundation usually stays involved no more than five years.
For example, the lunch program as part of a long school day began as a pilot with 1,500 children in 2004, following the big wave of aliya in the 1990s. This was a pet project for Gustave Leven, who insisted on eating with the children whenever he visited Israel to check on the foundation’s work.
“My uncle could not accept that kids didn’t have enough to eat, so he wanted to really jump-start the school lunch program. The Education Ministry matched our funds and it started growing, and is now entirely funded by the government,” said Leven. This initiative keeps some 350,000 Israeli children nourished and off the streets.
Organizational changes were introduced to maintain efficiency and accountability as the Rashi Foundation grew.
“We thought it was not efficient for one organization to manage all these programs spread throughout the country, so we created eight subsidiary organizations, each specialized in fields such as elementary education and social programs,” Leven explained.
“These daughter associations are chaired by people like [Check Point Software chairman] Gil Shwed – leaders who bring expertise to the organization, develop programs with or without our support and also suggest ideas for future development.”
Leven lives in Geneva and holds an Israeli passport, visiting six to eight times a year. His son François, 43, a Geneva banker, is also a Rashi Foundation board member – making the Leven family’s philanthropy a five-generation endeavor.
Leven, who has been awarded honorary doctorates from Ben-Gurion University, Bar-Ilan University and the Technion- Israel Institute of Technology, also sits on the board of AIU and its Israeli affiliate, KIAH (Kol Israel Haverim).
Though most Diaspora Alliance schools closed when the Jewish populations emigrated, a few remain, including in Morocco. “Most of the Jews have left and have been replaced by Muslim students. They go through the same curriculum and come out speaking Hebrew and familiar with Tanach [Bible] and Talmud. The Alliance school is probably the best school in Casablanca, and there is terrific demand among the elite,” said Leven. “I think this explains the moderation of Morocco in its relationship with Israel, because the Jews and Muslims there are connected.”
The AIU’s Mikve Israel today is a youth village encompassing a 900-student state high school and state religious high school specializing in natural sciences, environmental science and biotechnology; and a French-Israeli high school established in 2007 as a joint initiative of AIU, Rashi and the Israeli and French governments. The recent influx of French immigrants has created an urgent need to triple capacity, Leven reported.
One of the newest Rashi Foundation projects, Magshimim, finds and nurtures talented high-school students in the periphery for careers in cyber technology.
“Up till now, practically all those coming to elite technology units in the IDF are from the center of the country, so our approach is to look for untapped potential. We plan within four years to ‘produce’ about 750 graduates with skills in high-level cyber technologies every year,” said Leven. “The IDF chooses some, and others are on track for higher education and good jobs in the periphery, because companies establish themselves where qualified people are.”
Last month, 12 Magshimim standouts were named “cyber ambassadors” for the Foreign Ministry, while the Defense Ministry signed an agreement with the foundation to scale up the program and add after-school cyber-tech clubs for eighth- and ninth-graders.
Leven said the Rashi Foundation was never intended to continue forever, but partnering with the Steinmetz family and others will extend its lifespan. “No other organization in Israel federates so many partners, so it’s important that we’re there for a long period,” he said.
Accordingly, Leven is issuing a call for strategic philanthropic partners to join the foundation in fostering productive citizens from Israel’s periphery populations, Jewish and Arab.
“If we want to see Israel as a unified, cohesive society, we cannot leave a significant part of the population without access to education, welfare and other services,” Leven said. “This is the essence of Zionism in our time.”