As someone who has worked to build Jewish organizations in various parts of the
world, I have met my share of wealthy people and philanthropists. Some are
immensely generous, while others like to keep what’s in their pockets. Some
treat you with immense respect, while others evince the arrogance that may
accompany wealth. Some are passionate about the future of the Jewish people,
while others want their names on non-Jewish walls.
But the one donor who
towers over them all is birthright co-founder and mega-philanthropist Michael
Steinhardt, who today celebrates his 70th birthday. I write this tribute to him
not as a friend who has known him for 15 years, or as someone who has partnered
with him on projects in Oxford and New York. Rather, I write as a Jew who stands
in awe of an unrepentant atheist with an unsurpassed love of the Jewish
Michael is a man of profound contradictions.
Corner him in
his office about God and he will growl about never foregoing his atheism. Yet no
donor has spent more to develop American Jewish day-schools or foster Jewish
Argue with him that only Jewish ritual observance can guarantee
Jewish continuity and he will roll his eyes about Orthodox
Yet few philanthropists have pumped more money into Hillel,
Jewish education and national Shabbat programs, like offering birthright alumni
grants to host Friday-night dinners so young lives can be illuminated by ancient
Tell him that without the Jewish religion, our people are
doomed to assimilation and he will use his razor-sharp analytical skills to
mind-slap you with demographic data about Jewish pride resulting from secular,
rather than religious achievements. Yet no man has exposed more young Jews to
Judaism than Michael (and his partner Charles Bronfman) through his vision for
birthright that has brought more than a quarter million, mostly assimilated
young Jews to Israel.
A YEAR ago I lead a birthright trip for Mayanot,
the Jerusalem educational institution founded by Rabbi Shlomo Gestetner. I asked
my group of 50 to raise their hands if they had had a bar or bat mitzva. When
only six hands went up, we quickly organized a moving celebration at the Kotel.
The men put on tefillin and the women lit Shabbat candles for the very first
I called Michael in New York to needle him.
“Because of you,
young Jews are keeping more mitzvot than all the world’s rabbis
You’re losing your own battle to promote your secular, common
He chuckled and then quickly returned to his usual grumblings
about the Orthodox.
But there is an even more fundamental reason that
Jews the world over should salute Steinhardt. Jews did not choose to become
bankers. There is no commandment in the Torah that says, “Thou shall profit in
We were traditionally an agricultural community, but
were prohibited from owning land by our European Christian overlords. Of
necessity we turned to banking.
Many accusations ensued, beginning with
the Rothschilds, who were unfairly accused of profiting from both sides during
the Napoleonic wars, and culminating in the recent collapse of Wall Street
banks, a disproportionately large number of which had Jewish names and Jewish
People who are not our friends started making correlations between
Jews and banking greed.
But standing as a bulwark against any such
accusation is Steinhardt, who largely founded the hedge-fund industry but hung
up his spurs at the height of his success to focus on the well-being of his
people. When I asked him why, he told me: “I was afraid that on my tombstone it
would say ‘money manager.’” For Michael the accumulation of wealth as an end in
itself is a pathetic form of compensation for an inner insecurity. Wall Street
has meaning when it pays for birthright kids to see the Western Wall.
Investments have a purpose when they help poor Israeli families afford their
rent, rather than when they facilitate more champagne-swilling in the
Other hedge-fund giants like George Soros ignore the Jewish
community, seeking a global presence instead. But while he supports myriad
non-Jewish causes, Steinhardt unashamedly celebrates his love of Israel and the
I WOULD be remiss if I did not confess a personal reason
for writing this column. No one who works outside the nonprofit world can
appreciate just how awful raising money can be.
I hate it. Having to ask
people for money to support your programs is, for me, a degrading and
But Michael has always been a friend rather than a
supporter, kibbitzing, arguing and ultimately tormenting me with love. I have no
“How insecure are you, Shmuley, that you have to hang out
with damaged celebrities?” (OK, you’ve got my attention). “You’re unfocused and
all over the place.” (Getting warmer). “When are you going to stop believing
that you influence the Jewish world through non-Jews?” (Bingo!) But then it’s
your turn. “My God, Michael.
I’m getting depressed just listening to
Now you have his attention. Michael despises brown-nosers and comes
to life when you hit back. A word of caution. If you’re single, stay away. His
foremost passion is matchmaking, with his sole criteria for male-female
compatibility being that each possess a pulse.
But for all his
grouchiness, you will never find a more loyal friend or wise adviser – one who
will stand by you no matter the controversy.
I was therefore heartsick to
hear Michael announce at his 70th birthday party that he plans to retire from
Jewish communal life next year and move on to the next chapter. Doing so would
impoverish Jewry of one of its most innovative rebels and thought-provoking
And Jewish youth would lose its most stalwart
Happy birthday, Michael! Now cut the nonsense. If you promise
not to abandon us, we promise to give as good as we get.The writer is
the international best-selling author of 24 books, most recently
the founder of This World: The Values Network, which brings Jewish values to the
mainstream culture. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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