A secular Jewish financial hero

From Birthright to new day schools, Michael Steinhardt’s activism changed Jewish America.

 Michael Steinhardt, hedge fund mogul and major financial backer of secular Jewish causes, at the Reuters Investment Summit in New York in 2008.  (photo credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)
Michael Steinhardt, hedge fund mogul and major financial backer of secular Jewish causes, at the Reuters Investment Summit in New York in 2008.
(photo credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)

US-born Michael Steinhardt is a billionaire and one of the world’s outstanding philanthropists. He earned his wealth from the exceptionally successful hedge fund he founded in 1967 and ran until his retirement in 1995. Forbes magazine described him as “Wall Street’s greatest trader” and in 2018 reported his net worth as $1.1 billion.

Steinhardt grew up in a traditional Jewish home, but early in life, he says, he became an atheist, although with an overwhelming pride in being Jewish. In his book Jewish Pride, he explores the origins of this deeply held feeling and explains how it has been the inspiration behind decades of effort and the expenditure of millions of dollars, aimed at fostering similar feelings in the vast American non-Orthodox Jewish Diaspora.

Throughout his book, he tries to explain this overpowering feeling of pride in being Jewish. To him, pride means being willing to say, out loud and without qualification, that being Jewish is a wonderful thing. The Jewish contribution to the world spans every field – from science to the arts, to philosophy, entertainment, business and finance – and he finds this quality exemplified in today’s Israel and its people, both of which he greatly admires.

By the time Steinhardt left Wall Street toward the end of the 20th century, non-Orthodox Jewish life in America was clearly on the decline. Assimilation by way of mixed marriages was on the increase, and younger Jews were discarding their identity. He felt the urge to do something about it, but one thing he was quite clear about – under no circumstances would he become a donor to the innumerable Jewish fundraising bodies that seemed an industry in themselves. He saw them as focused on squeezing as much charity as possible from the American Jewish community but with little inclination to devise carefully considered programs for its use or accountability for the funds disbursed.

So he decided to set up his own foundation through which he could help reverse what he saw as a disastrous loss of identity among America’s secular Jewish community. It became the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, and its purpose was to support projects that made Jewish life engaging and that cultivated pride in being Jewish.

Michael Steinhardt’s latest book, Jewish Pride, is published by Wicked Son. (credit: Courtesy)Michael Steinhardt’s latest book, Jewish Pride, is published by Wicked Son. (credit: Courtesy)

The series of proactive initiatives that followed – some continue to this day – form the heart of Steinhardt’s inspiring and stimulating book. Some failed for one reason or another, but Steinhardt was never deterred. A new idea was always forthcoming, and once convinced of its value and viability, Steinhardt was prepared to throw himself into making it a success.

A list of secular Jewish activist projects

HE STARTED his activism by focusing on the institutions of Jewish education. Orthodox Jewish day schools were an old, established feature in the US. Steinhardt determined to foster a network of non-Orthodox day schools. He set up an organization called Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, recruited an enthusiastic team, and set to work. By the end of its first year, 1997, PEJE had established four schools; by 2003 it had 60 up and running. Then the project lost steam. Demand fell away, and finally PEJE turned its attention to assisting existing day schools rather than developing its own.

Steinhardt left that project, only to immerse himself in a new venture. An inspirational approach to preschool education, pioneered in Italy, had spread across the Atlantic, and in 2002 the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance was launched. The idea of using Reggio Emilia to instill Jewish commitment appealed strongly to Steinhardt. The result was the formation of the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative.

A succession of imaginative, ground-breaking initiatives followed, led by Steinhardt, who persuaded wealthy Jews from a variety of fields to help with the funding. There was the Hebrew charter schools concept – non-Orthodox educational establishments dedicated to fostering knowledge of the Hebrew language and Israel, and encouraging the growth of secular Jewish culture.

Then came Birthright Israel – the highly innovative idea of providing a free 10-day visit to Israel for young secular American Jews, in the belief that this would be a life-changing experience for many that would strengthen their Jewish identity. The program was closely monitored, and the results were shown to have justified the initial expectations.

Steinhardt moved on to the original, enterprising, ingenious Makor project – too original to succeed. The idea was to create a major cultural and social hub that was unabashedly Jewish. Launched in 1999, Steinhardt describes it as an “entirely new kind of secular Jewish institution for the new century.” 

He explains how and why Makor failed, but it was followed by his STAR project aimed at elevating Friday nights to synagogue-based social events.

Next came One Table, designed to elevate Shabbat in the consciousness of the non-Orthodox Jewish community, by bringing people together in synagogue for Shabbat dinner. In 2015, its start year, dinners were served to 10,000 people. By 2018 there were 60,000 seats.

One blemish on his record was a finding by Hillel [the Jewish campus organization] in 2019 that a couple of non-criminal sexual harassment allegations against him were found to be justified.

“In each case, it was found that the complaints were justified and that the individuals had been subjected to inappropriate comments and/or suggestions by one or more of our donors,” according to a statement obtained by The Jewish Week. 

Steinhardt would apologize for the incidents, and Hillel removed Steinhardt from its board of governors.

Steinhardt did continue his philanthropy, and for 2021 the budget for One Table stood at $7 million, and the expectation was that dinners would be served to 525,000 people.

Jewish Pride is a frank account of Steinhardt’s self-imposed mission to use his wealth to instill in the secular Jewish community something of the pride he himself feels in his Jewish heritage. 

His aim was to reinvigorate Jewish life and culture in America’s non-Orthodox Jewish world. He tells us of his successes and failures; but most importantly, he writes of his undiminished enthusiasm to continue seeking what  he calls “a new kind of secular Jewish life.”

Jewish Pride is far from Steinhardt’s final word.