A Jewish iconclast in socks

Speaking softly, Michael Steinhardt waves a big stick at "shameful" Jewish education in US and at organizations "whose lifeblood" is to show anti-Semitism.

Michael Steinhardt 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Michael Steinhardt 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Over the course of his long and illustrious dual careers – first as a wildly successful hedge fund manager, raking in hundreds of millions for investors as well as himself, and later as a fulltime philanthropist and Jewish activist – Michael Steinhardt has gained a reputation for his pull-no-punches attitude. In fact, it’s an image he seems rather fond of: His autobiography, for instance, is called No Bull.
But the man who last Sunday emerged from the study of his residence in Jerusalem, a stone mansion once owned by philosopher Martin Buber, wasn’t the Wall Street shark or Jewish establishment iconoclast I expected. Instead, Steinhardt, white-haired and stout in his early 70s, spoke slowly and softly, like a Jewish grandfather. He gave the interview in his socks and at its end he asked if I was interested in a shiduch. (“I’m in a relationship,” I turned him down politely).
Steinhardt is probably best known in the Jewish world as one of the earliest and most important backers of Birthright Israel, although he gives to many other projects, like the day care center in Migdal Ha’emek whose opening he will be attending on Wednesday. His personal donations and advocacy helped turn Birthright into the massive enterprise it is today, bringing more than 250,000 young Jewish adults from the Diaspora on free trips since 2000.
“Birthright has become the dominant institution in the Jewish institutional, cultural, philanthropic world and to that respect I certainly didn’t anticipate that; however, I’m not sure how important that is,” he said.
Shortly into the interview, it became clear Steinhardt wasn’t interested in resting on the laurels of Birthright’s success. He’d much rather lambaste the “shameful” state of Jewish education in the US. “You can say Birthright has been around for 10 years, but there’s a lot you won’t learn and can’t learn in 10 years. Based upon those 10 years there are a lot of encouraging measures and there are some other measures that keep me thinking,” he said.
Such as? “Such as... the fact that the non-Orthodox Diaspora, which is for me the part of the Jewish world to which Birthright has been devoted and focused, is the weakest link in the Jewish chain. As I see it, it is still the weakest link in the Jewish chain.
While Birthright, I think, has come a reasonable way in improving the prospects of the non-Orthodox Diaspora, you can only expect so much from the appalling quality and deep shame of American Jewish education which is not easily overcome.”
MICHAEL STEINHARDT is not Orthodox – far from it. In fact, in previous interviews he’s come out as being an atheist who, nonetheless, feels closely connected to his Jewish identity. But he admires aspects of the Orthodox school system which, he says, manages to keep more of its graduates in the community than other streams of Judaism.
He said the question of why “Jewish education has been so unsuccessful until now” looms large in his mind, but admitted he had few concrete ideas for how to fix the problem.
He did, however, mention a few programs which he believed were making a difference, namely Birthright follow-up programs, Hebrew-language charter schools and “peer-led” Shabbat dinners.
“Peer-led Shabbat dinners and those programs have resulted in tens of thousands of good people who have never attended Shabbat dinners in some cases regularly attending them,” he explained. “In my mind Shabbat is a central part of Jewishness. If you can get young people as a regular part of their lives to attend Shabbat dinner, which means they have regular contact with other Jews on the holiest day of the week in a setting that is Jewish, then that is a big, big step forward.”
A key theme in Steinhardt’s giving is his focus on Jewish renewal and optimism. He said he preferred donating money to community building over “those organizations whose lifeblood it is to emphasize the anti-Semitism that exists in this world.”
Asked which organizations he had in mind, true to form Steinhardt didn’t shy away from the question.
“It’s a great waste of Jewish money building a Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem,” he said, pointing a finger at the Simon Wiesenthal Center initiative. “Jewish money can be spent on so more valuable things than trying to teach Jews tolerance.
Jews have many faults, but the least of them is intolerance relative to other people, and to build a Museum of Tolerance seems unnecessary compared to other needs.”
Other Jewish organizations once deemed wasteful by Steinhardt have recently been redeemed by him. For example, he used to be one of the fiercest critics of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Now he has a rapport with its chairman, Natan Sharansky, and he seems to have made amends with the organization.
“The Jewish Agency has come a long way recently and I’m very supportive of the new head of the Jewish Agency,” he said. “I think he’s done a good job.”
The Wiesenthal Center and other organizations may not particularly care about making Steinhardt’s bad list, but they’d probably be ill-advised to ignore his critique entirely.
Up until now, in both his business and philanthropy, Steinhardt’s instincts have served him well.
Time and again, he’s bet on the right horses, whether it was the stock to buy or Jewish initiative to promote.
If he thinks Jewish optimism is the way to go, and that the Jewish institutional establishment in the US has become obsessed with “bogeymen,” maybe they should start heeding his call.