No Holds Barred: Michael Steinhardt at 75

A self-proclaimed atheist has brought more Jews back to their heritage than nearly any other Jewish philanthropist on the world stage today.

(photo credit: REUTERS)
Judaism has historically been a religion of many seeming opposites that somehow manage to simultaneously coexist. The tiny Jewish state, no bigger than the size of New Jersey, has faced overwhelming opposition and attempts to destroy it, yet somehow manages to prosper and thrive at a phenomenal rate.
And then within Judaism, you have a man like Michael Steinhardt, a self-proclaimed atheist, who has brought more Jews back to their heritage – and dare I say back to belief in God and religious observance – than nearly any other Jewish philanthropist on the world stage today.
Michael will be celebrating his 75th birthday this week. When he turned 70, I published a column that praised the astounding work he has managed to accomplish while simultaneously lamenting the fact that he had announced his upcoming retirement from Jewish communal life. How great of a loss would it have been for the Jewish people if Michael were to have slowed down his activism and finally take that long break that no one can deny he has earned.
Yet now, five years later, he is as involved as ever in contributing to the betterment of the Jewish people and the wider world through his bold and innovative approach to philanthropy.
Michael has always been a trailblazer in whatever field he has focused his talents on. He was one of the very first hedge fund managers and his success and innovation seemed boundless. And yet at the height of his career, he chose to walk away from it all. One time I asked him why and he told me that he did not want to be remembered as just a “money manager.” He believed that his abilities could be channeled towards a higher cause, and once again he emerged as an innovator, this time by becoming one of our generation’s first Jewish mega-philanthropists.
Usually when we think of philanthropy, we imagine some large ballroom filled with people working toward a positive goal. Well Michael had bigger plans. When he first proposed the Birthright Israel program, there were many naysayers. How many kids could you really bring to Israel and what tangible effect would it have? Yet Michael’s approach was “if you build it, they will come.” The program’s success was soon clear for all to see and soon big donors, such as Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, stepped in to help expand the activities and scope of the Birthright program.
In the sixteen years that Birthright has been running, it has brought over 500,000 Jewish young people to the state of Israel. That’s approximately the population of the city of Tucson, Arizona.
And it’s not just the numbers that are so astounding, but rather the effects these trips have had on the landscape of the Jewish people.
The Jewish people have been fighting a two-pronged war. One front has been fought over the body, and the other has been fought over the soul.
The fight for the body is waged by combating anti-Semitism and Israel hatred. In our day and age we have arch-villains like Iran Supreme Leader Sayyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei, who proudly declares in almost every speech his plans to destroy Israel and every Jew in it.
This threat to Jewish lives is countered by a well-trained Israeli army. The fight for the soul, on the other hand, is a battle with the forces of assimilation and apathy towards the Jewish mission of bringing righteousness and justice to the world.
Jewish identity, and the benefit and stabilizing influence that Jewish values and culture have contributed to mankind, has been in peril. For centuries, the greatest minds among the Jewish people have grappled with how to maintain Jewish continuity, trying to ensure that future generations hold fast to Judaism’s ethical teachings and wisdom.
This is where Michael’s vision and capabilities worked their magic. His Birthright program has successfully waged this multi-front war by attacking both threats as one. By bringing in hundreds of thousands of young Jewish people to the land of Israel, and showing and educating them in the beauty of their traditions and heritage, Michael has reinvigorated the Jewish world with a newfound love and pride for their cultural identity and Jewish homeland. He has managed to inspire the next generation to be proud of their Jewishness, and has emboldened them to speak out and defend the Jewish state – their Jewish state.
Michael’s activities have now expanded to include the setting up of Hebrew charter schools across the United States. I visited one in Harlem, with his daughter Sara who runs the program, where I witnessed African-American, Asian, and Jewish children learning Hebrew together. It was truly an incredible sight. And this is really why Michael accomplishes what he does.
He thinks outside the box and has the foresight and courage to take risks others would not. He truly is a disrupter of the status quo. He disrupts the daily grind and gridlock that stifle and stunt the potential of what the Jewish community could be. He shifts the very foundation of our established patterns of thinking about and doing things in order to achieve results and get the job done.
But Michael’s qualities as a friend cannot go unmentioned. In the ancient Jewish work “Ethics of the Fathers” we are taught to be careful of friendships with individuals who have influence and power. “They appear as friends when they benefit from it, but they do not stand by a person in his time of need.” Michael is an astonishing exception to this teaching. I have rarely met a more decent and trustworthy man who stands up for his friends and will go to bat for them when they need him.
When times get a little tough, oftentimes friends in high places suddenly become strangers that are nowhere to be found. But not Michael. He has been loyal and stalwart in his friendship through all the many years, and I am grateful to be able to call him my friend.
Happy birthday, Michael. The Jewish people salute you.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the international best-selling author of 30 books. He will shortly publish The Israel Warrior’s Handbook.