Exclusive: Michael Steinhardt, Sara Bloom Speak Frankly About Jewish Pride
The US philanthropist and his daughter sit down with The Media Line’s Felice Friedson to reflect on the importance of Jewish education, the failures of the establishment Jewish community, and their passion for keeping secular Jewish identity alive
After record-breaking success as a money manager on Wall Street, Michael Steinhardt shocked the financial world, abruptly changing course and rededicating his life to philanthropy. He rewrote the book by creating visionary initiatives aimed at Jews on the margins of Jewish life – game changers such as Birthright Israel, programs offering early childhood educational options, and Hebrew language immersion programs. Michael Steinhardt’s new autobiography, Jewish Pride, is one man’s quest to keep Jewish life strong.
Sara Steinhardt Bloom is a founder and the board chair of Hebrew Public, a national network of US-based Hebrew-English dual-language charter schools. She is also the vice chairwoman of the board of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life and serves on the boards of the Areivim Philanthropic Group, OneTable: The Shabbat Project, and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
The Media Line: Thank you so much, both of you, for taking this time to really look at the recap of Jewish pride, and for this exclusive interview.
Michael Steinhardt: You are most welcome!
Sara Bloom: Thank you, Felice!
TML: It’s a pleasure to have the time to spend with you!
I imagine others shared the thought I had when I read Jewish Pride, and here was this Wall Street billionaire who could have spent his life doing anything or nothing, yet you idealistically drove Jewish continuity despite the odds. You created massive educational programs throughout the United States; some succeeded and some failed. But you have seemingly retained this passion to find the solution to keep Jewish pride respected and practiced for generations to come. Where did this all come from?
MS: It’s a very good question to which I do not have a simple answer, but a phrase that I like to use in describing my goal is the Jewish future. I am deeply committed to a stronger, more healthy, more innovative Jewish future.
SB: Yeah, it’s hard to know. I think my father grew up in a time in the ’50s when most Americans in Brooklyn knew they were Jewish. They felt proud to be Jewish, and even if people around them weren’t so excited that they were Jewish, they wore it as a badge of pride, and I think, as he looks around now, it’s not just my generation, but at his kids and grandkids, I think he sees that there is a difference. That there is such a lack of understanding of what it really means to be Jewish, and if you look at the studies, you can see that young people feel Jewish pride, but they don’t understand much about it.
TML: Your hand and your money saw the creation and, in your words, “failure” of building secular Jewish schools in the US under a program called Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education. Can an exclusively Jewish secular school succeed today?
MS: You know, I stopped for a moment there before I added the word “secular,” because “secular” is a real conundrum when it comes to this issue, because the overwhelming amount of Jewish education today is religious, and as we all know, religious Jewish education takes quite a few forms, but the forms that are most sympathetic to the idea of a secular life are the ones that are the weakest. And I am not sure that is easily changed but I do not have a great deal of empathy or sympathy for the Reform movement or the Conservative movement, and I think those two movements which represent a great majority of the American Jewish cohort are in trouble.
SB: When my father started PEJE [the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education], I think he had a dream that he would open Jewish schools all over the country and that there would be hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of Jewish day schools. Some would be more secular, some would be more religious. And I think he learned that there is a finite market for American Jewish families that want Jewish day schools, and I think that that was a hard lesson.
The greatest predictor of where you are going to send your kids to school is where you yourself went to school. And the overwhelming majority of American Jews have gone to public or maybe prep schools, but they haven’t gone to day schools and even if you give them tuition for free, they are not sending their kids to day school.
MS: And you don’t give them tuition for free, because that’s not the way the world works, alas, alas.
TML: Would that have changed anything?
MS: Probably not! I don’t think that people send their kids to Jewish day schools because they are inexpensive, or in some cases very expensive. It really is a matter of values and that’s the issue.
TML: Through your JECEI [Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative] programs, your Italian Reggio Emilia education model played a vital role in teaching some 8,000 children in 32 schools located in JCCs and synagogues throughout America. You said that the collection and analysis of data was crucial to every project. What were your findings in following these students?
MS: In the JECEI program, what we found is that they could work if they became a family-oriented operation. If parents, and perhaps grandparents, were engaged in this process because the process was very different from that of the typical American Jewish day school. And in retrospect, I wish we had stuck with it longer, were more persistent, and had more money, but we didn’t have those resources, and the project as you may have alluded continues but it hasn’t grown in the way it had to have grown for it to become a dominant force in the American Jewish day school scene.
TML: As the next generation, how do you see it, Sara?
SB: I think that the next generation needs to have ingenuity and creativity and be willing to try new things, and mess up and make mistakes, as long as we are willing to try new things, because what we’ve tried before in the past isn’t working that well, and to keep trying the same approach, that would be the biggest mistake.
TML: How was the appearance of a money guy willing to financially back his passion for education with the so-called “professional educators,” or as you term them, the “Jewish turf machine.”
MS: As a generality, the “turf machine” is not of a mind to accept ideas, particularly those from outside. They don’t see their experience as one mostly of failure. They see their experience as one that should be continued and have enough in their cohort to allow for a slow, if any, growth in Jewish educational efforts.
SB: I think the people who work inside of the “turf machine” are some of the most lovely, dedicated, devoted people. And on the hand, I think my father and I have deep appreciation for people who have devoted their lives to the Jewish community, but at the same time, my father came from the world of results, and in the hedge fund world, you knew how you were doing and there were numbers attached to that. And I think that when my father began his foundation, attaching metrics and data and goals was incredibly new, and I think that it made sense that the turf machine, that the established Jewish community, instead of embracing that approach, because that’s really the right approach, instead it was easier for them to hide and be unaccepting of that.
MS: And there’s another point here. Today the year is 2022. When what I nastily call the “Jewish turf machine” (and I intend to be a little nasty) got started in the late 19th century [and] early 20th century, it was a very different world. It was a world where most Jews were lower middle class, came from areas that were mostly filled with Jews, and over time that changed. Jews slowly began to be accepted by the best secular schools in the country. They began to be accepted in the best colleges in the country. That had its goods and its bads.
The bads were that for the average typical Jewish kid, he had nowhere to go. He couldn’t easily get into the Ivy League colleges. He couldn’t get into the best secular private schools. And he had to find his way in the Jewish world, which was a second-rate Jewish world, and that continues to be the case today.
TML: How did the establishment impact on your decision to shut down the JECEI program?
MS: Well, what we tried to do with most of the things that we started was to set goals, and put a time frame on those goals, and if they didn’t succeed either financially or numerically in that time frame, we became perhaps too harsh on ourselves and tried our best to live up to the initial commitments in terms of time and money.
SB: I think one of the great lessons that we learned over the course of these 25 years or 30 years of working in this area has been to bring in strong partners that are equally committed to the kinds of work that my dad is doing from day one. So, for example, OneTable was started with the Singer Foundation, and very quickly it has many other people who are as committed to the work as we are, and I think financially that has made a big difference in terms of its long-term viability.
MS: But that’s probably the exception that may indeed prove the rule, because it’s not so easy to attract philanthropists who see the world as I see it, or as we see it, and we failed in attracting the best and the brightest to our cohort of supporters in many instances. Sometimes we succeeded, Birthright being perhaps the best example, but often we failed.
TML: Why do you think it was that difficult?
MS: Most affluent Jews do not put innovation as the primary objective in their philanthropic world. They’re comfortable with the Jewish world. They’re comfortable with being honored and having their name on galas and stuff like that, but to experiment, to take risks, they may do that in other parts of their life, but they don’t do it so much in their Jewish philanthropy.
TML: We’ll come back to that later, Michael. But you also spoke of something. You spoke of the length that Jewish institutions would go to to keep you out often, and I’m sure that must have been very hard to see.
MS: The insularity of the Jewish institutional world becomes clear to most anybody who chooses to engage with it. So insularity meaning we are doing things pretty well [and] we don’t need outsiders, we don’t need laymen to interfere with what we are doing, is not an uncommon thing. And maybe it’s not uncommon in other worlds also, but in the Jewish world, if you were the head of a regional or a city’s federation, you felt pretty good about things.
You had a group of people who were working in a certain sense, for you. Money was coming in. And you felt that you were accomplishing a lot. And whether you were accomplishing a lot or not, you felt that the world outside you, particularly the people involved in your federation…
SB: I think that my dad was instrumental in this regard, because when you go back to the ‘90s he was one of the few people working outside of the federation system, and I think that he did face a lot of opposition, but today, 25 years later, I think almost all of the smart minds really are giving money creatively, together, and certainly almost by and large almost exclusively outside of the federation system and what we would call “alphabet soup.”
They are creating their own projects. They are working together to do that, and there are a lot of names that are following, I think really in the mold that my father created: The Marcus Foundation, the Davidson Foundation, Maimonides [Fund], Singer [Foundation]. These are the smart minds who made a lot of money in business and are interested in having measurable success.
TML: Are Jewish schools a thing of the past, as more American Jews seek to send their children to what they say are places of diversity?
SB: I’m tempted to say no, but they’re not a thing of the past, but they’re not at the same time growing, and the only growth that you see in the Jewish day school world is in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox sections, and that’s a real problem for people like Val and I, for people who consider ourselves to be secular, there aren’t that many day schools that have any secularity associated with them, and those that are Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox, are really of very little interest to the typical non-Orthodox Jew in the Diaspora.
TML: The majority would label themselves secular, so how does the forecast look in 50 years from now?
MS: I’d say that Jews have done a singularly poor job of predicting what the Jewish world will look like, not 50 years from now, [but] even 20 years from now, 10 years from now. It’s not such an easy thing to predict. And after World War II, the Orthodox world was generally viewed to be on its last legs, but it experienced a pretty good revival.
The areas that I care about is not these Orthodox schools or this Orthodox world, but people who want to remain Jewish and don’t exactly know how.
TML: In 2007, you became smitten with an idea that you are now fully focused on – the teaching of the Hebrew language as a means to Jewish identity. You said that there are probably more non-Jewish Arab Israelis fluent in Hebrew than American Jews. The Pew organization agreed, offering a study showing [that only] 12% of American Jews can carry a simple conversation in Hebrew. Is language an easier sell than a full curriculum?
MS: Language is not an easy sell, period, and there is the broad image in the Jewish secular world that to teach Hebrew to the next generation is an extraordinarily heroic, challenging task. One that isn’t accomplished very often. And the percentage of secular Jews in America who speak any Hebrew is really painfully small.
TML: Sara, what are you seeing, because you’ve been intimately involved in this area.
SB: Yeah, I have, and I think that the American Jewish community should take note of the fact that the hundreds of thousands of kids who have gone on Birthright come back to America really excited to learn to speak Hebrew, and unlike a lot of other languages, there is nowhere to really learn Hebrew.
TML: Babbel isn’t going to do it?
SB: Babbel is not going to do it, but there are ways to invest in this, and even small countries like Poland or Ukraine or Greece, for example, have spent huge amounts of money investing in Americans learning to speak their languages, because then people go back and they don’t have to speak perfectly, but if you have spent a couple of years in high school or college learning to speak a language, you are much more likely to visit.
TML: Did it surprise you when the American Jewish Committee claimed your program violated church [and] state requirements? Are multiple solutions to the problem, a problem themselves?
MS: I’m aware of their criticism, but their criticism got nowhere and should have gotten nowhere because it was sort of dopey, forgive my saying it. A lot of things the American Jewish Committee has tried to do are sort of dopey and backward-looking rather than forward-looking, so I’m really unsympathetic, and I want to express that clearly to the ideas that the American Jewish community is stuck in perpetuity in its present form. Because if that’s the case we’re in tsuris [trouble], and even most Jews of my background know what tsuris is.
TML: Is your goal Jewish pride or universal pride?
MS: Jewish pride.
TML: As a philanthropist, you have seen the good and the ugly sides of gifting. Where is Jewish philanthropy – and we touched on this, but I don’t think deep enough – going wrong?
MS: Ooof. Tough question! Jewish philanthropy is going wrong in a variety of ways. Number one, the average American secular Jew who wants to remain Jewish, goes to a second-rate religious institution that has second and third-rate teachers, and therefore it’s very difficult for them to become more learned Jewishly and more comfortable in thinking about the Jewish future, and that has to change.
TML: Sara, you’re spearheading the foundation. How are you seeing this today in 2022?
SB: I love the vision that my father outlines in Jewish Pride because it’s an optimistic vision that if we can really, in Herzl’s words, “if we can will it, it will happen.” I think that a future in which you can go on a Birthright trip and come back and learn Hebrew and have an internship in Israel after college; have a two-year program where we take great bright American kids who are interested in high-tech and we bring them over for a few years and have that interplay.
I think American kids getting excited about Israeli music, for example, feeling more connected here flipping the tables so that Israel and Israelis realize that they need to invest more in us. That we need more of their secular chutzpah and charisma. I think that there is a way, but I think that my father is right. I think that if we feel that a synagogue and a JCC is our future, that that is where the connections are going to come, that is not a future that I am optimistic about.
MS: You know, you don’t have to go back that many … say into the 1980s and 1990s, and imagine what the Jewish world in America was like pre-Birthright, and how much Birthright in a certain sense has already begun to alter the vision of the Jewish future. What it will look like in X number of years I’m not sure, but there is a process of change going on. It’s not a process that’s easy. It’s not a process that’s well-financed, but it’s a process that an awful lot of people are slowly becoming comfortable with.
SB: I would add that another project that my dad was instrumental in bringing to life was OneTable, and that was this hope that Jews in their 20s and 30s, young American Jews, would make Friday night Shabbat dinners a habit. Come Tuesday or Wednesday, so many of us who appreciate Shabbat in our life, that time of the week will come and these young people will think, what am I going to do for Shabbat? And that is growing so quickly. We are in 450 cities and this year we are hoping that we will reach 10% of our target market.
But what if we reach 50% of the market? What if all American Jews thought like people in Israel do, even when they are 100% secular, am I going to be with my family for Shabbat, which friends should I invite over for Shabbat? These are the kinds of ways that we are approaching the work that we do.
TML: Do you think Jewish culture and tradition absent religion is enough to sustain Jewish identity?
MS: Excluding religion, Jewish culture is the key to the Jewish future. We have to feel pride in our heroes. We have to say it’s not an accident that we represent 1 or 2% of the population, say in the United States, and 30% of the billionaires, and God knows what percent of the Nobel Prize winners. And it goes on and on and on where Jews have achieved so far beyond their number in the Diaspora, particularly in the United States, that it should make every Jew wonder a little bit about what that’s all about.
Is it some magic of mental superiority, of a willingness to take chances, to be open? It’s hard to say, but it’s worth pondering as to what it is in our Jewishness that allows us to be so intellectually superior. And when I use those terms intellectually superior, particularly with my wife, she winces!
TML: Who is your hero?
MS: Oh, I have a lot of Jewish heroes! I mean, they range from Sandy Koufax and other athletes. There are so many comedians and songwriters and fiction writers. So many people in so many areas of life where Jews have so stood out relative to our number.
|Adam Bellow, publisher, Wicked Son books, reflects on Michael Steinhardt|
I was very fortunate to be connected with Michael Steinhardt. Of course, I knew who he was, and the idea behind the book was that it would be a memoir of his philanthropic activities, but in the course of the year and a half that we spent working on the book very closely, it became something more than a philanthropic memoir. It became really a statement of his whole entire purpose and mission as a philanthropist, and as a Jew, as an advocate and supporter of a strong, healthy secular Jewish identity.
His Jewishness comes from his childhood in Brooklyn. It was a very strong identity, but it was secular, it was not religious. That’s very similar to me. I’m one of those bad Jews who quit Hebrew school the day after my bar mitzvah. So to that extent, I identify as a wicked son, and Michael is also that kind of person – somebody who really speaks out controversially, forthrightly, and makes his opinion clear and really doesn’t mind if people like it or not. So I was really excited to be able to work with a person of this stature who is also free in the way that he thinks and speaks.
SB: My dad is my hero, but I would also really add he is a Jewish hero, but I would also say that I think and it’s interesting that I sent my kids to Jewish school and I think that it’s a safer bet in terms of creating Jewish continuity because I think it is difficult to remove religion and pass down whatever we are trying to pass down to generations.
But I also think that even within the context of the American Jewish community, there is camp if you want to give your kids Jewish pride and a love for Israel. And there’s taking your kids to Israel if you want to pass this down. And there’s deciding that you’re going to have Shabbat dinner with a group of families every Friday night. There are a lot of ways to feel connected Jewishly, and you’re talking to someone who isn’t interested remotely in studying Torah, but I have found a lot of other ways to feeling connected.
MS: But that brings us back to the question of Jews and religion. It seems to me that those Jews who truly are religiously committed are in decline, and it’s nothing that I particularly feel good or comfortable about, but the fact is that today, the number of Jews who refer to themselves as Jews of no religion is growing very quickly. I, alas, happen to be one of them. I am an atheist. I’m not sure Sara is, but I am, and it does not diminish one iota my feeling for my own Jewishness.
TML: Michael, not all was rosy. You write in your book about a period of being accused of sexual harassment. Is it fact or fiction?
MS: I tend to be, in my speech, provocative, and if that provocation led to people accusing me of sexual harassment, so be it. I didn’t touch anybody [inappropriately]. I didn’t have any acts that would be considered sexual harassment, but I have been provocative in my speech, and if that has offended somebody, I apologize.
TML: Birthright Israel, it worked! One of the crown jewels to bring the American Diaspora Jews under 40 on a free 10-day trip to Israel. [There have been] more than 600,00 participants since 1999. How did you and Charles Bronfman come up with the idea of sending Jewish youth to the Holy Land?
MS: The concept that dominated Birthright in its early stages was one that held that Jews, if they experience Israel, if they experience all that is different about Israel from say America, there is a good chance that will inspire them in their Jewishness, in their Jewish spirit, in their Jewish learning, etc., etc. And I think that while we do not have much in the way of Jewish education on Birthright, but Birthright shows a spirit, a Jewishness that wasn’t available otherwise and seems to have allowed young Jews to have picked up something new in their life’s work and in their lifespan. And for me, Birthright Israel is one of the great hopes for the Jewish future.
TML: The Media Line did a radio program about Birthright when it was still new and heard Israeli youth claim that they deserve a trip to California. When did people begin to see that there was a difference?
MS: They began to see that there was a difference when kids came back from their Birthright trips with a different look on their face with a different inspiration [and] with an overwhelming desire to go back to Israel – a place that they didn’t know and where they had never been. Where somehow there was something communicated in those 10 days.
What they used to complain to the Birthright organization was, what can you really accomplish in 10 days? But the fact is, the Birthright trip accomplished an enormous amount in conspiring, if you will, in these young ignorant Jews to somehow take pride, Jewish pride, in their future.
TML: The government of Israel, and in particular [former Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to cover one-third of the cost of the Birthright program. Did subsequent governments understand and value the Diaspora relationship the same way?
MS: Yes, yes! You are right that Netanyahu was the first. It was probably more courageous of him to have done it but whoever followed him in the prime ministership of Israel equally committed that share of the Birthright costs to the government of Israel, and it’s been really good. Each government of Israel, left-wing, Likud, etc., have really stood by Birthright, even in times of economic difficulty for Israel and paid their share.
TML: Can you put it in perspective because you are talking about a $140 million overall budget?
TML: The Jewish Agency participated in a very finite way.
TML: So, just share what that looked like.
MS: The average trip was about $3,000 per individual, so if you take $3,000 and you multiply it by the 50,000 that we got at our peak, it was about $150 million, one-third of which was paid for by the government of Israel. And that number is slightly too high. It probably was $140 million that you had referred to, but we’re up there.
And the government of Israel and the facilities in Israel don’t easily allow for 50,000 American or non-Orthodox Jews from all over the Diaspora to get there to have the resources to find hotels and buses and tour guides and all that is necessary for this vast influx of young Jews to the Holy Land.
TML: Sheldon Adelson was the largest Birthright donor. He poured more than $100 million into the program. To some, this labeled Birthright according to Mr. Adelson’s well-known political beliefs. Is that a fair assessment?
MS: Sheldon made sure to separate his own political views from his philanthropy, at least to Birthright. He was really good in that respect, and I think he did a great service to the Jewish people and did it full-heartedly without their being much if at all political consciousness in what he did.
TML: Thousands of young people have been exposed to the Birthright formula. Looking back, is there something that you might have done differently?
MS: The fact that Birthright had certain rules. One of the rules was that we were not in the business of creating aliyah [immigration to Israel]. There were some kids who did stay in Israel, [but] most came back. We were not in the business of creating marriages. Almost all went as singles and came back as singles. But we were in the business of helping to foster this spiritual creation of young Jews. And that we did. And that was a very important thing. And that happened without romance; without aliyah, with no more than a 10-day trip sitting mostly on a bus.
SB: I think that at the foundation we have spent time thinking about the fact that Birthright has been the single most successful idea or organization in the last 20 years, but where does that leave the American Jewish community? The kids go on Birthright. They come back [to the United States and] they’re excited. They’re sprinkled in some magical fairy dust, and they come back, especially in the early years to the exact same community that my father has described with a sort of average synagogue and maybe an okay JCC, but very few innovative to capture their imagination, to bring them ideas of what Jewish or Israeli culture look like.
|Judy Steinhardt, Michael’s wife, adds her reflections|
That’s one thing about Jewish Pride. When I read the book, which I did, of course, three or four times, I felt it was our life right in front of us. I couldn’t believe that he was able to get this down. [Editor] David Hazony has been a great partner in this, and [Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life President and CEO] David Gedzelman has been amazing because he has the memory of every single event that ever happened, and I think that Michael was restless and uneasy till he got this down on paper. He really wanted to express what he’s done since he was 54 years old till the present in terms of the Jewish world.
I would say that living through Birthright was very exciting, because he got so much opposition to it from the traditional Jewish agencies, and people felt that it was Steinhardt foolishness. But I remember was so insistent that no one paid to go on Birthright, that it’s totally free, and he really stuck by his guns, and I think that that was a very big part of it as well.
I feel so proud, and now that Michael and I are both in our 80s, every time I say this I can almost cry because I feel that I have lived with a really great visionary and someone who has made a big difference in the 20th century.
TML: The naysayers existed and persisted. The New York Times’ Samuel G. Freedman were among those who attacked Birthright, and in particular regarding free trips to Jews who presumably could afford the trip. Leonard Saxe, a social psychologist from Brandeis [University] became your mastermind behind the data operation. Did an all expenses paid trip to Israel, looking back now, can you unequivocally say that it paid off?
MS: Yes! Yes! And the fact that it was a free trip became really important because kids would not have gone if it were a trip to Italy or to Ireland or even to Israel if it were part of the Jewish institutional world. This was a trip that the kids would never have thought of. Israel was never until Birthright the most popular destination for young American Jews, but with Birthright it became that.
TML: Looking now at assimilation in terms of where the Jewish world is, is this one of the answers for assimilation.
MS: I think it is. The number we tend to use is, in the most recent Pew survey data, between 60 and 70% of Jews who marry, marry out. That’s a profound and sad increase of what used to be the case. For kids who go on Birthright, in contrast to kids who don’t, that number isn’t 60 or 65%, but more like 40% who marry out, so that’s a big difference and it shows that Birthright is having its effect on the Jewish future.
SB: Since my dad and Charles started Birthright, I think the Jewish community has taken note of its success, and there are different organizations like Momentum that are sending Jewish mothers to Israel and there’s Honeymoon Israel, sending young couples to Israel. And there’s Academic Engagement sending professors to Israel. I think people realize in America that if you haven’t been to Israel, then you really don’t understand it, and really just by spending a week or 10-days can actually be transformative.
TML: Sara, anti-Semitism is growing at an alarming rate on college campuses. From all of your mammoth endeavors, and I mean collectively, what is needed now to arm students with the ability to fight the intellectual battle, and preventing it from becoming more than that?
SB: I think it’s a difficult time to be on campus in America. I think that any nuanced conversation is rare and complicated, and I think that the reality is that Zionism is a complicated case for a lot of American Jews who really are ignorant. My father said [that] the kids who go on Birthright are ignorant Jews, and its true. And as much as they might be transformed by a Birthright trip, they come home ignorant Jews. They don’t know that much. And I don’t think that we’ve come up with the answer as to how secular American Jews become educated. I think that’s a big question that we need to think about, because I think kids need to be on campus and understand who they are, but the reality is right now on campus everyone’s narrative is valid. History doesn’t seem to matter that much as feeling [do]. And it’s a very difficult time to be facing anti-Semitism on campus.
TML: Michael, how do you define Zionism?
MS: I define Zionism as a love for the land of Israel.
SB: I would say as a mother of kids in college right now, what’s difficult to see is how young progressive American Jews feel that they cannot be a progressive and a Zionist. And I think that will take a fair amount of untangling for people on the Left to comfortably say, “Yes, I love Israel!” Golda Meir was an original, progressive Jew, but most Americans don’t understand that.
TML: Has the word been bastardized, that’s really the question here?
MS: I don’t think so. I think that it’s been diminished, because there are a fair number of American Jews, either because of ignorance or either because of some negative sense, don’t feel comfortable calling themselves Zionists.
TML: I wrote a story on the Palestinian Birthright some years ago, and the creator told me that they learned of the idea from your program. How does that make you feel?
MS: The fact that the Palestinians are trying to get their own nationalistic sense is something that we have to accept and should accept! And I wish that they would not in that nationalistic fervor become so anti-Zionist, but they are and ultimately we’ll have to deal with that, too.
TML: You addressed the difference in the marketplace between Orthodox and secular programs. You have a strong affinity to work with Jews who are observant as I mentioned Yitz Greenberg earlier, the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Richard Joel, who was the Hillel International CEO. What attracts you, a secular Jew, a self-described as an atheist, to religious leaders?
MS: That is a very good question, because I can’t avoid the conclusion that some Orthodox Jews have characteristics of leadership that you don’t find in the non-Orthodox world, and I’m attracted to that because those people, those who’ve you’ve mentioned, have a certain spirituality. They are committed to being Jewish, and when you think about the Jewish future, what we need more than anything else is young people who are committed to the Jewish future who care about being Jewish, who have learned enough to understand that you have to put something meaningful into it in order to be a Jew throughout your life.
TML: The power of the meal. You spoke about OneTable. By 2018, OneTable reached 60,000 seats at the Shabbat table. By 2021, the annual budget for OneTable is around $7 million. What are you projecting in the next five years?
SB: Over the next few years, we hope to reach many many multiples of the 60,000 number. We’re already reaching close to 200,000 [people] right now in 2022, and we would like to reach even double that in the next few years. The OneTable board is struggling with should our resources only be devoted to people in their 20s and 30s. What happens to young families who need support to have Shabbat dinners? What happens to empty nesters? Shabbat is really the answer for many American Jews who are lonelier than ever are looking for.
MS: Loneliness is something that has not left the Jews unaffected. The Jewish loneliness is typical of American young people’s loneliness, and our sense is that OneTable effectively begins to deal with the question of loneliness.
TML: Long term, can the Jewish identity survive the American melting pot?
MS: If you live in, let me pick a place, Sacramento, California, there are a fair number of Jews, but there are only one or two synagogues and the quality of Jewish education is poor, so in a lot of places where there are a fair number of Jews, a lot has to be done to bring them closer to their historic relationship with their religion.
TML: How did your early childhood shape Michael Steinhardt?
MS: My early childhood was, in many respects, very typical. I grew up in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, and my mother and father were divorced when I was a baby. That was a little bit unusual in the early 1940s, but somehow growing up in a neighborhood that was at least 50% Jewish and seeing tattoos on the arms of so many of those people who showed up in America in the ’40s and the ’50s having experienced the Holocaust, it somehow struck me as something that I couldn’t quite avoid, and not only couldn’t I avoid it, but it made me wonder how there could be a supernatural being who would have allowed so many of our people to have suffered the way that they suffered during that period.
TML: Israel has been the thread and soul of your mission to keep Jews Jewish, so it’s not surprising that you’re funding projects in Israel. What tops the critical list?
MS: What tops the list at the moment, perhaps, because it’s been so successful, is Birthright, but there are quite a few others. And for reasons which I don’t entirely understand, I have been drawn to all sorts of projects that for me represent the possibility of a reinvigorated Jewish future.
TML: Israel is almost 75 [years old]. It’s very different than the one you visited as a youth. Supporting Israel has become in my view a kind of narcotic, giving us a sense of self-worth and achievement that allows us to ignore the tempest that has put our own future in doubt, you said. So, you say that we need to ask [questions], and what do we need to ask from Israel at this point?
MS: What we need to ask from Israel is the recognition that Israel is a part of the broader Jewish world, and Israel could play a vital role in fostering the growth in the Diaspora, which still represents the majority of the Jewish people.
TML: You speak about watchdogs looking at philanthropy within the Jewish communal world and where are they. But my question is, why is it that philanthropists often don’t attribute the same valuation to non-profits as they would their own business?
MS: People typically have a meaningful ego involvement in their own business, and typically much less of an ego involvement with philanthropy, and that’s why I think that Jewish philanthropy strains to keep up with other Jewish activities.
TML: Sara, you’ve taken the helm. You are carrying on your father’s vision. What do you really want to see? What’s next?
SB: I think what’s next is playing some role in helping shift the relationship between America and Israel. In the book, we talk about how a lot of Americans were raised with this view that we should help Israel. We need to buy Israel ambulances [and] build playgrounds, but that’s not really the reality anymore. Israel’s economy is on par with England, and Germany, and Japan, and it wouldn’t make sense for Americans or any community to be helping those countries.
The reality is that the American Jewish community at its soul is sort of slowly dying on the vine; not everyone, but the overwhelming majority. And we need Israelis to revive us, to reinvigorate us, to enliven us, to inspire us, [and] to reach out to us in partnership. And I think helping more Israelis understand why they need to do that is something that we at the foundation are spending a lot of time thinking about. I also think we’re spending a lot of time thinking about what kind of educational initiative could happen in America to help young Jews understand who they are. They feel Jewish pride, but what does that mean? How can they articulate it? How can they become more educated, more knowledgeable?
TML: Your family stood by you, Michael, all these years with your creativity, and your passions and your vision. It must have taken a toll.
MS: No, it’s been remarkable how committed my children and grandchildren appear to be to the Jewish future. Now maybe it’s the fact that Sara, who has six of my grandchildren, she is herself committed, and she sent her kids to [Jewish] day school. One of my other children has very little Jewish involvement, so even in my family it’s not uniformly commitment. It’s something less than that, but that doesn’t mean that much to me because I really care about the future and I care about it independent even of my children.
SB: My father’s creativity and passion has been an inspiration for his kids and his grandkids, and, if anything, I think we are in awe of his – he’s about to be 82 [years old] – continued dedication to the cause. I don’t anyone else who is up at night who is worried about the Jewish future, and I think I know a lot of people who are up at night who are worried about their children, and I think I know a lot of people who are up at night who are worried about their business, but this man is most of the time not worried about his financial positions, and not worried about his children. He’s worried about Jews all across the world – American Jews, secular Jews, Jews from Uruguay, Jews from Mexico, Jews from America – and what he can do to move the needle. And I think for all of us, we look at that and are in awe.
TML: Michael, you’ve envisioned safeguarding and saving a Jewish world. Many religious Jews would marvel at your care and tenacity. Have the results met your vision, and has your quest brought you closer to God?
MS: The quest has not brought me closer to God. Sometimes I sort of wish it had, but the fact is, it hasn’t. In terms of the broad quest about the Jewish future, forgive my saying it, but that brought me closer, maybe, to some God that I don’t exactly believe in. But I feel that there is a nobility in thinking about the Jewish future that I don’t find in very many other places.
TML: Michael Steinhardt and Sara Steinhardt Bloom, thank you both very much for taking the time in this very extensive interview, looking at your new book Jewish Pride, and philanthropy with American Jewry and throughout Israel.
MS: Thank you, Felice!
Video production: Dario Sanchez