For a museum dedicated to digitizing and preserving history, The Center for Jewish History is now better positioned to face its future.
The center, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, announced earlier this week that it has raised the $30 million needed to pay off its existing debt associated with the purchase and construction of its building on West 16th Street.
The building houses the collections of five institutions: American Jewish Historical Society, American Sephardi Federation, Leo Baeck Institute, Yeshiva University Museum and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
Board members William Ackman and Joseph Steinberg quietly launched the capital campaign in September 2009, when presented with unfavorable terms for renewing some $30 million in tax-exempt bonds. Continuing to dip into its endowment fund to pay nearly $2 million in annual debt obligations would have hampered the center’s financial stability.
Ackman, CEO of hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management, contributed $6.75 million, and Steinberg, president of Leucadia National, gave $5.35 million. Bruce Berkowitz’s Fairholme Foundation contributed an additional $6.75 million.
These gifts represent the three largest individual gifts that the center has ever received.
The three philanthropists increased their initial gifts since this was an all-or-nothing capital campaign (either pay off the debt in its entirety, or not at all). “They increased their generosity to help us see the finish line,” says Michael Glickman, the center’s chief operating officer.
The vast majority of the $30 million — some $27.5 million — was paid in full. Only $2.5 million came in short-term pledges to be paid out over a couple of years.
Now, the center is focusing on raising $1.5 million to meet the terms of a three-for-one challenge grant awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities last August. The fund will support the center’s archival processing and digitization efforts. The center aims to raise $5 million by the end of 2012.
“It’s much easier to have a conversation with a donor about working toward our mission and why we need to raise money [for archival and digitization efforts], than it is having a conversation with a donor about paying down your debt,” Glickman told The Jewish Week.
For 2011, the center’s budget will remain under $6 million. “Given our experience over the last couple of years, we have learned to do more with less, as I think everybody has,” Glickman said.
The center is rolling out several initiatives, including compiling digital versions of Holocaust-related collections so that they are accessible online. It will also host a conference in November focused on digital technology and the study of Jewish history.
The center also plans to continue its work to foster a community of scholars and serve as a hub of Jewish history. In addition to fellowships for graduate students and post-docs, it is searching for senior scholars as part of fellowships funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“It’s a nice opportunity for us to continue working toward making the collections more accessible and putting them, broadly speaking, in the hands of the public,” Glickman said.