A self-professed atheist, Michael Steinhardt might be offended — or else amused — to be described as a modern-day prophet.
It’s not that the businessman-turned-philanthropist preaches repentance and devotion to God; far from it, his primary concern is the survival and growth of secular, or cultural Judaism. He figures the Orthodox can take care of themselves.
But like the biblical figures in ancient Israel who spoke out harshly against the ways of their brothers and sisters, warning them they were on the path of doom, Steinhardt rails against the sacrosanct institutions and leadership of the organized Jewish community — particularly the Reform and Conservative movements, Hebrew schools, the federations and the national defense agencies. He points out “weaknesses, wrongs, errors, fallacies and hypocrisies” that he says have led the community to the brink of extinction.
What’s more, Steinhardt, who retired 15 years ago as one of the most successful money managers in Wall Street history to devote himself full time to Jewish philanthropy, takes a certain pride in his role, as he sees it, of “trying to speak the truth, all the time — my vision of the truth.” But he knows he is criticized often as an attention-grabbing doomsayer always ready to burst the establishment’s bubble.
Now entering his 70th year, Steinhardt is both more reflective and more outspoken — albeit in soft, even tones — than in the past. And just as impatient.
During an interview in his spacious office on Madison Avenue the other day, he confided that he is about to “get harsher” in his pronouncements against the Jewish establishment.
Indeed, he now describes its organizations as “the enemy,” based on his passionate belief that Birthright Israel, which he co-founded with Charles Bronfman a decade ago, is the best and only hope for reversing the trend of runaway assimilation.
According to Steinhardt, rather than fully support the effort — a documented success in creating life-changing, positive Jewish experiences for many of the 225,000 young participants — most Jewish groups are busy with their usual agendas, which he says are at best ineffectual. To him, it is unconscionable that 35,000 young people who registered for the free 10-day trips Birthright sponsors last year were left on the waiting list because not enough money had been raised to allow them to participate.
Based on past statistics, 80 percent of those 35,000 young people will not register again; “they will never be heard from again Jewishly,” he says.
Perhaps he is being overly dramatic, but the way Steinhardt sees it, Birthright is the only real chance to reach these marginally Jewish young people — he sometimes calls them “Jewish ignoramuses” or “Jewish barbarians” — and connect them to their history and heritage. By that logic any group that doesn’t make Birthright a priority is endangering the Jewish enterprise.
Steinhardt says he recognizes the need for the Jewish community to feed the poor and help the needy, but he believes that “in general, the Jewish world has put too much emphasis on the past and far too little on the future in terms of appropriately educating our kids Jewishly, and providing a Jewish vision for the next generation.
“Our first priority should be assuring a stronger Jewish future. And it shows up in the lack of vigor, education and vitality in the Jewish world.
“My enemies are those organizations that grab donors for their causes, to the detriment of these [potential Birthright] kids,” he says, asserting that the Jewish groups are duplicative, wasteful and increasingly irrelevant.
“I have no tolerance for them. Show me how they are making a difference,” he says, adding that we are in a bad way “when the Jewish past interferes with the Jewish future.”
While the lyrics vary, this is a tune Steinhardt has been singing for a long time. And as he readily acknowledges, many communal leaders and others have tuned him out, saying that while they deeply appreciate his generosity, independence and creativity, they find his negative and accusatory rants tiresome and counterproductive.
“I love Michael,” one prominent leader said, “and he has achieved great things. But he can be a big baby, losing patience with projects and moving on, and denigrating hard-working, caring people along the way.”
(Others echoed that sentiment, but also insisted on anonymity for fear of offending Steinhardt; ironically, he probably would think more highly of such critics if they identified themselves. He rarely speaks off the record, never ducks a question, and is always willing to name names.)
“I do worry about being dismissed as a kvetch,” he says, attributing such sentiments to communal leaders who “prefer to remain in their insular box.” He insists that if his views are misguided, let others prove him wrong. “I’d debate anyone,” he says. “You name it [a contentious viewpoint of his], I’ll defend it.”
When told that a young Jewish activist was appalled to hear him publicly ranking out various Jewish groups and leaders at a Birthright-related press conference several months ago, Steinhardt was neither embarrassed nor apologetic.
“The Jewish world is so devoid of serious introspection that I feel almost compelled to be more critical than I am in other areas of my life,” he responds. “I don’t regret what I said. I feel proud to include those things that are not said elsewhere, that I think are meaningful — yes, provocative — and that are intended to add to the Jewish conversation.”
He estimates that he has given $200 million in charity over the last 15 years, about 80 percent of it to Jewish causes. Among those causes he is proud of, besides Birthright, are a new effort to establish a national Hebrew language charter school movement, intended to “make important inroads in educating the non-Orthodox, who desperately need it”; the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative (JECEI), which seeks to invigorate the early childhood school years; and the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), promoting day schools, which he describes as a quality organization, though he is disappointed that “it has failed to expand the number of non-Orthodox kids going to day schools.”
He also cites his major investment in Hillel as “successful early on; I’m not sure it is now.”
In a major talk at the 92nd Street Y in late October, on “The State of World Jewry,” Steinhardt noted at the outset that he would “focus more on our weaknesses than our strengths … because I believe we gain more by being self-critical than being self-congratulatory.”
Expressing the concern that modern Jewish education is “a great failure,” that most American Jews are not very Jewishly involved, that the great majority of Jewish wealth is distributed to non-Jewish causes, that assimilation is “rampant” and the number of Jews declining, he reasoned that “we might just disappear.”
He cited the success of Birthright in providing “a close, tangible encounter with Jewish peoplehood,” and presented a challenge to the community “to create an inspiring experience within the educational system — before young people get turned off in the first place.”
He put forth the notion of identifying uniquely Jewish values that would resonate with all Jews, and cited as examples “struggling spirituality,” which he described as actively engaging and arguing with God — this from an atheist — and “living in the here and now,” doing good, not for reward in the afterlife, but for the merit of the deed itself.
In the end, Steinhardt is tough — perhaps unfairly tough, to make a point, he says – on Jewish professionals and lay leaders. But he is hard on himself as well, often questioning and criticizing the effectiveness of his own projects, and, as he did in business, pushing those around him to try harder, do better.
Closing our conversation the other day, he mused that when he finished his speech at the 92nd Street Y, “there was a one-minute standing ovation. But since then the silence has been shattering.
“My generation of American Jews,” he said, “will be viewed as anything but a great generation in terms of Jewish achievements, philanthropy and vision. My goal is to make the next generation an awful lot better than mine.” n