More than 25 years ago, Wall Street mogul Michael Steinhardt took a look around at his fellow American Jews and the institutions that supported them and did not like what he saw. To him, synagogues and religious schools failed to instill a sense of pride in young Jews.
That’s when Steinhardt made a decision that would have ripple effects across the Jewish world for the next quarter-century and beyond.
“On December 31, 1995, I retired and closed down my firm,” Steinhardt writes in his book, Jewish Pride (Post Hill, Sept. 13). “My career as a manager of other people’s money was over. From that day forward, I would dedicate not just my capital but also my time and creative energy to solving the problem that lurked beneath everything I felt had gone wrong with American Jewry.”
What followed were attempts to use his money to revive interest in Jewish life. He tried to enhance education and synagogues, but the most successful program by far is Birthright Israel, which gives young, unaffiliated Jews a free 10-day trip to Israel. The nonprofit organization sends 40,000 men and women ages 18-26 to Israel per year.
Israel inspired Steinhardt when he was young, so he believed the country could instill the same sense of Jewish pride in a new generation.
“It is a country with vigor, courage, creativity, and boundless self-confidence,” Steinhardt tells PW. “And yes, it is still heroic to build a proud, sovereign Jewish community with a world-class military, a vital culture, and a myriad of cutting-edge technological exports. American Jews have a great deal to learn from the Israeli example.”
According to Steinhardt, data from Birthright alumni supports his premise that the Israel experience can jump-start a lifelong commitment to Jewish life. “The results have been quite astonishing,” he says. “For example, Birthright alumni are 40 percent more likely to marry a Jew than those who applied but didn’t go. We have also seen that Birthright participants are significantly more engaged in Jewish life, have more Jewish friends, attend synagogue, send their kids to Jewish schools, and raise children with a strong sense of Jewish identity.”
This strong Jewish identity, or pride, that Steinhardt writes about does not necessarily mean leading a religious life. Steinhardt describes himself as an atheist. What he’s trying to do, he says, is reinforce a sense of peoplehood among secular, non-Orthodox Jews, who he believes are in danger of disappearing without something that binds them together.
“To me, a proud secular Jew is one who knows our history; who understands our people’s heroism over many generations; who feels a powerful sense of peoplehood, including a sense of responsibility and care for other Jews around the world; and who embraces the underlying joy that a strong Jewish connection gives us,” Steinhardt says. “None of that requires a belief in God.”
Today, the challenge facing young Jews, especially those on college campuses, is the daily barrage of antisemitism. The nation-wide rise in antisemitism could present an opportunity for young Jews to get together in mutual defense, but it can also be disheartening for those who are unaffiliated and not yet confident in their Jewishness. Steinhardt’s advice to young people is to prepare to fight back against antisemitism.
“As with any such battle, the most important thing to do is arm yourself—with knowledge, experience, and an unflinching pride in being a Jew,” he says. “Birthright is one piece of the puzzle. But the responsibility falls on each of us to learn about Israel and about our history, to participate in Jewish life, and to recognize that antisemitism grows wherever Jews are seen as timid, weak, or as doubting themselves.”
This view of antisemitism—that a lack of Jewish pride can foster it—is part of what makes Steinhardt an outsider to the organized Jewish community. His Birthright program also was not initially welcomed with open arms. It didn’t help that he often alluded to what he called the dreariness of American Jewish life and the failure of existing Jewish institutions to address it. Even after the success of Birthright, he still considers himself an “outsider,” and he’s OK with that.
“Birthright could never have emerged from the ‘inside,’” he says. “I am a perennial outsider, and in some ways, I have paid a price for that. But I don’t believe our institutions are capable of producing bold, innovative, risk-taking, results-driven solutions to our community’s problems.”
It is Steinhardt’s status as an outsider that attracted Adam Bellow to the manuscript. Bellow is the publisher of Wicked Son Books, an imprint of Post Hill Press, which gets its name from a contrarian character in the Passover Haggadah. Wicked Son specializes in unconventional views on Jewish history, culture, and ideas.
“Wicked Son is thrilled to publish Jewish Pride as our lead title for this fall,” Bellow tells PW. “Not only is Michael Steinhardt one of the most consequential Jewish philanthropists of the past 30 years with vast experience of what works—and a sharp critical eye for what doesn’t—but the revival and healthy expression of Jewish pride is rapidly becoming a central theme in contemporary American Jewish life.”
Birthright, and Steinhardt, have not been without controversy. In 2019, several women accused Steinhardt of a pattern of sexual harassment. Steinhardt admitted to making “boorish” comments but denied many of the accusations. In 2018, a group of Jewish activists walked off the program in protest of what they said was a lack of education about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Steinhardt says, however, that the Birthright program does address Israel’s problems.
“That necessarily involves engaging with some of Israel’s toughest challenges—including its relations with Arab neighbors, Arab citizens, and of course the Palestinians—through a combination of expert presentations, informal discussions, and direct experiences,” he says. “But I firmly believe that if participants get to see the real Israel, warts and all, it will only strengthen their pride in being Jewish.”
In addition to Birthright Israel, Steinhardt launched an initiative called OneTable, which connects young Jews from all over the country for Shabbat dinners. It’s an online platform where, free of charge, people can find and choose which dinners to attend. “The goal was to get tens of thousands of unengaged Jews to start attending and hosting Shabbat dinners on a regular basis,” he says. “So far, it seems to be working.”
As he looks to the future, Steinhardt wants to use the success of Birthright and OneTable to craft new initiatives. He also wants to invest in programs that teach non-Israeli Jews the Hebrew language to foster a better connection between Israel and the diaspora. The goal is to instill in others a sense of Jewish pride. For Steinhardt, “The next step is to figure out how to leverage this emphasis on building Jewish pride into a larger effort—perhaps a kind of movement.”
This story has been updated with additional background information about Steinhardt.