January 4, 2007
by Amiram Barkat
A close look at the leading Jewish philanthropists in the United States reveals that only a very small percentage of donations are invested in Israel, or in other Jewish causes. Another prominent characteristic of Jewish philanthropy is the paucity of women, both as donors and in senior positions in community institutions. Lynn Schusterman, a billionaire who donates millions of dollars a year to Israel, is an exception that proves the rule.
In an interview with Haaretz, Schusterman says there are signs indicating that Israel is again becoming a fashionable destination for American Jewish philanthropies. It will take, however, "another generation or two," in her estimation, before women gain a foothold in leadership in the U.S. Jewish community.
Schusterman came to Israel this week with 550 Jewish young people from throughout the world who are participating in the Leading Up North project. Groups of 50 Jewish young people will be sent to all the major locales in the North and will work as volunteers alongside Israeli students in renovating shelters and public buildings, planting trees and rehabilitating the scorched forests. In the U.S., Schusterman, one of the largest donors to the birthright project, is considered a "freak" of programs for young Jews. Anyone attends the grandiose farewell parties that birthright holds for the participants in the project cannot help but notice Schusterman dancing energetically with tanned young people.
Advertisement Professionals in the world of Jewish philanthropy categorize Schusterman as a member of the billionaires' league, even though no estimation of her wealth has ever been published in the media and her name has not been mentioned on the Forbes and Fortune lists of the wealthiest people in the U.S. The only bit of information that could hint at her wealth is the extent of the donations being distributed by the foundation that bears her name and the name of her late husband, Charles: $25 million a year. The source of the family's wealth is an oil exploration company that her husband founded in 1971. The Samson Company, named for Charles' father, Samuel, is based in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is ranked among the 20 largest oil companies in the U.S., but it does not provide data estimating its exact worth.
The first $500
Schusterman is strict about her privacy and rarely gives interviews. She is a slender woman with a light voice and looks younger than her age. She was born in New York 68 years ago, the fifth generation of Jewish immigrants from Germany and France, and grew up in an established and anti-Zionist Reform community, as was prevalent in the Reform movement during that period. The person who changed her view of the world was her husband Charles, who supported Israel unreservedly. "My first memory of Israel is from 1967," relates Schusterman. "We lived in Tulsa and my husband had just started the business. One day, just before the Six-Day War, we went to the bank together and deposited $500 for the State of Israel."
Some 10 years later, the couple came with their three children on their first visit to Israel in the framework of a United Jewish Appeal delegation. Since 1988, the Schusterman family has been ensuring that every elected public official in the state of Oklahoma comes for a visit. "I fell in love with the country and the people," says Schusterman. "As someone who comes from a city where there are only 2,000 Jews, I felt that Israel was a home."
Her connection to Israel picked up in 1997, when she purchased an apartment in a prestigious residential building in Jerusalem, where she spends several weeks a year.
In the U.S., the name Schusterman is identified with the Republican Party and her husband, who was the vice president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), was considered close to the moderate right in Israeli politics. However, Schusterman refrains from taking a stance and does not contribute to Israeli politicians. The only element that Schusterman is prepared to attack willingly is the American media. "In the Lebanon war, the media in the U.S. was so judgmental toward Israel. We didn't shoot first and we didn't abduct soldiers and we didn't use children as human shields."
Charles Schusterman died in 2000 after a long illness and his children have taken the management of his businesses upon themselves. Schusterman concentrates on the family foundation's philanthropic activity, which has increased considerably in recent years. She is available for foundation matters at any time of day and she likes to listen in the wee hours of the night to proposals and ideas for donations that are sent to her private e-mail address. However, Schusterman keeps her distance from involvement in the Jewish establishment, which she sees as a bureaucratic and convoluted body. The main beneficiaries of her donations are the Reform movement, the World Joint Distribution Committee, Jewish educational institutions in various places in the world and organizations that engage in social activity, like helping children at risk. Her major investments in Jewish young people are in the framework of Hillel, the Jewish students' organization that has its center in the U.S.
After the intifada broke out in Israel, and as a response to the alienation of Jewish students from Israel, she established the Israel on Campus Coalition, an umbrella organization that sets a uniform information policy on the issue of Israel for about 30 Jewish organizations that are active on campuses. The Schustermans began donating to the birthright project after Michael Steinhardt persuaded them; Steinhardt was Charles' partner in an investment in Bank Hapoalim at the time. Schusterman does not hide her displeasure at the fact that she and her fellow donors to birthright constitute just a small handful of the hundreds of existing Jewish philanthropists. "It's totally true that Jews don't give money for Jewish causes the way they give for non-Jewish causes, like the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Steinhardt and I are always asking, 'why?' And we aren't finding an answer. But I feel that behind the scenes, there is more understanding nowadays. People are seeing what the Saudis are doing with their millions, giving to Harvard and to Georgetown, and they are realizing the importance of Jewish and Israel studies at universities in the United States. Sheldon Edelson's renewed involvement is also a very important development. I believe that this is the beginning of a new trend."
Only four women invited
Half a year ago, a research institute in Jerusalem held brainstorming session on the future of the Jewish people, with the participation of "the most important Jewish policy-shapers and decision-makers in the world." Only four of the 30 people who were invited were women. When Schusterman heard about this, she was furious: "A number of women friends came for Friday night dinner at my apartment in Jerusalem and I talked about this. We simply didn't believe it. How is it possible that a woman like the president of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Judge Ellen Heller, wasn't invited? Are those people blind or something?"
The discrimination against women is a common phenomenon in Jewish institutions in the U.S. According to a study that was conducted this year, among the 19 directors of the largest Jewish communities in the U.S., there is not even a single woman - while 70 percent of the workers in the federations are Jewish. The number of prominent women philanthropists can also be counted on one hand and most of them, like Schusterman, are managing wealth that was accumulated by their husbands. Schusterman says she is doing a lot to advance women in the Jewish establishment, but "it will take a generation or two" until the goal is achieved.