Philanthropy and Transformation

A prominent female Jewish philanthropist reflects on her experiences, and offers her vision.

The following article is reprinted with permission from the April 2002 issue of  Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility.

Charles Schusterman was my husband, my best friend, and my philanthropic partner. We worked together to form our family foundation, to develop our philanthropic agenda, and to pursue our shared vision of helping to promote a renewal of Jewish life throughout the world. Both of us were intimately involved in every aspect and detail of our foundation from its inception in 1967. Now that Charlie is gone, I have assumed responsibility for maintaining the momentum we built together and for leading our foundation in new directions.

jewish philanthropyI am acutely aware that very few women, especially Jewish women, have ever been presented with the philanthropic opportunities and challenges that lay ahead of me. Nonetheless, I do not expect my gender to play a determinative role in the decisions I ultimately choose to make. I see myself as a Jewish philanthropist who happens to be a woman, not a woman philanthropist who happens to be a Jew.

Some of my earliest and fondest memories of philanthropy involve the hours I spent with my father helping to care for people I remember calling the “little old ladies.” My father never talked in terms of charity. He spoke only of improving lives and, in turn, making the world a better place for all of us. Not being a religious man, he was unfamiliar with the Jewish perspective on tikkun olam (repairing the world) or tzedakah (pursuit of justice and righteousness).

After my first visit to Israel in 1977, Judaism became an essential aspect of my life rather than simply a means of self‑identification. I began to define myself through my philanthropy. The groups I chose to support and the manner in which I decided to give to them became windows to my soul, clear expressions of my innermost convictions and reflections of values and traditions that were of great importance to me. For the first time in my life, Jewish organizations and Jewish causes became the primary focus of my philanthropy. I started to devote the vast majority of my time and financial resources toward issues of Jewish concern. Today, our foundation allocates a minimum of 75 percent of its resources specifically to Jewish causes and concerns.

During the course of my philanthropic work, I have faced innumerable obstacles and challenges–some for no reason other than that I am a woman. There is no question that Jewish women are often treated differently and with less respect than our male counterparts. All too often, policy recommendations I make at meetings are not seriously pursued–much less adopted–until a man speaks on their behalf. This intolerable reality must change, and Jewish leaders of both genders have a responsibility to level the playing field for everyone as quickly as possible. For some, that means providing direct assistance to organizations dedicated to advancing the cause of women in the Jewish communal world. For others, it means electing leaders based strictly on merit without regard to gender. For me, it means leading by example.

Like my friends and mentors, Shoshana Cardin and Sylvia Hassenfeld, I hope to demonstrate through my philanthropic activities that women can be successful agents of change in the Jewish world without focusing primarily on issues of gender. Shoshana and Sylvia work tirelessly and effectively on behalf of all Jews to strengthen klal Yisrael [the entire Jewish community] and promote Jewish renewal, the same principles that guide my philanthropy.

Through my funding and personal involvement, I hope to reach out more effectively to Jewish youth, the unaffiliated, and the intermarried. Coming from an assimilated German‑Jewish home, one in which we celebrated Easter and Christmas rather than Passover and Hanukkah, I understand the challenges they face. But I chanced upon the joys of Judaism, and I want to increase the odds that others will make these discoveries as well. Also, I hope my philanthropic efforts will strengthen the ranks of our Jewish educators and communal professionals, improve the way we communicate in the Jewish community, and–most important–help make Judaism more meaningful and fun.

The challenges confronting contemporary Jewish life are so daunting that we have no time to waste on matters that divide us. Indeed, we must join hands and direct our attention to issues that unite us. It is time for each of us to become Jewish philanthropists: to contribute whatever time, talent, and resources we can afford to help ensure a vibrant Jewish future.

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