Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt offered yesterday morning to contribute $10 million to a new fund he proposed to invigorate American Jewish education at all levels - on condition that the gift constitutes no more than 10 percent of the entire fund.
But if the initial reactions of leaders of several small and mid-size Jewish federations is any indication, it may be easier for Steinhardt to try to get money from other big donors than the communities - despite his comment that such a fund "can succeed only as a partnership of our federations."
"We do not know enough about our religion to take true pride in it," Steinhardt told thousands of GA participants. "We remain Jewish on the vapors of cultural memory."
Young Jews don't know "why being Jewish should be important to them," he said, charging Jewish leaders with complacency on the matter. "What are we going to do about this?" he asked. "I don't think we are seriously considering this question at all."
Steinhardt also proposed that the Jewish federations present every couple who has a Jewish baby with a "newborn gift" consisting of a voucher that would provide the child with early childhood education and a trip with birthright israel, which he co-founded.
"Parents who might not have considered raising their children in a Jewish way may be at least catalyzed to explore their Jewish identity" through this voucher, said Steinhardt, calling the voucher and the education fund "parts of a dream" that must be realized.
Steinhardt also said that even though the birthright program, which has brought 49,000 young Jews to Israel, is widely lauded, its future is "tenuous" because there is not enough money to pay for it.
The only problem may turn out to be the bottom line. That issue was creating something of a "buzz" at the GA yesterday, said a community leader based in Jerusalem: "Does he have the rest of the money?"
The actual idea of promoting education seemed to be a pretty easy sell. "I think it's wonderful," said Mort House, executive director of the Fort Worth, Texas federation. "Jewish education is absolutely critical to Jewish identity and Jewish continuity," he said, pledging to ask his federation at the next board meeting to support the project.
And where will the federation get the funds ? "That will be the question," said House, adding that with a community of about 5,000 members, "our resources are limited."
"There are people that believe staunchly the money should go to Israel, there are people that believe just as staunchly it should go to Jewish Family Services," said House. "Now this is another piece that we have to consider: how much of the pie do we have to cut out for this piece?" The Fort Worth federation, he said, already gives 20 percent of its funds to the sole day school in the area.
House added that while Steinhardt's speech was "inspiring," it lacked the solid details that donors generally want to know about a program before they agree to fund it. "My concern is how this fund gets set up and administered," said House, saying if it becomes part of the United Jewish Communities, "then it get bureaucratized." If the overhead is kept to a minimum, people will be more likely to contribute. "We need those answers before I can sell it to my community."
Leaders of the Phoenix, Arizona federation also expressed support for the fund and for the newborn gift, but said they would first have to convince their community members of the importance of education before they could ask for money.
"The important thing is [Steinhardt] put out a starting point," said Adam Schwartz, executive director of the Phoenix federation.
Schwartz and Vicki Cabot, president of the federation, said their community of 84,000 members is precisely the type that would benefit from greater educational initiatives, as many families with young children live there - including a large proportion of unaffiliated Jews.
"It definitely would be a priority for us," Cabot said about the fund. "The issue is where the dollars will come from to do that - we have to go home and sell that."
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