NEW YORK (Dec. 3)
The Dow is plunging and Michael Steinhardt isn’t happy.
Just before leaving his office to participate in a panel discussion at a United Jewish Appeal lunch — devoted to a subject, he grumbles, about which he knows nothing — Steinhardt calls in a young man wearing a black velvet yarmulke who manages his personal investments.
As Steinhardt peers at the stream of numbers blinking on the financial-data screen dominating his desk, they confer urgently about what the man will sell off while his boss is out.
Steinhardt formally retired from managing $3 billion of other people’s money in late 1995, but it’s clear that the man who acquired his first stocks at the age of 13 — a Bar Mitzvah gift from his father — hates being away from the office while the market is volatile; he still thrives on the exhilarating stress of risky trading.
In the world of Wall Street, where fortunes are made and lost in the quickest of trades, Steinhardt is legendary, a peer to men like George Soros, who have much higher public profiles than he.
In the sphere of Jewish philanthropy — a universe that traditionally operates on an entirely different set of natural laws than does the financial world – – he is fast becoming one of the most influential individuals around.
And unlike many other Jewish philanthropists, Steinhardt devotes nearly all his giving to non-establishment Jewish institutions and programs.
“I’m struck by the irony of an extraordinarily achieving community such as ours being in a period of demographic decline,” says the 56-year-old Teddy Roosevelt look-alike, speaking in his office that towers over Central Park.
“I’m challenged by the thought that the community needs new risks,” says Steinhardt, who tends to downplay his role in Jewish endeavors, during his first major interview with the Jewish press.
It’s when faced with challenges and risk that Steinhardt seems to feel most Jewishly alive — and often, has gotten his best returns. The same independence and strong ego that led him to success in both bull and bear markets is leading Steinhardt to start new programs, to try to make them bigger and better — even when similar undertakings already exist.
Take his forthcoming “Birthright Project,” for example.
He plans to provide a free trip to Israel to any Jewish youth in the world.
Whether they live in Malibu or Melbourne, are totally secular or religious, rich or poor, Jewish youth will only have to ask to receive vouchers good for free round-trip airfare and other expenses, he says.
Why not work with a similar, if smaller-scale, effort already on the ground, such as the Charles Bronfman-funded Israel Experience?
“I want to recreate it, put it on the map in a very different way,” Steinhardt says, adding that he is going to try to line up 20 or 25 other wealthy Jews to commit $1 million for each of five years to the endeavor, he says.
“I try and focus on innovation. I’m not interested in contributing to existing organizations, many of which I regard as vestigial,” Steinhardt says.
“I think the Jewish world needs risk-taking. Unfortunately, the Jewish establishment is glacially slow in doing that.”
The impatience pays off in business, but ruffles a few feathers in the Jewish establishment.
Some grumble privately about Steinhardt pouring so much into new projects – – including his recent initiative to help establish new Jewish day schools – – when many already existing programs are in sore need of cash.
Still, no one is willing to publicly criticize the man who could one day be their white knight.
But it’s not just his willingness to put down big money for independent new projects that sets Steinhardt apart from most other Jewish philanthropists.
Even as he has built a career in a financial specialty most people don’t understand, he has spent a lifetime as a spiritual seeker, often trying to work out irreconcilable dichotomies.
A self-declared atheist, he has made Shabbat dinner a centerpiece of his family’s life. An avowed secularist, he has long been engaged in religious discussion with Orthodox rabbis.
His Jewish journey has taken him on a roundabout route. It is one that finds him in a place without any theological comforts, but where the possibility of making a substantial contribution is its own reward.
“I find joy and meaning in the hope that I contribute something to a renaissance in the non-Orthodox Jewish world,” he says.
“The values of our community are the best that humankind has created, and to perpetuate it is, I think, worthwhile,” he says.
Those who know him best view Steinhardt as a sincere religious seeker.
When Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, who runs a foundation Steinhardt set up two years ago — Kol Israel Chaverim: Jewish Life Network — meets with him, the rabbi is “never quite sure if it is going to be a business meeting or whether it’s going to turn into a religious discussion.
“Frequently we spend an inordinate amount of time talking theology rather than philanthropy,” Greenberg says.
“Easy talk, conventional talk, he feels is vapid, doesn’t nurture souls or people. Your average layman, let alone your average Wall Street money manager, is not wrestling with the meaning of life, or of being a Jew,” he says.
Steinhardt’s daughter, Sara Berman, now 22 and the features editor at the weekly Forward newspaper — in which her father bought a 50 percent stake in 1995 — recalls that while she was growing up, Shabbat dinner was central to their family life and they visited Israel every year or two.
At the same time, they attended Manhattan’s Reform Central Synagogue, mostly on the High Holidays.
“Despite feeling that it wasn’t a religious home, we definitely knew Judaism was very important, and that there was much more spiritual religious content in our home than there was in the typical home of my secular friends at Dalton,” Berman says, referring to the private Manhattan school she attended.
Married, Berman now keeps a kosher home and belongs to an Orthodox synagogue.
Her brother David, 28, is a partner in a Wall Street hedge fund, which manages high-yield, high-risk investments, and brother Daniel, 26, “is on his own spiritual search,” according to his father, living in Sedona, Ariz., and learning organic gardening.
Steinhardt’s Jewish life started out in typical fashion in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., which at the time was almost exclusively Jewish and Italian.
The home in which his parents raised their only child was traditionally religious.
Through high school, from which he graduated at 16, he and a friend went to Shabbat morning services at a little shul in their neighborhood, where they engaged the older men in debate.
And until he left home to attend the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, he donned tefillin daily.
It was while he was in college that his spiritual rebellion began.
While studying Nietzsche and other philosophers, he says, “I began to question everything, like how turning on lights [on Shabbat] is like work. It seemed sort of remote, antiquated to me.
“I would flaunt my lack of religious faith. I would drive my mother crazy by eating on Yom Kippur,” he says, adding, “I have this streak of provocation even today.”
While in college, he went to a Shlomo Carlebach concert and introduced himself to the charismatic and controversial Orthodox anti-establishment rabbi who rejected the establishment.
They began an association that was to last decades.
In fact, his spent his first date with Judith — his wife of almost 30 years – – at the late Carlebach’s Upper West Side apartment, for a Yom Kippur break- the-fast.
Carlebach officiated at their wedding and, over the years, Steinhardt underwrote several of the projects with which Carlebach and his twin brother, also a rabbi, were involved.
In 1978, Steinhardt found himself at a crossroads: He felt unsatisfied spiritually and professionally, but did not know which path to take.
So with the financial world casting a dubious eye, Steinhardt, at the top of his field, left his own firm, Steinhardt Partners, for a year’s sabbatical.
He went to Carlebach for guidance and walked away, he says, empty-handed. “It was the first and only time I came to him in need, and he had nothing to give me,” he recalls with regret.
Deeply disappointed, Steinhardt essentially ended their relationship.
He spent his year off at home, occasionally studying Torah with Shlomo’s twin, Eli Chaim, learning yoga with some of the women in the neighborhood of his Bedford, N.Y., property, north of New York City, and trying to figure out a way to make businesses in Israel more attractive to foreign investors.
Steinhardt went back to work, asking himself how he could use his money to pursue his areas of interest.
He went into the movie business by forming Steinhardt-Baer Productions, which still exists but to date hasn’t produced any commercial successes.
He also started investing more seriously in Israel. In the early 1980s, he introduced Merrill Lynch to Israel, where the firm now has substantial presence as underwriters of Israeli securities.
He also began building a private menagerie on his 51-acre estate, filling it with exotic wildlife and flora. He began by collecting every kind of duck and swan in the world, which led him to wallabies and zebras, llamas and dozens of other species.
The Steinhardts are also avid collectors of Judaica, modern art, antiquities, and textiles from Asia and Peru.
Since shutting down his famous hedge funds, Steinhardt has been handling only his own money.
He says his personal net worth totals a bit over $300 million, much of it devoted to investments and charities close to his heart.
With a handful of others, he bought a controlling interest in Israel’s Bank Hapoalim this fall, and a couple of years ago purchased control of Israel’s Maritime Bank.
But he devotes most of his time to philanthropy.
A grand conservatory at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden is named after Michael and Judith Steinhardt to honor their $3 million donation a decade ago, and he serves on several boards of directors, including the Dalton and Wharton schools.
But his main focus now is on things Jewish.
Steinhardt recently brought together 11 other major philanthropists to donate a total of $18 million over five years to start new Jewish day schools.
For the last three years he has quietly devoted about $25 million to getting the Jewish Life Network off the ground.
The Manhattan-based foundation is run by Greenberg and his son, J.J. It is developing half a dozen projects designed to attract the unaffiliated, helping them connect positively with their Jewishness.
One of their projects is a four-story building on Central Park West, which will include space for everything from poetry slams to text study, independent films to locker rooms.
Steinhardt will spend at least $10 million on capital costs before the new center, slated to be called simply “Makom,” Hebrew for place, opens its doors next autumn.
Another endeavor is a new school of Jewish chaplaincy in Manhattan that will train rabbis, professionals at Jewish organizations and others in the Jewish ways of aiding the chronically and terminally ill.
He donates money to New York’s UJA-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies and the Israel Museum. And often, when he does involve himself with established organizations, he tries to start new ventures within them.
Despite an intellectual commitment to non-Orthodoxy, ultimately he’s an equalopportunity funder.
At the same time that he is considering establishing a Jewish secular high school in Manhattan, he is also a prime donor to the Orthodox-run National Jewish Outreach Project, which promotes Jewish literacy, and he gives money to a Philadelphia-based Lubavitch rabbi organizing peer Jewish connections among university students.
He is particularly interested in student efforts.
Through Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, he started the Jewish Campus Service Corps, which this year has 77 recent college graduates doing outreach in unorthodox ways to Jewish university students.
He underwrote the start-up of Lights in Action, a five-year-old, student-run group promoting Jewish identity among college students.
“Students are clearly in a formative stage of their lives, and if you can impact them, it’ll be an enduring impact,” he says.
“It’s nice to get a 50- or 60-year-old to get more interested in their Judaism, but in the end it’s probably less valuable,” says the man who always has his eye on the bottom line.
“I might as well go directly to their children.”