Champion of synagogue renewal dies at 65

NEW YORK, Dec. 31 (JTA) — Charles Schusterman, a Jewish philanthropist who spearheaded a synagogue renewal effort, died Saturday of complications from leukemia at the age of 65.

Schusterman directed a foundation that gives generously to Jewish causes, including those promoting Jewish education and culture.

Schusterman, who made his money in the oil business, had battled leukemia since 1983.

Told then that he had just six months to live, Schusterman refused to accept the prognosis and found an experimental treatment.

That treatment resulted in harsh effects such as lung damage. But it also allowed Schusterman another 17 years of life, which he used to expand his charitable and philanthropic work.

In 1987, Schusterman and his wife founded the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

Since then, the foundation became known for its support of causes that focus on Jewish renaissance. The foundation regularly gives 75 percent of its donations to Jewish causes, said Sanford Cardin, the Schusterman foundation’s executive director.

Through his various philanthropic vehicles, Schusterman backed the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, as well as other Jewish efforts such as the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education and a cultural center in Jerusalem built by the Reform movement.

He also was a supporter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.

More recently, he was one of 14 philanthropists who pledged $5 million to Birthright Israel, the program that offers free trips to Israel for young Jewish adults.

The Birthright effort coalesced two of the ideas that Schusterman believed in: building Jewish leadership and reaching out to unaffiliated Jews.

Schusterman “believed in the power of outreach to the intermarried and unaffiliated, and making the intermarried — both the Jewish and the non-Jewish spouse — as comfortable as possible with Judaism and the Jewish religion,” Cardin said.

Schusterman’s largest gift, $11.25 million, went to STAR, an acronym for Synagogue Transformation and Renewal. Even though the program was founded with two other philanthropists, Edgar Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, it was Schusterman’s brainchild.

The program, which aims to revitalize the synagogue, is slated to announce its first grants in early January.

“This was his vision. This was what he wanted. He felt very strongly that the synagogue had to be a central part of Jewish life,” said Richard Joel, the president of Hillel.

Schusterman himself was a member of both Reform and Conservative congregations in his hometown of Tulsa, Okla.

In expressing his condolences to Schusterman’s wife, Lynn, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak wrote that Schusterman “was zealous in his promotion of Jewish education and strengthening Jewish identity for the next generation, in his efforts to renew synagogue life and in his advocacy for a vital U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Schusterman was known for applying a business principle — seeking a good investment on his money — to his philanthropic activity.

Joel remembered how Schusterman approached him.

“I’m prepared to come to the table and invest in the future of the Jewish people; what’s the return going to be?” Joel remembers Schusterman saying. “Once he had decided that something was right, he was sold. He wanted to be involved if he could make it better.”

Some say this story exemplifies Schusterman’s hands-on approach to philanthropy.

“He didn’t just write a check to an existing organization and say, ‘That’s OK.’ He thought through where he believed there was a need, and he had a program that he designed himself, or with others, to do what he thought would be most effective,” said Melvin Dow, a past president of AIPAC.

In 2000, the Schustermans gave some $8 million to various philanthropies.

In accordance with Schusterman’s wishes, the family plans to increase its charitable giving to around $15 million a year, Cardin said.

Schusterman also gave major gifts to his alma mater, the University of Oklahoma.

The son of immigrants from what are today Belarus and Latvia, Schusterman graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in petroleum engineering.

After serving in the U.S. Army, he entered the oil business. In 1971, he founded Samson Resources, an oil firm named for his father, who died when Schusterman was 19.

In addition to his oil business, Schusterman was involved in real estate and banking, and was a part-owner of Bank Hapoalim, one of Israel’s largest banks.

Friends and colleagues remembered Schusterman as a self-effacing individual who was honest and direct.

“He was a good ol’ boy, a modest man. If any of our programs bear the family’s name, it was because we insisted upon it, not him,” Hillel’s Joel said.

He was “very unassuming, incredibly smart, but he never felt the need to prove it to anybody,” Joel added.

Despite his battle against leukemia, Schusterman never complained about his pain, friends said.

“He asked only that rooms be kept at 68 degrees” for his health, Cardin said. “If they weren’t, he simply left the meeting.”

Despite his battle against illness, Schusterman remained an optimistic man who had the adventurous spirit of an entrepreneur.

Dow, whose son Steven is married to Schusterman’s daughter Stacy, remembers an incident from a salmon fishing trip in northern Canada, where Schusterman spent part of the summer.

The men were allowed to keep only two salmon each, and Schusterman’s second one weighed 15 pounds. Their guide asked if Schusterman wanted to keep it.

As Dow remembered it, Schusterman replied, ” ‘Let him go. I’ll get a bigger one.’ And he did.”

In addition to Lynn, his wife of 38 years, and Stacy, Schusterman is survived by sons Hal and Jay.

Funeral services were slated to be held Monday in Tulsa. A memorial service is scheduled to be held after the 30-day mourning period.

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