(JTA) — The first time Ross Beroff met Michael Steinhardt, the megadonor offered him and a young woman $100 to go into a corner and talk alone for 15 minutes. If the impromptu couple ended up getting married, Steinhardt said, he would pay for their honeymoon.
At the time, Beroff was a college student and didn’t think about how awkward the offer may have felt for the woman in question. Steinhardt’s matchmaking “shtick,” as he called it recently, was widely known at the time and tolerated with a wink or an eye-roll by those who worked with him and accepted his money. But Beroff and the woman had the conversation, and split the money. A photo shows him and Steinhardt holding a $100 bill.
Beroff regrets it now. The woman involved did not respond to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency inquiry. A person close to Steinhardt confirmed that he would often offer young men and women $100 to talk with each other.
“I’m disgusted with him and ashamed,” said Beroff, now an employee for a Jewish organization he asked not to be named. “What happened, what I was involved in, wasn’t the worst thing he has done, but was a small sampling of his attitude. And I wish I had said that offering to pay people like that is inappropriate.”
Last month, the New York Times and ProPublica reported on seven women who accuse Steinhardt of sexual harassment. They describe a pattern in which Steinhardt allegedly propositioned them or said sexually inappropriate remarks while they interacted with him in professional settings.
Steinhardt, a former hedge-fund manager who has donated prolifically to Jewish causes, has denied some of the specific allegations and attributes the others to a crude sense of humor.
Both Steinhardt’s critics and his defenders attribute his comments to an obsession with Jewish continuity — a term of art in Jewish communal circles for encouraging Jews to marry other Jews and create Jewish families. Citing “continuity,” Jewish organizations have poured tens of millions of dollars over three decades into education, camping and and other “identity” programs meant to combat a growing intermarriage rate and a feared demographic and communal decline.
But organizational heads and philanthropy experts now say that the Jewish communal zeitgeist is moving away from continuity, in part due to a realization that it encourages stereotypes about women and Jewish families. Instead, new groups are stressing values like learning, service or inclusion of intermarried couples.
“I think people are realizing you have to beef up the continuity agenda with meaning,” said Andres Spokoiny, president and CEO of the Jewish Funders’ Network. “What they are realizing, regardless of any #MeToo situation or any anti-patriarchy backlash — what people are realizing is that getting people together and having them meet other Jews is necessary but not sufficient.”
Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella group for local Jewish fundraising bodies in the U.S., has also moved away from continuity for continuity’s sake. For three years beginning in 2011, it hosted TribeFest, a conference whose goal was to bring together young unaffiliated Jews to learn and socialize. But it ended the program in 2014 and has moved to young adult programs that are more explicitly about education.
“The shift in programming you are seeing today – with a stronger connection to Jewish education—is not a complete leaving behind of Jewish continuity,” Beth Cousens, the group’s associate vice president for Jewish education and engagement, wrote in a statement. “It is prioritizing exploration of Jewish tradition and building of one’s Jewishness over socializing and even over helping people find partners.”
As another example of that kind of shift, Spokoiny pointed to OneTable, an initiative that partners with a broad spectrum of organizations to host Shabbat dinners. One of OneTable’s partners is InterfaithFamily, which aims to include intermarried couples in Jewish life. Al Rosenberg, OneTable’s director of marketing and communications, said the mission was “not even a little bit” about Jewish continuity.
OneTable is funded by the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.
“The people at their table tend to be from all different walks of life,” Rosenberg said of OneTable hosts. “There are many people who would not consider themselves people of faith at all … There is a way to do Shabbat dinner that is authentic to you whether or not you are Jewish.”
In the wake of the Steinhardt revelations, some say the communal reckoning over his misdeeds should also include questioning whether American Jewish institutions place too much of a focus on Jewish natalism — that is, making Jewish babies. At the center of the debate is Birthright Israel, the program, co-founded by Steinhardt, that has brought tens of thousands of young Jews on free trips to Israel.
Although Birthright is ostensibly meant to build connections between Diaspora Jews and Israel, Steinhardt was blunt in describing it as a trip to match Jewish singles. Steinhardt once reportedly offered a free honeymoon to anyone at a Birthright event who met that night and married within the year, according to a 2011 article in The Nation. He told The New York Times in 2008 that matchmaking is “the unintended but happy outcome of the trip.”
“We are demographically challenged,” Steinhardt told the Times. “In the non-Orthodox world, intermarriage rates have soared, and generally the intermarried are less likely to have Jewish kids.”
(Birthright’s reputation for urging Jews to match up was so widespread that the sitcom “Broad City” spent much of one episode spoofing it.)
Jewish groups have long fretted about rising intermarriage rates and what they mean for the raw number of American Jews and the quality of Jewish life. In a country where Jews face relatively little oppression and have historically thrived, communal leaders have looked at increasing intermarriage, especially among the non-Orthodox, and worried that their descendants will marry non-Jews, have non-Jewish kids, and that Jews will lose the critical mass necessary to sustain a rich communal life.
The continuity agenda was kickstarted with the release of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which put the intermarriage rate for individuals born as Jews at 52 percent. Concern swelled after a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center found a Jewish intermarriage rate of 58 percent since 2000.
The sociology of intermarriage and the rise of a megadonor class made continuity a growth industry. Non-Orthodox day schools, given a low priority before the 1990s, became central to the agendas of federations and individual donors in part because of studies suggesting their graduates were more likely to marry other Jews.
But the accusations against Steinhardt — and allegations of sexual harassment against Steven M. Cohen, a Jewish demographer whose studies formed the basis for the Jewish communal focus on natalism — have led some to charge that objectifying women is not a bug of the system, but a feature.
“An emphasis on heterosexual marriage and reproduction is problematic in the way that it, for many women, creates the sense that their most important contribution to the Jewish people is as functioning wombs, and that there is no higher mission for them than to be wives and mothers,” said Idit Klein, president and CEO of Keshet, a Jewish LGBTQ group. “That is necessarily demeaning and does not communicate to girls and women the potential that they have to make other contributions to Jewish life and society.”
Continuity still has plenty of defenders. Mijal Bitton, a social scientist and Fellow in Residence at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, said that attitudes like Steinhardt’s and the allegations against Cohen should not define the entire field of Jewish demography or discredit those concerned with the size of the Jewish population.
“I think there are a lot of people who exhibit great ethics and great values who believe in the more traditional form of Jewish continuity,” she said. “I would rather not qualify an entire discourse or field based on the actions of a few individuals … I believe that numbers matter and that certain social forms of Jewish life have been shown to have a correlation with stronger forms of Jewish engagement and demography.”
But continuity as a goal is also falling out of fashion because a new generation is taking the reins of philanthropic organizations, said Temple University Professor Lila Corwin-Berman, author of the forthcoming book “The American Jewish Philanthropic Complex.” Younger Jews are more likely to be intermarried, or not married, or to have been raised in interfaith households.
“More and more of the people who are the funders or the people working for the funders themselves live in worlds that are not governed by this kind of continuity model,” she said. “We’re living at a time when those boundaries of who’s a Jew, who’s not a Jew, are shifting.”
Another organization with an evolving take on continuity is Honeymoon Israel. On its face, it sounds a lot like Birthright — subsidized group trips to Israel for newlyweds to engage them in Jewish practice, history and identity. Except for one thing: intermarried couples are welcome on the trip.
“It’s a long time coming for the Jewish community to sort of get out of the mode of ‘intermarriage is a crisis,’” said Avi Rubel, Honeymoon Israel’s co-founder. “Instead of writing them off because their babies aren’t going to be Jewish, maybe there’s another way to do it.”
Rubel acknowledged that bringing people on a positive trip to Israel and celebrating Shabbat with them isn’t exactly a departure from traditional modes of American Jewish identity. But he said the difference is that Honeymoon Israel doesn’t aim to prescribe what Jewish life should look like back home.
“We are bringing them to Israel, we’re celebrating Shabbat, we’re not creating a message that Judaism is a blank slate,” he said. But he added, “We’re not tell couples what being a Jewish couple means and what building community means. We’re not asking them to believe anything about Israel and Jewish life.”