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Profile in the Male World of Philanthropy, Lynn Schusterman Speaks Her Mind

January 3, 2001
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When Lynn Schusterman was fixing up her vacation home in Israel a few years ago, she found herself butting heads with a male contractor who didn’t want to take orders from a woman.

“I said to him, ‘You don’t have to listen to me, and I don’t have to sign your check,’ ” she recalled recently, over a breakfast of oatmeal and fresh fruit at an elegant Manhattan hotel. “That turned things around.”

A year after her husband, Charles Schusterman, died from leukemia-related complications, Schusterman is still using her checkbook — and her leadership — to make her voice heard in a predominantly man’s world.

As head of the Tulsa, Okla.-based Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation — one of North America’s largest Jewish family foundations — Schusterman is one of the only female leaders in the high-powered world of Jewish mega-philanthropy.

The foundation, which in the past five years has given away almost $35 million to Jewish causes, has been one of the leading players in recent efforts to promote Jewish identity and educational projects.

It is a founding partner of two multimillion dollar projects: the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, which supports Jewish day schools, and Synagogue Transformation and Renewal, known as STAR. The foundation is also one of 14 groups or individuals that donated $5 million to Birthright Israel, which sends young Jews on free 10-day trips to Israel.

It has also been a major funder of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, the Jewish Outreach Institute, the Reform movement’s World Union for Progressive Judaism and a range of other Jewish causes in North America, Israel and the former Soviet Union.

The foundation also is a major presence funding secular causes in Tulsa.

Since her husband’s death on Dec. 30, 2000, Schusterman has continued support for ongoing projects, but has also overseen several key changes, including:

providing start-up funds to enable the financially struggling B’nai B’rith Youth Organization to become an independent nonprofit;

creating a Washington satellite office for the foundation;

joining Emet, a partnership focused on improving Israel’s image in the media;

joining a partnership focused on Jewish early childhood education; and

issuing an annual report for the first time.

In many of her speeches and appearances in the past year, Schusterman has spoken of her husband, and how she sees her work as a continuation of their partnership.

“I do feel that through me, our children and all the people we touch, Charlie will survive,” she said in the interview.

Petite and soft-spoken, she is also known for being strong-willed and is a self-described “type A personality” who as a child went by the nickname “fireball.”

Schusterman was active in the foundation before her husband’s death, particularly because his medical condition limited his ability to travel. But he was the foundation president and the figure most closely associated with the foundation.

Schusterman is not the only woman replacing Charles Schusterman at the top levels of power. The couple’s daughter, Stacy, recently became CEO of the family business, Samson Resources, an oil drilling company with extensive real estate holdings.

The Schustermans married in 1962, despite the fact that Charles — caught up in work at an oil well — was more than three hours late for their first date.

Charles’ Jewish background was stronger than that of Lynn, who grew up in a German Jewish household in Kansas City that belonged to a Reform temple, but also celebrated Christmas and Easter.

But both were inspired by a 1977 family trip to Israel that Lynn said “was totally my Birthright trip,” which has been credited with getting assimilated young Jews interested in Judaism.

“I felt if I didn’t get involved, the Holocaust could happen again,” she said.

In 1983, Charles, who was then 47, was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia. He was told he had less than three years to live, but an experimental treatment enabled him to outlive the prediction by 15 years.

Soon after his diagnosis, the couple created the foundation, whose mission is to support programs “that seek to enrich and expand Jewish communities in the United States, Israel and the former Soviet Union,” as well social, educational and cultural groups in Tulsa.

“I said to him at the time, I don’t want to do this in your memory, I want to do it with you,” Lynn Schusterman said.

Living with the disease was challenging — “there were times I got hysterical and cried,” she said — but also helped keep the couple focused on their philanthropic goals.

“You either go to bed and lift the covers over your head or you live life, and we totally lived it,” she said.

Schusterman said she was further inspired when they visited Holocaust survivors who “went on to have productive lives.”

“I felt if they could do that, I could cope with this,” she said.

Schusterman has not been oblivious to her role as a pioneer in a philanthropic world she describes as “mainly dominated by men.”

She is quick to cite studies showing low numbers of women on Jewish organizational boards and in top Jewish professional positions. She criticizes the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations for only having had one woman chair when “I can think of half a dozen capable women who could have done the job.”

Since Schusterman took the helm of the foundation, “there’s been some testing” by men who expected her to be a “pushover” she said, but she declined to speak on the record about specifics.

She is also aware of her role as a spokeswoman for another minority in the corridors of American Jewish power: Jews from small communities like Tulsa.

“People in New York sometimes can’t see beyond New York,” she said. “It’s vitally important that people understand that there are Jews out there, that we need to be part of the Jewish world.”

So far, Schusterman seems to be holding her own, earning praise and respect from the mega-philanthropists.

Michael Steinhardt, who has partnered with the Schustermans on several major projects, said Schusterman is “well- respected and uniformly liked” and credits Schusterman with “basically singlehandedly saving BBYO.”

“She’s not afraid of new challenges and not afraid to take risks, to be at the forefront in this enterprise philanthropy mentality where you’re doing things that are speculative and require important judgments, and where you don’t have a pre-set established organization to help you,” he said.

Schusterman is “still not as totally sure of herself as she might be, but certainly more sure of herself than she was a year ago,” Steinhardt said.

At a recent meeting, Steinhardt said, Schusterman was forceful in presenting a view that many others opposed: that small Jewish day schools be encouraged to admit some non-Jewish students as a way of increasing tuition revenues and building a critical mass of students.

Marlene Post, North American chairwoman of Birthright and the immediate past president of Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, said she does not think the fact that Schusterman is “a woman in a man’s world is an issue.”

“She has a good team that works with her, and she’s a hands-on person,” Post said. “She doesn’t just give money away.”

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