By all accounts, Michael Steinhardt, has been a financial-investing genius. As The New York Times noted, original investors in his hedge fund, which opened in 1967, had by the time he closed it in 1995 made more than $462 for each dollar they had invested.
Equally impressive has been his comprehension of social and political currents in the world, and particularly their implications for the fate of the Jewish people. While noting the great freedom and prosperity that Jews had found in America, Steinhardt understood that the ties that bound Jews to one another and to their ancient homeland were weakening. Without drastic action, they would continue to weaken.
For most of his professional life, and especially since the 1990s, Steinhardt has therefore devoted himself to educating Jewish Americans to renew and rebuild the mystic chords of memory binding all Jews around the world to one another and to the State of Israel.
Steinhardt’s efforts to increase contacts between Jews in the Diaspora and Israel have been diverse and creative. Recognizing the importance of the Hebrew language for the future of the Jewish people, he has been engaged in the development of Hebrew charter schools and other educational initiatives for Jewish and Israeli art and culture, in America and Israel.
Steinhardt’s greatest success has been the Taglit-Birthright Israel program, which he co-founded with Charles Bronfman in 1999 after conversations with former Knesset member Yossi Beilin and with the support of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. The idea behind Birthright was that a durable Jewish connection to Israel needs to be rooted in a lived experience—not just taught as an abstract concept. The Jewish bond to Israel must be cemented by an experiential connection.
However, with fewer and fewer Jews in America and around the world visiting Israel, the Jewish bond was fraying. Thus, Steinhardt and Bronfman devised a program to bring young Jews from around the world to Israel on free, 10-day educational touring trips. Succeeding beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, Birthright has brought more than 600,000 young Jews—ages 18 and now all the way to 29, for certain trips—from around the world to Israel, with tens of thousands going to Israel on Birthright trips each year.
It is no exaggeration to say that for two decades, Birthright has been a major engine of Jewish continuity, providing a catalyst for lifelong attachments to Israel and many Jewish marriages. In many cases, Birthright participants have subsequently chosen to study and work in Israel, and many have made aliyah.
Both Israelis and non-Israelis have benefited incalculably from the inspired initiative of Michael Steinhardt, 77, and others, which has reaffirmed Israel as a spiritual home for a new generation of Jews.