For decades, Wall Street legend Michael Steinhardt was “a guilt-ridden atheist.” Today, chuckled the 76-year-old in an interview from his Jerusalem home, he’s “just a plain old atheist.”

God doesn’t enter the picture for the billionaire philanthropist, who lit a torch Monday night on Mount Herzl to mark the transition from Israel’s Memorial Day to Independence Day. But as he heavily invests in Jewish continuity, he’s betting on the Jewish people and its record of “extraordinary secular Jewish achievements.”

Now a proud grandfather who boasts of his grandkids’ achievements before his own, Steinhardt is focusing on instilling a legacy of secular pride into young Jews who are increasingly ignorant of the secular enlightenment traditions that generated great Jewish thinkers and scientists like Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and Jonas Salk, to name but a few.

“The last 300 years, I say with the greatest emphasis on the 20th century, was a period of extraordinary secular Jewish achievement like no other time,” said Steinhardt.

And to Steinhardt, the State of Israel is secular Jewry’s crown jewel.

“Israel is the great Jewish miracle of the 20th century,” said Steinhardt a few hours before taking part in Israel’s official state ceremony in honor of Independence Day.

Steinhardt and Simon Wiesenthal Center founder Rabbi Marvin Hier were the inaugural Diaspora representatives chosen to light one of 12 torches as a symbol of “Jewish unity” in an initiative spearheaded by Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, the chairwoman of the Ministerial Committee for Ceremonies and Symbols.

The Israeli 66th Independence Day Ceremony at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on May 5, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Israeli 66th Independence Day Ceremony at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on May 5, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to the criteria for the Diaspora torch lighters, the representative should “personify the concern and work being done for the future of the Jewish People, and reinforce the link between the world Jewry and Israel.”

With personal holdings over $1.04 billion according to a recent Forbes article, back in 1994 Steinhardt cofounded Taglit-Birthright Israel with Charles Bronfman. Since then he’s donated a reported $100 million to Birthright, which has brought some 600,000 young Jews aged 18-26 to Israel from 66 countries over the past 17 years.

Birthright “has saved a generation,” said Steinhardt, who has spent even greater sums on Jewish identity projects through the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life and the recent proliferation of Hebrew-language charter schools in the US (a project run by daughter Sara Berman).

Steinhardt is not Israeli and spends most of his time at his New York estate. The inclusion of Diaspora figures in the ceremony was meant to be a national display of “the unity of the Jewish people as a whole and the fact that Israel is home to all the world’s Jews.”

But in a country in which “two Jews, three opinions” is the norm, there are those who criticize the idea of giving the hallowed torch-lighter role to those who do not call Israel home.

What do you think about the column by Haaretz writer Irit Linur who claimed essentially that Americans have no right to be at the Independence Day Torch Lighting ceremony — that if you’re not a citizen you shouldn’t be there?

Israel is chock full of opinions, and that’s one of them. But it seems to me that I devote a meaningful amount of my life’s energy trying to bring together Israeli and Diaspora Jews and her article goes against that principle, and I think she’s wrong. It’s far better for both sides for there to be intimacy and communication and affection and understanding — and agreements and disagreements — so to separate just doesn’t make sense to me.

One thing that separates Israeli and Diaspora Jewry is the language — there is a divide in language. What your daughter is doing is of course admirable. How do you think we can get beyond the language to see eye to eye? What are other efforts?

At the risk of saying the obvious, one way is Taglit. Which at the risk of perhaps being slightly presumptuous, I’m tempted to say has saved a generation. There’s 25 or 30 percent of the American kids of that age group who have gone on this trip, who never would have come to Israel, would never have experienced this. And again, at risk of saying the obvious, 2% of the American population is Jewish and Israelis can’t easily absorb the contrast between life here and life where you represent 2% of the total, and where there is an extraordinarily strong current of integration and assimilation. So, what Birthright offers is the creation of links and ties and warmth that is not available elsewhere.

Birthright participants visiting Masada, summer 2012. (Taglit-Birthright/JTA)

Birthright participants visiting Masada, summer 2012. (Taglit-Birthright/JTA)

Many of the kids who go on Birthright say the most meaningful part of it is being with the Israeli soldiers or guards — actually meeting the Israelis. But most of the trip is not geared toward that. Has there been any thinking on your part to create a structure where it’s more of a mixture of the two?

We have made a number of moves over the years to heighten the mifgash [meeting point], and there’s talk again about doing other things to further heighten it, but now we have typically five soldiers, mostly, in a bus of 40 Diaspora kids, and it’s become – one poll suggests that it’s the most popular part of the trip. [According to Birthright, almost 90,000 young Israeli soldiers and students have joined various groups on their tours.]

‘Could Taglit be better? For sure. But I’d say that it’s something we should all be proud of’

So could it be more? Yeah, it could be a lot of things. But they’ve done a wonderful job of creating an educational circumstance that some people think is too intense – you know, three or four hours of sleep a night – other people think there too much sex, drugs, liquor.

My philosophy of Birthright is that every Jew — defining Jew in the most open, liberal way — should be allowed a free trip to Israel. And that trip, in many instances, does something that nothing else in the present world achieves. And whether it’s the Israeli soldiers, whether it’s a wonderful tour guide, whether it’s the sights, or the fact that they’ve come 6,000 miles – further than they’ve ever gone in their lives – and suddenly they don’t know what’s going on, they’re suddenly exposed to this, I don’t know. But I know that for 10 days it accomplishes something meaningful. And, could it be better? For sure. But I’d say that it’s something we should all be proud of.

The usual promotion of Jewish legacy is through religion – but it seems like much of your effort has been in promoting a secular Jewish legacy, a cultural Jewish legacy. Can you speak to that?

For reasons I don’t exactly know, beginning in my teenage years, I began questioning the existence of God. Not the most unusual thing, but to me it became a big deal. And I used to see in Bensonhurst in Brooklyn where I grew up, people at that time with tattoos on their arms, you know, in the ’40s and ’50s, and it was clear to me that this event [the Holocaust] had a profound effect on the Jewish people.

You couldn’t help asking the question, “How could a God that was all good, and powerful, and all knowledgable, etc, etc, have allowed something like this to have happened?” And I, being a dopey teenager, would ask that question to all sorts of people around me.

A Holocaust survivor shows her number tattoo. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images via JTA)

A Holocaust survivor shows her number tattoo. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images via JTA)

It soon became clear to me that the answer I was most comfortable with was that there was no external God who did good and rewarded and punished and all that sort of stuff. I’ve been an atheist from that point through now. For most of those years, I was a guilt-ridden atheist, because somehow the religion had a certain meaning, and if you’re an atheist you walk away from some of that meaning and you call it “mythology” and you call it other things that denigrate its significance, and that’s where I was. And I’ve taken that position right until now.

I’m not no longer a guilt-ridden atheist, I’m just a plain old atheist, and I feel totally comfortable with it. Moreover, I feel that the Jewish experience of the last 300 years, the haskalah [Jewish Enlightenment] experience is different in kind from all prior Jewish history. The last 300 years, I say with the greatest emphasis on the 20th century, was a period of extraordinary secular Jewish achievement like no other time.

‘I’m not no longer a guilt-ridden atheist, I’m just a plain old atheist, and I feel totally comfortable with it’

If you and I were to sit down and I were to say to you, “Think about what happened in 5000 BC, 4000, think what happened,” you know we tell the same stories each year about Pesach and Purim and Hanukkah. But is there, if we step back and try to be objective, is there something so special about our people’s story relative to the innumerable other peoples’ stories in that same timeframe? I’m tempted to say no — everyone has a story, and heroes, and myths, and ups and down.

And if I asked you to name the great heroes of the Jewish people up until the haskalah, you can name Maimonides, Rashi, four or five or six — not that many, over thousands of years. But the last 300 years, it’s truly extraordinary the percentage of Jews who are achievers. It’s breathtaking — so much so that it makes you wonder how this could be? How we could do so much in the last 300 years relative to our number. It is really a worthy phenomenon and I think it is one of the great sadnesses of Jewish education that up until now we have mostly ignored in our traditional Jewish education these last 300 years.

And Israel, in some sense, is an example of the extraordinary secular achievements. Israel is the great Jewish miracle of the 20th century. Not because of the religious people, but because of these wonderful secular achievements. So I believe that what we have to do in order to instill pride in the next generations of Jews, is to somehow communicate some of the extraordinary achievements of Jews during that period — so if I asked you who invented the polio vaccine, do you remember?

[Jonas] Salk.

That’s one, there were two — [Albert] Sabin. And in Los Alamos, New Mexico, they developed nuclear energy. Who was doing it? It was like a secular Jewish shtetl, with [J. Robert] Oppenheimer and [Albert] Einstein, and Neils Bohr, and Enrico Fermi [whose wife Laura was Jewish] and others – and it was overwhelmingly Jewish. How do you explain that?

German-born American physicist Albert Einstein, 1946. (Central Press/Getty Images via JTA)

German-born American physicist Albert Einstein, 1946. (Central Press/Getty Images via JTA)

I hear you and I love this approach and idea, but I wonder if most of these secular Jews who achieved so much came from and rebelled against, or were second generation from, a very traditional education, a very Talmudic education that formed their minds in different ways than just reading philosophy or history.

What you’re saying, which I think is true, is that life is never simple. And for these Jews to have achieved what they did, it probably has as one of the reasons, the extraordinary emphasis on education which existed long before the haskalah. But it was a peculiar education — it was an education of boys, not so much girls, until fairly recently – but that was a big deal, I agree.

An education of questioning and arguing —

100%. But maybe it was more than that too. Could it have been genetics? Could it have been, if Jews are more likely to get Tay Sachs or Parkinsons, or four or five or six other genetic diseases, is it likely that there are other genetic characteristics within them that made them different as well?

Maybe. Do you feel that way?

Yes, but my effort is to ask the question, “Why have we accomplished so much?” One is education, two I’d say is genetics, three I’d say is: In the first half of the 20th century, there was such a burst of Jewish energy in the social world, there was so much in terms of societal aggrandizement, that I think that’s a part of it also. We were all trying to get rich in the first half of the 20th century. So I think it’s those things and others…

So you’re saying it was because they were given the proper conditions in which to thrive.


So, if I’m reading you properly, your emphasis on Jewish particularism is not religiously driven, obviously, but it’s through the idea of perhaps cultivation to create improvement for the world.

‘I hate that phrase, tikkun olam’

I hate that phrase, tikkun olam [fixing the world], but agreed. But, you gotta think about the tough parts. And the tough parts are, what is it about Jews that made them so successful? Is it something in their ethical standards? I’ve been swindled four times in my life. Each time, by an Orthodox Jew. What’s the significance of that? The significance to me is that I was so open to them and so comfortable because they were Orthodox and therefore I expected higher levels of morality, but it wasn’t true.

So it’s complicated. But the broad thrust is that in the last 300 years we Jews have really been special. And it’s something that we should contemplate and figure out how to respond to.

Do you believe, since you don’t believe in God per se, in some kind of Jewish spark?

You’re asking questions around the same big issue — what makes us special.

Yes, and why put so much effort into continuing that.

Cofounders of Taglit-Birthright Michael Steinhardt (L) and Charles Bronfman pose for a picture during an interview in Jerusalem on June 4, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Cofounders of Taglit-Birthright Michael Steinhardt (L) and Charles Bronfman pose for a picture during an interview in Jerusalem on June 4, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Exactly. And what’s the implication of the fact that 60 or 70% of non-Orthodox American Jews marry out? What’s the implication of this huge amount of intermarriage, which is a relatively new thing? And the really new thing is that while there was some intermarriage in the middle of the 20th century– maybe 20 or 25% of Jews married out – they were then doing it to lose their Jewishness. That was the period when Schwartzes became Smiths and Katzes became Kents, and stuff like that.

Now, however, the majority of progeny from mixed marriages are being brought up Jewish, or some with both. But the guy who does the research work for Birthright —

Leonard Saxe?

Right. [Brandeis Prof.] Len Saxe would say to you that – first of all, more than half the kids on Birthright are now products of mixed marriages — an astonishing statement. But if a kid goes on Birthright and has that exposure, and is from a mixed marriage, he becomes indistinguishable from kids who are from in-married parents. And this whole new phenomenon hasn’t been studied so much yet, hasn’t been totally accepted, matrilineal, patrilineal, all this sort of stuff is an issue here.

It seems like if I’m reading you properly, matrilineal and patrilineal doesn’t matter to you. There’s the genetic component, which could come from either side, or even a generation back. But the question is, why put so much effort into making it continue forward?

Always, we Jews have a desire to contribute, to be wonderful, to all society, and the way that this is evidenced is through our achievements. That’s why the three greatest names of the 20th century were all Jews. I mean, peculiar Jews, in the sense that they’re [Karl] Marx, [Sigmund] Freud and Einstein, but Jews. How do you explain that? How do you explain the percentage of Jews in Hollywood, the percentage of Nobel Prize winners, and you can go on and on. I think it’s part of our Jewish ethos to try to be achieving. Now, some might say cynically, it’s part of the Jewish ethos to be on top, financially and otherwise. But that’s a small part of it, I think — but it’s part of it.

For me, I take great pride in Jewish secular achievement. When I was growing up in Brooklyn, I knew the names of just about every single great Jewish athlete. Not that there were that many of them, but there were enough. And Israel — what is Israel, if not that?

How did you feel when you heard about the torch lighting ceremony?

This ceremony is not one that’s very well-advertised in the US, so I knew very little about it. But once I got the sense of how important it is here, I felt very good about it… I felt rewarded.

This may sound self-serving, but I think modesty should be more of a virtue among our people. And it’s not so much. But I try — and I don’t succeed all the time — to be modest, and whether I got this or I didn’t get this [recognition], I know I would have continued doing what I think is good.