Lynn Schusterman has been a mainstay on this list and for good reason. Her Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation has been integral in forging a connection between Jews all over the world. The foundation’s wide array of programs has striven to teach Jews and non-Jews how to be agents of change in a positive way.
Below, Schusterman discusses the challenges inherent in establishing connections between young American Jewry and Israel, the worrisome political rhetoric in the United States and how a young person can follow Schusterman’s example and begin to change the world for the better.
What do you think are the biggest challenges in finding common ground between American Jewry and Israel?
One challenge is simply creating more opportunities for Americans and Israelis to get to know each other as real people, rather than as statistics or stereotypes. We have seen time and again that when we bring people together, when they can share stories, learn from each other and celebrate together, they quickly begin building friendships and lasting connections.
It is through this shared experience that they develop enough trust and understanding to have honest conversations.
We support a wide range of programs, from Birthright to ROI Community to Talma, that embrace this idea of mifgash, of bringing together young Americans and Israelis. I am always amazed to see how deeply and positively these young people impact each other. The success of this approach reflects something I believe to be true: that what connects us in our hearts and minds is far greater than what divides us. To me, these connections are what Judaism is all about: being part of a family, a community.
A second and no less important challenge is the constant tension around who is considered a Jew and who gets to decide. It excludes and turns away far too many, especially younger Jews. Today, we are fortunate to have Jews by birth, Jews by marriage and Jews by choice, all of whom are enriching and strengthening the Jewish tapestry in innumerable ways. Addressing this challenge will require broad acceptance that there is no singular way to be or define Jewish. Instead, we must welcome and celebrate all who seek to lead actively Jewish lives, and we must focus less on who is a Jew and more on what we can do as Jews to strengthen our community and the world around us.
With American Jewry becoming more detached from Israel and their connection to the country, what is the foundation planning to do to combat that?
It is a challenging issue, especially when it comes to young people. Our goal is to show them that Israel is relevant not just to our collective identity as a people but to each of us as individuals. We want to help them create a personal connection to Israel, whether it is social, cultural, professional or spiritual, and then offer them ways to deepen that relationship over time.
To that end, we work with partners like Hillel, TAMID, Israel & Co., Artis and others to help young adults meaningfully engage with Israel. We work with the Israel Institute and Academic Engagement Network to help students learn and educators teach about modern Israel in a rigorous, balanced way.
And we work with the Israel on Campus Coalition and others to help young people stay connected to and speak up for Israel in ways that are inclusive and constructive.
Ultimately, we want to ensure that every young Jew has the chance to feel a personal, unique and enduring connection to the Jewish homeland. We know that the experiences they have now will shape who they are in the future and the families they raise.
The Schusterman Foundation prides itself on being bi-partisan. Is that a challenge in today’s political climate in America, where the rhetoric on both sides is so charged? What do you make of the current election in general?
The rhetoric today is worrisome because it is defined by the extremes, with both sides yelling past each other and threatening to drown out those of us who seek to create a stronger center. But if it proves anything, it is that we need quality, purpose-driven leaders at the helm of our communities. That is why we invest so much in helping to cultivate the next generation of leaders, both within the Jewish community and beyond. Today’s rising stars are tomorrow’s politicians, ambassadors, CEOs and entrepreneurs, and we want to make sure they have the tools and resources they need to shape a brighter future.
Through programs like REALITY, ROI Community and the Schusterman Fellowship, we hope to help young Jews grow their leadership potential by embracing Jewish values as a source of guidance and strength. These are leaders who are devoting their careers to service and social justice, using technology to solve social problems, standing up for Israel and fighting to keep our communities open and inclusive.
These are leaders who make me optimistic that we can turn toxic divisiveness into constructive dialogue.
What advice would you give to young people (either in Israel or America) who want to be agents of change but feel disenfranchised and perhaps would not know where to begin?
My father would always tell me, “Each of us is worth only what we are willing to give to others.” The value of service emanates from the core of Jewish thought and tradition, and is one that my family instilled in me and that my late husband, Charlie, and I instilled in our children. Today, I am so inspired to see a groundswell of young people expressing who they are as Jews by devoting time and energy to serving those in need. They are tapping into our shared obligation to help repair the world and finding important ways to make a real difference in their local and global communities.
My advice to young people everywhere is to remember that what you do – regardless of scale – matters.
Look inside yourself, find what drives you and connect with a community of people who share your passion. If you find that taking those first steps is daunting, there are organizations like Repair the World, OLAM and JDC that can help you. They are creating opportunities for young people to serve together and to make an impact on some of our most pressing social, civic and humanitarian challenges. Whatever you do and however you do it, just remember: We need you. We need your passion, your creativity and your resolve. And we need it now.