In Search of a Jewish Consciousness

In 2009, my uncle, Saul Schottenstein, passed away.  Saul was a down-to-earth person who gave half of his estate to a foundation.  He made me a trustee. In his usual way, he created the foundation but left no instructions.

Saul, who had no children of his own, always treated me like a son.  We had a regular date in Florida every spring to play golf, which I still miss. During one of those trips, I asked him his favorite restaurant. It was Wendy’s salad bar. That was Saul.

In Saul’s memory, I wanted to do something meaningful but I was totally unprepared. I did not feel like I would be able to prioritize meaningful giving. Also, Saul was very observant in the Jewish tradition.  In fact, he and his brothers funded the English translation of the Talmud. In deference to Saul, I also wanted to explore Judaism and its core message.

I decided that I needed to go on a one-year spiritual journey before I could even think about the mission for the foundation and how it could be implemented.  This journey led me to meet with professors and secular leaders. I also met with a nature rabbi, Reform rabbi, Conservative rabbi, Orthodox rabbi and other influential Jewish leaders.

Probably the most interesting meeting was in Boulder, Colorado, with Reb Zalman, the founder of Jewish Renewal, whom I believe will go down as one of the most influential Jews of the 20th century. Before the meeting, he had me read dialogues and interviews he had had with others, so I could have a better understanding of his message. Our conversation seemed to bring me closer to a spiritual revelation, but the words were foreign to me, cloaked in Yiddish and Hebrew catchwords.

Around the end of the year, I was in the country at our farm. While alone and looking out on a dark, moonless night with a million stars in the sky, I hit rock bottom. I sank to total despair feeling that I was an insignificant speck in an enormous universe. Then suddenly, as if it was placed within me, I experienced what I believed to be an all-consuming feeling of total connection with the universe. My despair turned to joy, knowing that I was one with an all-encompassing force that connects all of Creation. Ultimately, I could never be alone.

The consciousness of our connection and ONENESS with ALL of Creation became the mission of the Saul Schottenstein Foundation B.  I came to learn that was also the consciousness of Abraham. Abraham lived in an open tent and he welcomed all to experience the connection and ONENESS that he felt. He believed that focusing on the physical world was misplaced because, over time, all physical things change. As Maimonides explained, Abraham believed in a consciousness of the Divine Force that connects and is one with all people and Creation.  That is the message, indeed the consciousness and the mission of the Schottenstein Foundation.

This mission has led our foundation to fund the Reelabilities Film Festival, which is devoted to the lives of people with disabilities. I believe these films, which celebrate differences at their core, illuminate the one spirit within us by looking beyond our apparent differences. This consciousness seems to have caught on, as the festival has grown from New York to 12 other U.S. cities. We also funded in 2011 a Facebook page, Spiritual Judaism-One People World United. Devoted to the consciousness of Abraham, it now has 2.5 million likes.

I share my personal story with my fellow funders and members of JFN because I believe that at the core of any philanthropy journey and, in particular, as a Jewish funder, there lies a spiritual journey; a path that leads us to find our inner spiritual connection and salvation.  I don’t pretend that the answers I found for myself should be accepted by everyone; to be sure, there are many paths.

I do believe, though, that at the core of Jewish philanthropy is an articulation of the consciousness/message of Judaism. Clarity on that message helps us better connect with those of the Jewish tradition and all of humanity. This consciousness/ message will be interpreted differently by different people, but I believe that by wrestling with it, we will enrich ourselves and our philanthropic activity.

The process of wrestling with these key questions is unavoidable if we are to find meaning in our actions as Jewish funders. We talk a lot about the “how” and not enough about the “why.” Yet, with no overarching sense of the message that is grounded in the core consciousness of Judaism, our actions become random and sometimes inconsequential.

From Abraham’s open tent, light radiated unto the world. In the same way, Jewish philanthropy that is inspired in Jewish consciousness can fill us, and the world, with a warm and potent light.

 Jeffrey P. Harris is Chairman of the Saul Schottenstein Foundation B and has been a member of the JFN Disabilities Peer Network.