The Schustermans: a Jewish Family’s Expressions of Faith and Philanthropy

This personal account from ‘Faith and Family Philanthropy’ describes the fascinating journey that the author and her husband took in discovering their own faith while rediscovering their family roots and Hebric religious traditions. ‘Jewish law dictates that if there is a choice between assisting members of your family and helping citizens of your town, your family takes precedence. The priority in Jewish law to ensure the well being of those closest to us reinforces the importance of the family in the Jewish faith.’


“If I will not be for me, who will be for me?

But if I am for myself alone, what am I?

If not now, when?”

Hillel, first century CE


I first learned about philanthropy when I was very young. Some of my earliest and fondest memories of my father involve the time I spent with him visiting and helping   care for people I called the “little old ladies” — women who, I shudder to think, were probably no older than I am today!

My father never talked in terms of charity. He spoke only of improving lives and, in turn, making the world a better place for all of us. Time and again, he would say, “Each of us is worth only what we are willing to give to others.”   He was not a religious man, and although Jewish by birth, was not familiar with the litany of prescriptions in Jewish texts concerning the proper way for Jews to help people in need, whether within or outside of their families.   Thus, he never placed giving in any greater context. He helped others because it was the way he thought he should act.

Given this upbringing, my initial approach to philanthropy was as uninformed by Jewish traditions as was my father’s. His values and traditions naturally became mine, and my early giving mirrored his. I supported and worked for the same organizations and groups to which he exposed me — groups I knew provided important services to people in need.

I began to date Charles Schusterman in 1961. On one of our very first dates, he took me to solicit for the United Jewish Appeal — a national organization that we both supported through activities in our local chapters. We married a year later, and soon became focused on raising a family and growing the energy business that was Charlie’s life work.

For the next 15 years, little about our philanthropy changed, except that our giving increased gradually with the growing success of our business. We continued to give in traditional ways— the direct method I gleaned from my father and the collective process Charlie learned from his role models in Tulsa’s Jewish community. It was not until our family traveled to Israel in 1977, the first visit to the Jewish homeland for all of us, that Charlie and I decided to adopt a new approach to giving.

Our 10 days in Israel transformed the entire family. For Charlie, the trip sparked a total reassessment of Israel-Diaspora relations and raised perplexing questions about how to forge stronger ties between Israelis and Jews living in other parts of the world. For me, it marked a beginning in my understanding of the Holocaust in a personal, rather than simply historical, way. Following the trip, I began to read extensively about the Holocaust and events that led up to it. Many issues I had not previously considered arose, including: Whether the tragedy of the Shoah (Hebrew for Holocaust) might have been avoided if world Jewry had been more politically astute and involved in the 1930s. I realized that I have a part to play in ensuring that the Shoah never happens again.

As a result of the trip to Israel, my Jewishness and my cultural heritage became essential aspects of my life rather than simply means of self-identification. I was inspired to increase my commitment to Jewish groups and causes. Rather than being engaged in philanthropy out of obligation, culture, and habit, I began to define myself through my philanthropy. The groups I chose to support, and the manner in which I offered that support, became windows to my soul, clear expressions of my innermost convictions, and reflections of the values and traditions of greatest importance to me. Today, who I am as a Jew is better defined through my philanthropic philosophy than through my congregational affiliation or community participation.

The increased role of giving in my life was only one important outcome of our trip. The trip also provided me with a framework upon which to practice my philanthropy and transmit new values to my children, both about family and philanthropy. In addition, it placed my father’s philanthropic model within the distinctly Jewish context of tikkun olam, the imperative to repair the broken aspects of the world. Under this model, an act of kindness is the means to an end rather than an end unto itself. This realization led me to view our family and our giving in a much broader context — a context that ultimately came to influence greatly the way our family pursues our philanthropy.

In Jewish law and tradition, the family is paramount. It is the center of the Jewish universe. Beginning with Genesis, the Master Story of the Jewish faith is an epic about family and extended family. Many religious laws govern intrafamilial relationships from the way families conduct themselves in public to how families should treat each other in private.

My family is the center of my personal life. They are a loving, supportive, and talented group. They are the primary reason Charlie and I initially became involved in so many charitable causes, and they are my motivation for redoubling my efforts now that Charlie has died. I push forward in an attempt to make the world a little bit better for our children, our grandchildren, and the generations to follow.

Like me, Charlie always believed that the best way to improve this world is to help people help themselves. This philosophy governed his entire life, and his approach to giving. My husband was a man of inspiration and of action. He was a philanthropic visionary who believed passionately in the renewal of Jewish life in the United States, Israel, and the former Soviet Union. He was determined to strengthen Tulsa and the State of Oklahoma, for this was his home, the community in which he raised a family and developed his corporation. He strove for excellence in every aspect of his life, work, and philanthropy. We created the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation to achieve his, and our, philanthropic goals.

With the love, support, guidance, and encouragement of my husband, I have been intimately involved in the activities of our foundation since its establishment more than a decade ago. Together, Charlie and I directed its overall philanthropic agenda and, with assistance from foundation staff, developed and oversaw the implementation of the action plans through which we hoped to advance our mission. Now that Charlie is gone, I have increased my level of involvement in the foundation in an effort to preserve his legacy and realize our shared vision.          

Like many other family philanthropic entities, our foundation is designed to fulfill a variety of purposes. Its primary objective is to achieve our philanthropic mission; however, it also serves as a vehicle for expressing and transmitting values to our children and grandchildren. In addition, it offers tremendous educational opportunities. Through its activities, our children learn how to make strategic and effective grants. I hope our choices of causes to fund send a clear message to them about the kinds of issues that we believe are of greatest importance.    

As important as I view the activities of the family foundation, it is only one of many ways our philanthropic interests as a family can and should be expressed. A family foundation is not a substitute for individual responsibility. Each of our children and grandchildren is expected to pursue their own philanthropic agenda, regardless of the objectives upon which our family foundation may choose to focus.

Personal involvement on the part of each individual family member is also very important. I serve on the boards of several of the organizations our foundation supports, and I encourage our children to participate actively in the areas that interest them. The choices our children and their families make in their personal lives often influence how our foundation operates. Currently, the foundation supports a wide variety of social service programs, largely because of the work my son-in-law performs on behalf of the working poor in Tulsa. When my older son moved to Israel, the foundation had extra impetus to extend grantmaking activities there. Similarly, now that my younger son is raising his family in Boulder, Colorado, we are exploring philanthropic opportunities there as well.

Our family has yet to fully resolve the question of how the foundation will be governed after I am gone. Whether we will find a realistic model that ensures that the foundation continues to pursue the course Charles and I set, without our ruling from the grave, remains to be seen. Undoubtedly, success in this area will depend largely on whether our children have adopted our values and become involved in the activities of the family foundation, in a meaningful way, during my lifetime.

The willingness of my children to assume some of the responsibilities of foundation leadership that Charlie provided during his lifetime fuels my confidence that the foundation will continue to flourish long after my death. In addition to taking the reins of the family business, my daughter has agreed to greatly expand her day-to-day participation in foundation affairs and play a pivotal role in setting its policies and direction. The foundation will also continue to benefit from the financial advice it receives from our younger son, a private investor.

Transmitting the value of philanthropy from parent to child is only one of the ways in which we try to live the adage, “Charity begins at home.” Recognizing our responsibility “to take care of our own” is perhaps a more commonly known interpretation of this well-known maxim. It is also the principle that guides the most significant part of our foundation’s philanthropic activities.

“If I will not be for me, who will be for me?”

Jewish law dictates that if there is a choice between assisting members of your family and helping citizens of your town, your family takes precedence. If the choice is between your town and another city, your town takes precedence. The priority in Jewish law to ensure the well being of those closest to us reinforces the importance of the family in the Jewish faith. It also reminds us that all Jews are family, and that we are obligated to aid all family members, wherever they live. This philosophy arises from the understanding that the Jews will not be able to fulfill their covenantal responsibility of tikkun olam — helping to repair the world — unless all are self-sufficient. It is only when people are independent and viable that they are in a position to help others.

My husband’s success in business put me in the wonderful position of being able to provide for our children as well as for their immediate and extended families in special circumstances. Still, with each gift, I do my best to ensure that the assistance provided helps family member in need become self-supporting as quickly as possible.  

My definition of family extends far beyond direct relations. Like many others of the Jewish faith, I consider every Jew to be someone with whom I have a genuine familial relationship. In their book, Two Worlds of Judaism: The Israeli and American Experiences, Charles S. Liebman and Steven M. Cohen call this element of the Jewish collective consciousness “historical familism.” They explain that “Jews see themselves as part of an extended family, with common descent and destiny and a special obligation and responsibility toward one another.” [1]

As a member of an extended family, I embrace the common heritage and future shared with fellow Jews around the world, also recognizing my special obligation toward them, a responsibility that in large part led to the establishment of our family foundation more than a decade ago. Charlie and I knew it was incumbent on us to share our good fortune with “family members” in need of help. We began to seek out ways to help Jewish people, especially Jewish children, trying to reach as many Jews as possible. Jewish people and Jewish institutions became a primary focus of our philanthropic work, both in our commitment of financial resources and in the expenditure of our time.

Initially, our philanthropic interest in helping our own manifested itself through grants to enhance and enrich Jewish life in our hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and in the State of Israel. Supporting the local Jewish community and the State of Israel represent perhaps the most generally accepted ways of exercising our familial responsibility within the Jewish communal system. In fact, contributing to help support the State of Israel became the basis of what Jonathan Woocher coined as the “Jewish civil religion” shortly after the Six-Day War in 1967. Even in Biblical times, however, giving within the Jewish community was the way most Jews chose to fulfill their obligations to other Jews.

Several years ago, Charlie and I decided to expand our grantmaking activities to include national Jewish organizations. A major factor in that decision was the increasing level of concern among all Jews about the future of the Jewish people. Information published in the 1990 National Jewish Population Study — particularly the data that indicates that a significant number of Jews are now marrying non-Jews —revealed a weakening sense of Jewish identity among an increasing number of Jews. This raised the specter that the very continuity of the North American Jewish family is in jeopardy. Recognizing that our extended family is at risk of disintegrating was cause for alarm. This spurred our immediate family to action through our family foundation. We have begun funding a substantial number of programs designed to promote Jewish renewal.



Supporting Jews of the Former Soviet Union

Recently, our foundation has become actively involved in another segment of our extended family — the Jews of the former Soviet Union (FSU). The story is basically the same in every city, town, and village throughout the region. A once-vibrant Jewish community has dwindled to almost nothing. Only a moribund synagogue remains, a building in which few community activities take place. With the fall of Communism, however, more and more young people are looking to reclaim their heritage. They seek opportunities for Jewish learning, ritual, and culture, but have difficulty finding teachers. Few in their home communities have practiced or taught in these lands for 70 years; one whole generation has been lost. Moreover, the elderly Jews, those who remember a time before Communism and remember the old ways, are dying and the last vestiges of native Jewish knowledge are dying with them.

So the young people are spearheading a rebirth of Judaism. Alone and in groups, they are studying ancient texts and modern philosophers. They have rediscovered traditional Jewish observances, such as the Passover seder (ritual meal), and have adapted them to meet the needs of a new generation and a new society. They are creating their own art and music. And they are now the teachers, transmitting the lessons of Jewish experience to their siblings, their children — and to their parents. We assist them.

Although many of the projects our family supports in the FSU could be characterized simply as humanitarian aid, rescue and relief, or spiritual renewal, they are actually a manifestation of our responsibility to reach out to our extended family wherever they may reside. We view the more than 1.5 million Jews in the FSU as long-neglected relatives who urgently require many types of assistance, people to whom we must provide the resources necessary to help them resurrect and sustain Jewish life on their own.

Helping people help themselves is more than just the cornerstone of our work in the FSU and elsewhere; it is an approach that is fully consistent with Jewish tradition. According to the medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides, one of the greatest scholars in Jewish history, there are eight levels of giving charity (in Hebrew, tzedakah, from the word for justice.) The lower forms include giving begrudgingly and dispensing less than one is able to give. Maimonides teaches that the highest form of tzedakah is to help an individual help him/herself, by working closely with that person, assisting him or her in developing the necessary skills to become self-sufficient.


Another important component of Jewish communal activity is volunteerism. Some people say service to others is the rent we pay for space on this planet. I think service to others is the down payment we make to ensure a safe, secure home on Earth for our children, our grandchildren, and for all Jewish people. It is also the price we have to pay to ensure that our Jewish values are transmitted from one generation to another.

It is for this reason that many members of our family serve on the board of at least one Jewish communal organization. Although limited by the demands of family and career, our children have become active in organizations in their local communities. I take advantage of my somewhat more flexible schedule to serve on the boards of national and international organizations in addition to the roles I play in Tulsa.

Volunteering provides our family with the opportunity to give back to our communities. In addition, each of us enjoys our charitable activities greatly. As a result of direct involvement with many of theorganizations our foundation supports, family members receive a great deal of satisfaction and fulfillment. We like being part of a team, sharing in the excitement of working on a program from start to finish. We have found that our charitable activities enrich us, individually and as a family, as much as they enhance the lives of others.

“But if I am for myself alone, what am I?”

Both Hillel and the numerous commentaries on the Jewish responsibility of tikkun olam recognize the universalist aspect of caring for all people, not just those of the Jewish faith. The Jews have a long history of concern for — and commitment to — building a just society wherever Jews have lived. I believe we must do this work (tikkun olam) both because our tradition decrees that we do so and because we must answer to the ideals that we have instilled in our children. We must affirm their desire to be a part of a community that accepts the challenge of changing the world.

For these and other reasons, the philanthropic agenda of our family foundation as well as our involvement in charitable causes extends well beyond the Jewish community.

Ever since Charlie and I established our foundation, we have focused on the needs of children and their families — especially in the areas of education and health. We also have directed our philanthropy toward organizations and ideas that we believe will have a significant and positive impact on large numbers of people in both of these areas.

As vital as Jewish causes are to us as individuals and as philanthropists, we recognize that neither Judaism nor our family exists in a vacuum. We live within a larger world, one to which we owe a responsibility to help repair and perfect. To that end, we recognize that our support of secular programs — as well as our efforts to develop closer ties between Jewish and non-Jewish organizations active in the same areas — are as much an expression of our family values as the contributions we make to Jewish causes. Judaism, like the proper exercise of philanthropy, demands nothing less than a total commitment to helping make the world a better place for everyone.

This commitment is Charlie’s legacy. My family and our foundation will honor his memory by continuing the traditions of giving he established and by exploring new directions through which we can bring his philanthropic visions to life. This world will certainly be a better place for his having passed through it.

“If not now, when?”

We interpret Hillel’s question to mean that it is never too soon to begin teaching your children about philanthropy or to start actively pursuing a family-oriented philanthropic agenda.

A family is a complex system. It is a dynamic structure that can be likened to a garden. In the case of my own family, the approach I used to transmit my philanthropic values incorporated the same attributes I used to cultivate and maintain my perennial garden: planting the seed, fertilizing the concept, nurturing the growth, weeding out the problems and otherwise helping the source of my attention to bloom at maturity.

Needless to say, my job is never done. Not only does each member of my family change in some fashion every day, but I now have grandchildren to whom I hope to pass along the importance of philanthropy as they pass from childhood through adolescence into adulthood. I want to impart to them the wisdom of their grandfather and share with them his heritage of giving. These are not simple tasks.

Similarly, the critical issues of our time are growing increasingly complex. It has become exceedingly difficult to identify the most efficient way to address any given issue, and to select the most effective delivery system once key program areas have been identified. Despite the mounting challenges to practicing effective philanthropy, now is the time to begin to act. And taking action is more than simply writing a check. This is not to suggest that financial contributions are not important; they are critical. I mean only to encourage each and every one of us to do more than simply provide financial support to the causes we hold dear. We need to become personally involved — for ourselves, for our families, and for those we are attempting to help.

For, at the end of the day, we hope families everywhere will be strengthened by our efforts for generations to come. That is why we chose the last line of the following parable from the Talmud, a written compilation of the Oral Law of Judaism, for our foundation logo:

One day, a man walking on the road saw Honi the Circle Maker planting a carob tree.

Puzzled, the man asked, “How long will it be before this tree will bear fruit?

Replied Honi, “Seventy years.”

The man then asked, “And do you believe you will be alive in another seventy years?”

Honi answered, “When I came into this world, there were carob trees with fruit ripe for picking. Just as my parents planted for me, so I will plant for my children.”

Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 23a

[1]     Charles S. Liebman and Steven M. Cohen (1990), Two Worlds of Judaism: The Israeli and American Experiences, New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 157.