They Did Well on Broadway. Now This Couple is Giving for Jewish Ethics and Social Justice

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It’s a long way up Broadway from the theater district of bright lights and musicals to the corner of 122nd Street, where the castle-like entrance to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America is perched. But one couple, Ruth and Stephen Hendel, has trekked uptown from the stages where they produce award-winning musicals and plays, to give a gift to the conservative movement’s flagship institution and establish a Center for Ethics and Justice.

The Hendel Center for Ethics and Justice will emphasize teaching Jewish ethics from an activist approach, as well as JTS’s traditional academic approach, said Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, the new center’s executive director. Ruskay’s professional background is in Jewish social justice organizing. She previously worked with the American Jewish World Service and Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps.

Under the Hendel Center’s aegis, there will be discussions for current students of social justice issues, such as racial justice, immigration and gun control, Ruskay said. Community organizing skills, which are already taught to fourth-year rabbinical students, will get more emphasis. And JTS alumni who are accomplished social justice activists will come to campus to learn together and to teach current students. Those alumni will include clergy, Jewish educators and lay leaders, she said. JTS has rabbinic and cantorial schools, but also a school of education and a graduate school of Jewish studies. “We want to be a convener of our alumni’s expertise,” said Ruskay. “It is a way for us to relate to them better and help them pursue their own concerns around ethics and justice.”

Ruth Hendel has been a Broadway show backer since 2002, when she produced the play Metamorphoses. Since then, she has produced or associate- and co-produced many notable Broadway productions including revivals of ’night, Mother, Hamlet, In the Heights and, with her husband Stephen Hendel, Fela! As an individual producer, she backed the recent revival of Hello, Dolly and The Band’s Visit, which won 10 Tony awards and closed this month. Currently playing are Ruth Hendel-backed Mean Girls, Burn This, and, with her husband, the original musical Ain’t Too Proud. Opening later this month is their jointly produced show Beetlejuice.

She grew up in an Orthodox home, and her husband Stephen, in a Conservative Jewish household, they said in a joint interview this week.

“With JTS on a capital campaign, modernizing their campus, it seemed like a good time to help them modernize their curriculum and sharpen their focus on one of the central tenets of Judaism,” said Stephen Hendel, whose primary career is as a commodities broker. The couple lives in Larchmont, New York, and has three adult children and six grandchildren.

JTS’s capital campaign, titled “21st Century Campus,” is building a new, on-campus dormitory and redesigning the seminary’s library and auditorium to make them more modern, handicapped accessible and welcoming.

Of their named center, Stephen Hendel said, “We want this to be a program to connect the Conservative movement to other religions and other religious leaders, besides instructing current and future students. It could be a resource for all the graduates as part of a continuing education program. We were very pleased to help it get off the ground.”

Neither the Hendels nor JTS representatives would say how much the couple donated to name the center. When pressed to provide a round number or range, Stephen Hendel firmly declined. “We are keeping the amount confidential,” he told Inside Philanthropy.

Sounding slightly irritated that a reporter had looked up the tax filings for the Stephen & Ruth Hendel Foundation, he emphasized that “we give outside the foundation, as well,” and have given “from our personal funds to JTS.”

Tax records show that the Hendels’ foundation gave $205,000 to various nonprofit organizations in 2017, but that filing leaves off the list of recipients that is usually appended. Their foundation’s filing for 2016 shows that the foundation gave a total of $555,000 that fiscal year, including $62,750 to JTS. Ruth Hendel has been a longtime member of the JTS Library’s board of directors, and since 2013, a trustee of JTS’s board.

The Hendels are also donors to UJA-Federation of New York, social justice-focused American Jewish World Service, The Jewish Museum, Hadassah and their Conservative synagogue, the Westchester Jewish Center, they said in the interview.

Much of their philanthropy funds theater and educational organizations. Their foundation’s largest grantee, according to its 2017 tax filing, was New York Live Arts, of which Stephen Hendel is co-chair of the board. That year, the Hendel Foundation gave that theatrical organization $152,000. Giving to Yale University is a family tradition. Stephen’s father, Stephen, and their three children all attended the Ivy League college. Their foundation gave to the Yale School of Drama in 2017. The Eugene O’Neil Theater in Waterford, Connecticut, received nearly $60,000 from the Hendel Foundation that year.

While JTS has long been considered a center of intellectual rigor and Biblical scholarship, there was a time when it also boasted faculty who were considered beacons of social justice. The best known was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a JTS faculty member from 1945 until his death in 1972. Heschel walked with civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma Alabama in 1965. A famous photo from the march shows Heschel, with his long white beard and beret, linking arms with Ralph Bunche—King just on Bunche’s other side and Rep. John Lewis further down the line—and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.

In more recent years, JTS has produced Jewish leaders who have gone on to achieve remarkable things outside the Conservative movement. For example, all three founders of Mechon Hadar, Rabbis Shai Held, Eilie Kaunfer and Ethan Tucker, who created the non-denominational pluralist yeshiva in Manhattan, were ordained or earned their doctorates at JTS. Rabbi Sharon Brous, ordained at JTS, created Ikar, an artsy, politically engaged independent Jewish community in Los Angeles offering innovative programming that attracts participants who aren’t inclined to cross the threshold of more typical synagogues.

Is the creation of the new Hendel Center an attempt to bring some of JTS’s most accomplished alumni back into the Conservative fold?

“We’re reaching out to alumni doing all kinds of great work in the field and finding successes and challenges around their work. An early project will be to survey them, to see where they can use our support and convening,” said Ruskay. “If we note that several are struggling with the same thing, say, antisemitism in their communities from the left and the right, we will see if perhaps we can bring together Conservative movement leaders to address this from academic and activist perspectives,” she said. “We’re very proud of our people,” she said, “but they don’t always know we are.”

Ultimately, says Stephen Hendel, “we want to show that efforts in social justice are at the center of modern 21st-century Judaism and progressive religions.”