David & Sylvia Steiner

A leadership commitment of $5 million in support of Yerushe: The Yiddish Book Center’s 40th Anniversary Campaign

The Yiddish Book Center mourns the passing of our great friend and longtime board member David Steiner.  Born and raised in a Yiddish-speaking home in Weequahic (Newark’s immigrant Jewish neighborhood), he studied engineering at Carnegie-Mellon University, served as an officer in the Korean War, and went on to become a successful builder, a Commissioner of the Port Authority, president of AIPAC, and vice chair of the National Jewish Democratic Council.  He was a generous contributor to numerous good causes, including the Yiddish Book Center, where the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program bears his name.  Brilliant, funny, and full of life, he had a huge heart and we miss him already. Zeykher hatsadik livrokhe – May the memory of the righteous be a blessing for us all.

David Steiner has been a friend and supporter of the Yiddish Book Center for so long—“a thousand years,” he says with a laugh—that he can no longer recall how the connection was first made.

But however it started, it’s been a deep and committed relationship. Steiner is a longtime member of the Center’s Board of Directors, and over the years, he and his wife, Sylvia, have made many significant gifts to support the organization’s work. Those gifts include funds to support the Center’s flagship educational program, the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program, as well as the David and Sylvia Steiner Yizkor Book Collection, a collaboration with the New York Public Library to digitize and distribute more than 700 memorial volumes commemorating Jewish communities destroyed in the Holocaust.

“The preservation of Yiddish and the whole Yiddish culture is important. It reminds me of all the beginnings of our people.”

Now the Steiners have raised the bar still higher, with a leadership commitment of $5 million in support of Yerushe: The Yiddish Book Center’s 40th Anniversary Campaign. It is the largest donation to the campaign to date, and it brings the Center significantly closer to its goal of raising $50 million in time for that anniversary, in 2020.

“I feel that you have an obligation, if you’ve had some success, to share the fruits of your labor with others,” David Steiner says, explaining the couple’s remarkable generosity. “The preservation of Yiddish and the whole Yiddish culture is important. . . . It reminds me of my youth. It reminds me of all the beginnings of our people. I think it’s important to preserve that heritage.” And, he adds, he’s hopeful that their gift will inspire others to contribute to the campaign, so that the Yiddish Book Center can continue its work for generations to come.

Some of the Steiners’ early gifts have had a major impact on the field—and they keep on giving. When the Steiner Yizkor Book Collection began, the goal was to scan the books and offer reprint editions on demand. This past year, the New York Public Library gave the Center permission to make the volumes available online as well, and demand is expected to skyrocket once the technical work is completed. The volumes are especially popular among amateur and professional genealogists—a fact that Steiner appreciates.

“I wanted to preserve that portion of the culture,” he says. “I’m always interested in learning about the history of where my people came from.” Making Yizkor books easily accessible to a wide audience “is a way to have people learn where their families came from. . . . I just didn’t want that part of history to go away.”

In 2004, the Steiners provided a leadership gift to endow the summer Yiddish program that now bears their name. While the Center has offered summer programs for college students since 1986—in the earliest years, student interns unpacked Yiddish books in a warehouse in the morning in exchange for language lessons in the afternoon—the Steiner program is more academically intensive than those earlier iterations. Students spend seven weeks at the Center taking a full year’s worth of language classes at either the beginner or intermediate level. They also study Yiddish literature and culture with gifted visiting faculty members, and the more advanced students have a chance to participate in Center projects. Support from the Steiners and other contributors covers the entire cost of tuition for all students. Since the Steiners made their visionary gift, hundreds of talented students have learned Yiddish through the program, with many going on to further study and professional pursuits in Yiddish and Jewish culture.

This is exactly the sort of outcome the Steiners had in mind when they decided to endow the program. “We thought it would be a good way to get young people involved and help them learn the language,” David Steiner says. “They would have the energy to go forth with these tools and push Yiddish. . . . They’re the future. They’re the ones who have to carry the ball.”

Meeting the students each year has shown that the investment was a sound one. “I feel intimidated by some of those kids,” Steiner says. “They are so bright, so energetic, and so devoted and dedicated. I’m in awe of them.”

The Steiners’ recent commitment to the Yerushe campaign is also an investment in the future of Yiddish, and David Steiner hopes others will decide to follow in their footsteps. “I can’t think of anything better than to help ensure the continuity of the Yiddish Book Center and its work,” he says.

For information on how you can support Yerushe: The Yiddish Book Center’s 40th Anniversary Campaign, please email or call Zvi Jankelowitz, director of institutional advancement, at 413-256-4900, ext. 117.

From Kvel, the newsletter of the Yiddish Book Center (Fall 2016)