JV: When you look back at the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation’s three decades of achievements, how do you feel?
RSL: I feel proud – and humbled. I am proud of what we have built; a vibrant network of Jewish schools, summer camps, and leadership training programs across Eastern and Central Europe. And I am left feeling humbled, for without the efforts of so many devoted educators and community leaders, we never would have seen the remarkable progress of the past 30 years.
JV: How did your own upbringing and life experiences impact the agenda of the Foundation?
RSL: Growing up, I was a two-day-a-year Jew. I didn’t feel a strong connection to my heritage or the Jewish homeland. The awakening of my Jewish identity later in life changed everything. I became profoundly aware of the shared obligation that is a hallmark of the Jewish people: Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh ba’zeh—all of Israel is responsible for one another. That’s why I started the Foundation and became so committed to rebuilding Jewish communities decimated by the Shoah and Communist rule. My hope is that every Jew in the Diaspora, and especially those in Eastern and Central Europe, who were forgotten for so long, will discover the joys of their heritage.
JV: Children are at the heart of the Foundation’s efforts. What do you hope will be the Foundation’s lasting impact on this generation of Eastern and Central European Jewish children who grew up in Lauder schools and programs?
RSL: Simply put: we want our children to appreciate the gift that is their heritage; to know where they come from and to understand what it means to be part of the Jewish people. At a time when intermarriage and assimilation threaten the future of our people, our task is to inspire young Jews to embrace, rather than cast aside, their birthright.
JV: Naftali Bennett, Israel’s Minister of Education and Diaspora Affairs, spoke at your Foundation’s 30th Anniversary celebration. What was your takeaway from his remarks?
RSL: I was delighted that Minister Bennett joined us as our guest. I agree with his fundamental view that Jews in Israel and the Diaspora need to forge a new partnership. I shared with him my conviction that we should be doing everything we can to encourage Jewish people to feel included, not excluded. And in that context, we discussed conversion legislation and shared prayer space at the Kotel, two pressing issues. We also agreed to disagree about the one-state solution.
JV: What new challenges have you encountered in recent years in working with the younger generation in the Jewish community?
RSL: Too many young Jews today lack the strong connection to Israel and Judaism that previous generations had. Educating the younger generation about the value of remaining true to our religion and peoplehood is paramount to our future.
JV: For many years, you have been one of the most active and effective Jewish leaders on the international stage. What motivates your work and keeps you going?
RSL: When I traveled through Eastern Europe in the mid-1980s, during my time as U.S. Ambassador to Austria, I saw a generation of Jewish children losing touch with their religion. I saw Jewish communities that were just one generation away from extinction. Had we not created the Foundation when we did, I fear that Jewish life as we know it would be nonexistent throughout Central and Eastern Europe. That sense of urgency, knowing that the Judaism of tomorrow is in our hands today, drives my work.
JV: We see more and more Jewish millennials in the United States who do not support Israel, many of whom even join boycotts and protests against it. Why do you think the problem has worsened and what do you think could be done to bring the Jewish millennials closer to Israel?
RSL: We live in the age of the sound bite, when a catchy lie can have more sway than the provable truth. BDS has capitalized on this new normal by using lies and distortions about Israel to rally a political movement rooted in illegal religious discrimination. The saddest aspect is the involvement of many Jewish millenials. It is our responsibility to proactively educate future generations of Jews about Israel, to prevent this misinformation from spreading.
Edited by: JV Staff