12 Self-Made Jewish Women Philanthropists and Where They Give
By Simone Ellin
Feb 26, 2021
Jewish women have always played an important role in charitable pursuits. Historically, that role was mostly limited to activities such as establishing mutual aid organizations; fundraising on behalf of Jewish federations, synagogues and nonprofits; volunteering time to Jewish communal causes; and making decisions about the allocation of inherited wealth or taking the lead in giving away money earned by their husbands.
Some of today’s top Jewish women philanthropists fit this traditional mold—like Lynn Schusterman, who leads a family foundation endowed with an oil and gas fortune created by her late husband Charles, or Billi Marcus, who works with her husband Bernie to give away a multi-billion-dollar Home Depot fortune.
But times are changing. Women now control just over half of the personal wealth in the United States and a rising number of women donors are tapping money they’ve created themselves. That includes many Jewish women who have earned their fortunes independently and are blazing their own paths as major givers.
These donors have made their money in a range of industries, including tech, finance, fashion and entertainment. Many are engaging in serious philanthropy relatively early in successful business careers—reflecting a broader trend among entrepreneurs and executives, especially those from the tech sector.
Today’s self-made Jewish women philanthropists give to various causes. Notably, though, our research finds that they are not necessarily prioritizing gifts to support the Jewish community.
As Inside Philanthropy has reported, some Jewish leaders and Jewish philanthropy professionals fear that younger generations of donors won’t support Jewish causes and Israel at the rate their parents and grandparents did. Those worries prompted the creation of the Jewish Future Pledge, in which donors promise to give at least half of their estates to Jewish or Israel-related causes. So far, none of the self-made Jewish women donors we profile below have taken the pledge.
So what do America’s wealthiest self-made Jewish women philanthropists care about? And where are they giving their dollars? Here’s a rundown.
A convert to Judaism, Sara Blakely’s self-made fortune derives from the invention of Spanx, a collection of undergarments, leggings and maternity clothes. As the story goes, Blakely first got the idea for Spanx when she was getting dressed for a party. She wasn’t happy with the way she looked in the white pants she was wearing, so she put on a pair of control top pantyhose under her pants, cut off the feet and she looked great! From there, Blakely set about creating the perfect undergarments for women like her.
In 2006, Blakely launched the Spanx Foundation with her “Give a Damn Party.” Each VIP ticket to the party paid one year of college tuition for a woman student attending the CIDA City Campus in Johannesburg, South Africa. In the years since the foundation’s launch, it has donated millions to local and international charities that empower women and girls and families, including the Susan G. Komen Foundation; Rainbow Village, a transitional housing organization for homeless families, and the Malala Fund, an international nonprofit that advocates for girls’ education established by Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.
As Inside Philanthropy has reported, Blakely is also an anchor sponsor of the Grameen America Social Business Fund. The fund provides microloans, credit and asset-building services to low-income women entrepreneurs. Blakely, a co-owner of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, signed the Giving Pledge in 2013. At the time, she was the first self-made female billionaire to join.
Fashion designer, entrepreneur and philanthropist Tory Burch, who is Jewish on her mother’s side, launched the fashion label that’s named for her with one downtown Manhattan boutique in 2004. Nowadays, she’s executive chairman and chief creative officer of Tory Burch, LLC with sales revenues totaling $1.5 billion. Yet Burch claims it’s never been about the business for her. “I started the company to start a foundation,” said Burch in a 2019 interview with Business of Fashion.
In 2009, Burch got her wish—founding the Tory Burch Foundation to support the empowerment of women entrepreneurs. The foundation offers a range of programs and initiatives, including a partnership with Bank of America that offers affordable loans through community lenders; a partnership with Goldman Sachs that provides entrepreneurial education for women; as well as mentoring and networking opportunities for women.
In June 2020, Tory Burch was included in Newsweek’s list of “50 U.S. Companies That Stood Out During the Pandemic.” According to the report, Tory Burch worked with United Healthcare Workers East to donate $5 million worth of Tory Burch products and 3,000 yards of fabric for face masks and hospital gowns to frontline healthcare workers at Catholic Health Services of Long Island.
Jewish entrepreneur Liz Elting started TransPerfect, the language solutions company that would make her wealthy, out of her NYU business school dorm room. Twenty-five years later, the company brings in $700 million annually in revenue.
Elting sold half of TransPerfect to dedicate herself to philanthropy in 2018. At that time, she launched the Elizabeth Elting Foundation to “help change the world and make it a better place,” reported Inside Philanthropy in 2020.
To that end, the Elting Foundation supports a variety of education programs at Elting’s alma maters, NYU and Trinity College and also funds health organizations including the American Heart Association. Other causes Elting supports include Everytown for Gun Safety and the International Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia Foundation.
Despite Elting’s incredible success, she says she experienced discrimination in the business world because of her sex. Hence, like many of the other women profiled here, Elting is also committed to funding organizations that champion women’s issues, including GLAM, or Girls Learning Advanced Math, and NYU’s Deep Tech and Life Sciences tracks that support women entrepreneurs to the tune of $100,000 a year.
Most recently, Elting was recognized for her foundation’s multi-million-dollar COVID-19 Response Initiative, which supported “comprehensive pandemic relief efforts—including funding for research, frontline healthcare workers, public health resources, and direct support to the country’s most vulnerable and underserved communities.” The initiative’s first $100,000 donation went toward food and medical support for needy families and individuals.
Renowned self-made Jewish fashion designer Donna Karan was inspired to start the Urban Zen Foundation after her husband Stephan Weiss succumbed to lung cancer in 2001 after a long battle with the disease. A Queens, New York, native and Parsons School of Design graduate, Karan felt that the medical care her husband received during his illness didn’t address his holistic healthcare needs. Therefore, the foundation’s mission is “to treat the patient and not just the disease.”
Karan believes this is best accomplished through a combination of Eastern and Western healing techniques. Urban Zen develops and manages training programs for healthcare professionals and funds organizations that are doing work in line with the foundation’s core beliefs. Urban Zen also funds children’s organizations that provide wellness programs such as yoga, meditation, arts and nutrition. The foundation’s third initiative supports Haitian culture by supporting Haitian artisans.
No list of self-made Jewish women philanthropists would be complete without singer, actor and comedian Bette Midler, aka “the Divine Miss M.” Midler’s first big break came in 1967 when she was cast as Tzeitel, the eldest daughter in the original Broadway production of “Fiddler of the Roof,” a role that she performed for three years. Midler was nominated for an Academy Award for her film debut in “The Rose” in 1979. Other film roles included “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” “Beaches,” “Hocus Pocus,” “Ruthless” and “The First Wives Club.”
As previously reported by Inside Philanthropy, Midler makes donations through her Bette Midler Family and Jeckyl Foundations. She is the founder of the New York Restoration Project, which plants trees, renovates gardens and restores parks in the five boroughs of New York City. Other environmental concerns include the Central Park Conservancy, Friends of Hudson River Park, City Parks Foundation and Westchester Land Trust.
Midler is also a funder of arts and cultural organizations. Recent recipients include The Met, Met Opera and the Museum of the City of New York. Through her Jeckyl Foundation’s Stages for Success initiative, Midler funds renovations of New York City public school auditoriums.
The Midler Family Foundation’s human services and humanitarian philanthropy includes support for local organizations like Coalition for the Homeless and God’s Love We Deliver and global organizations like Doctors Without Borders and Human Rights First. The foundation’s health funding includes grants to Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, Mt. Sinai, Ms. Foundation for Women, Breast Cancer Research Foundation and the Michael J. Fox Foundation.
Along with her business partner, Kathy Fields, M.D., Jewish dermatologist, entrepreneur and author Katie Rodan is co-founder of Proactiv, the popular skin care line that treats acne, and Rodan & Fields, an anti-aging skincare line.
Rodan & Fields’ revenues totaled $1.6 billion in 2018, but the multi-level marketing company’s revenues plummeted to $1.3 billion in 2019 after news circulated that Rodan & Fields was having difficulty maintaining their staff of independent sales consultants. Some disparaged the company, likening it to a “pyramid scheme.”
Rodan and her husband Amnon, who is chairman of Rodan & Fields as well as chairman for the company’s philanthropic arm, Prescriptions for Change, established the Rodan Family Foundation in 2018. The couple’s daughters, Alana Rodan Schuldt and Daniela Rodan, both work for the foundation. In addition to efforts to find a cure for obsessive-compulsive disorder, the Rodans are committed to supporting the Jewish community in the East Bay section of Northern California, where the family has lived since 1989.
According to the Rodan Family Foundation’s website, initiatives for the foundation include “empowering Jews of color in East Bay; catalyzing Jewish life in Contra Costa County; and strengthening engagement in Jewish life for young adults.” Rodan Family Foundation grant recipients include the Jews of Color Initiative; Chabad of Costa County; Moishe House; Honeymoon Israel and PJ Library.
Tech billionaire Sheryl Sandberg began her career at the World Bank after earning a degree in economics from Harvard. After graduation, Sandberg was recruited by then-Professor Larry Summers, who hired her as his research assistant. Some years later, when Summers became secretary of the Department of the Treasury under President Bill Clinton, he again hired Sandberg to be his chief of staff.
After leaving government, Sandberg spent eight years as vice president of global online sales and operations at Google before she left to become chief operating officer of Facebook. Sandburg gained worldwide acclaim after her 2010 TED Talk “Why We Have So Few Women Leaders.” She followed up the talk with her book “Lean In,” which elaborated on many of the ideas she touched on in the TED Talk.
Sandberg’s foundation, the Sheryl Sandberg and Dave Goldberg Family Foundation, has two components—Lean In, which encourages women to excel in their careers, and Option B, which was added after the sudden and untimely death of Sandberg’s husband Dave Goldberg. Option B supports people managing grief and other serious life challenges. A signatory of the Giving Pledge, Sandberg’s gifts to support these and other activities totaled more than $550 million as of 2020.
Jewish causes have not been a top priority for Sandberg. Yet among her gifts was a $2.5 million donation to the Anti-Defamation League in 2019 as a birthday tribute to her parents, Joel and Adele Sandberg. As the ADL reported in a press release, “Sandberg explained that she was moved to take action while learning that last week on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, a synagogue in Halle, Germany, was attacked, leaving two dead and two others wounded.”
Singer/ actress Barbra Streisand needs no introduction. Born in Brooklyn, New York, long before Brooklyn was hip, she is the daughter of a teacher and a secretary. Streisand’s Broadway debut came in 1962, at age 19, when she was cast in the musical comedy “I Can Get it For You Wholesale.” The performer went on to star in uber-popular films including “Hello, Dolly!,” “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” “Yentl” and “A Star is Born.”
In addition to the wealth she has accumulated from her decades in show business, Inside Philanthropy has reported that Streisand made a great deal of her fortune through real estate investments. Streisand established the Streisand Foundation in 1986. The foundation focuses its giving on healthcare, women’s and civil rights issues, and the environment. Grantees have included Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, the site of the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center; the Feminist Majority Foundation; the Rape Foundation; and the Brennan Center for Justice. Environmental grantees include the Environmental Media Association, Heal the Bay, Oceana, and the National Resources Defense Council.
Streisand has also supported Jewish organizations, including the USC Shoah Foundation, educational organizations such as Teach for America, and arts education institutions like the Juilliard School and PEN Center USA.
Few authors have enjoyed the incredible success of Danielle Steel. The prolific author of 179 books that have been translated into 43 languages, Steel is Jewish on her father’s side. Despite literary success, though, Steel’s life has not been without hardship. Her son Nick, who had bipolar disorder, committed suicide when he was 19. Nick’s death compelled Steel to focus her philanthropy in the areas of mental health and homelessness.
Support for mental health organizations through Steel’s Nick Traina Foundation includes grants to Crisis Support Services of Alameda County; St. Mary’s Medical Center; National Alliance on Mental Illness; National Depression/Manic-Depression Association; and Huckleberry Youth Program. To commemorate Nick’s love of music, Steel established a scholarship in his name at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Steel also founded Yo Angel!, an organization that provides mobile outreach services for homeless individuals to memorialize her late son’s concern for the homeless. According to reporting by Inside Philanthropy, over a 10-year period, Yo Angel! provided food, clothing, bedding and personal hygiene products for approximately 3,000 people.
Anne Wojcicki and Susan Wojcicki
Though philanthropists Anne Wojcicki, co-founder and CEO of 23andMe, and her sister Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, were the products of an interfaith marriage, both consider themselves Jewish like their mother. Through their foundations—the Anne Wojcicki Foundation and the Troper Wojcicki Foundation—these sisters give to Jewish organizations such as Oshman Family JCC, Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
In addition to its Jewish philanthropy, Anne’s foundation supports medical and scientific research, open-source information, education and youth and the Bay Area community. Prior to divorcing her ex-husband, billionaire Google co-founder Sergey Brin, in 2015, Anne Wojcicki and her ex ran the Brin Wojcicki Foundation. As Inside Philanthropy has reported, the foundation was known as a major supporter of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research and also founded the Breakthrough Prize, an annual prize that supports physics and life sciences research. After their divorce, both spouses created their own foundations, though the Brin Wojcicki Foundation apparently remained active after that. As of the end of 2018, Anne was still a director of the foundation, which last reported assets of just under $1 billion.
The Troper Wojcicki Foundation is most concentrated on the Bay Area community. In addition to funding Jewish causes, the foundation also supports Susan’s alma maters Harvard and UCLA, the Menlo School’s Room to Read literacy program, and earmarks some funding for the arts.
Nancy Zimmerman, co-founder and managing partner of Boston-based Bracebridge Capital, has the distinction of being the wealthiest female hedge fund manager in the country. Bracebridge is known for its innovative work in absolute return investing and the firm is reported to have over $12 billion under management.
Zimmerman, who is Jewish, and her husband Andrei Shleifer give money through their Zimmerman Shleifer Charitable Foundation. The foundation’s grantees include Boston Children’s Hospital, Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health and Planned Parenthood.
According to Social Finance, Zimmerman “has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with philanthropic support for coronavirus diagnostic development at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard, and for expansion of testing in Section 202 housing for the elderly.”
Zimmerman’s funding for Jewish organizations includes support for Jewish Family Services of Metrowest.