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Helping to secure the Jewish future
Getting to know Mike Leven, founder of Jewish Future Pledge and Jewish Youth Pledge, two singular initiatives designed to help sustain the Jewish people’s future
‘Ikeep busy,” says Mike Leven. “I don’t have much free time.” At an age when many of his contemporaries are slowing down, the 84-year-old – who enjoyed an illustrious business career as president and COO of Holiday Inn Worldwide, president of Days Inn of America, and president and COO of Las Vegas Sands Corp – is working to ensure the future of the Jewish people by having members of the community sign the Jewish Future Pledge, earmarking half of the charitable funds that they leave at their passing to support the Jewish people and/ or the State of Israel.
In a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, the trim and youthful-looking Leven, speaking from his home in Boca Raton, Florida, describes the origins of the Jewish Future Pledge and the Jewish Youth Pledge – and why he spends so much of his time every day on them.
In 2010, explains Leven, 40 of America’s wealthiest people, such as Warren Buffett, Melinda French Gates and Bill Gates, made a commitment – known as The Giving Pledge – to give the majority of their wealth to address society’s most pressing problems. “I thought: Why couldn’t we have something like that for committed Jews that would be similar – for all Jews, not just billionaires?”
So three years ago, Leven created the Jewish Future Pledge and began to develop strategies and marketing plans to encourage its adoption. The pledge does not raise funds for any specific Jewish organization: Rather, in Leven’s words, it is a “moral pledge to the Jewish people.” It is intended for all members of the Jewish community, regardless of their financial position.
ENSURING THAT the Jewish people contribute to Jewish organizations and the State of Israel is critical for the future, he says. It is estimated that $68 trillion will transfer to the next generation in the next 25 years. The Jewish Future Pledge estimates that approximately 20% of these charitable dollars will be given by Jewish donors. The pledge aims to ensure that half of the amount allocated to charity by these Jewish donors, more than $600 billion, is set aside for Jewish causes.
Leven notes that the Jewish Future Pledge is about more than just providing financial support. It is crucial, he says, that parents speak to their children, grandchildren and community about the Jewish values that have guided their lives and the importance of sustaining the Jewish people. These conversations are key for fostering engagement and support for the organizations that will carry on the Jewish tradition in the future.
“Money is important,” says Leven, “but it is even more important to continue into the next generation. Our future is tied to that.”
Previous generations did not need to sign declarations or pledges leaving charitable donations for the next generation, the philanthropist says, because they had an innate loyalty and dedication to the Jewish people. In his view, the prosperity that the Jewish community has experienced in recent decades, especially in North America, has weakened its resolve.
“If you look at our history over the past 200 years, every time we gain affluence and security, we go farther away from Judaism,” he notes. “The farther away we get from tradition and the importance of a Jewish environment, the more problems we have.”
LEVEN SAYS that after beginning to study Jewish history, he came to the realization that the more secular the Jewish people become, the more vulnerable they become. He mentions a red-letter date in Jewish history – November 29, 1947 – when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the partition of Mandatory Palestine at the end of the British Mandate into two states – one for the Jews and one for the Arabs.
“I stand in front of people and say: ‘Does November 29, 1947, mean anything to you?’ How many people raise their hand and say yes? Very few.” With tears in his eyes, Leven recalls that his observant grandfather
Ensuring the Jewish people contribute to Jewish organizations and the State of Israel is critical for the future
listened to the vote on the radio, despite the fact that it was held on Shabbat. “The life of the Jewish people changed that day,” Leven declares.
The Jewish Future Pledge campaign has currently amassed just shy of 10,000 signatures and is growing at a steady pace. It has partnered with leading Jewish organizations such as the Jewish Federations of North America, JNF-USA, Israel Bonds, the Orthodox Union and numerous local federations in the United States.
Leven says that the organization has set a goal of obtaining 25,000 signatures by the end of 2023. “Our ultimate goal is to have one million people sign the pledge,” he says. “We have a way to go, but even if we get 500,000 people to sign, it will be a great accomplishment.”
He adds that he is encouraged when he sees 40-year-olds sign the pledge, who explain that they want to teach their children about the importance of Judaism. “There is a lot of conversation and a lot of awareness,” its initiator says.
LEVEN IS also attempting to increase Jewish awareness among teens with the Jewish Youth Pledge, a unique initiative that asks Jewish teenagers and young adults – ages 13 to 24 – to commit to being active, contributing members of the Jewish community throughout their lives.
“How do we get Jewish young people back to their roots?” asks Leven rhetorically. Recalling his own story, he says that his involvement in Jewish life was minimal for much of his early adult life until he turned 48 and became involved with the Jewish Federation.
The Jewish Youth Pledge helps teens engage with their Jewish heritage and their role in the Jewish community through a pre-planned lesson, which includes videos and discussion prompts. After completing the assignment, they are asked to write a letter on their smartphone or tablet to their future selves, answering questions such as “If you could meet yourself in the future, what would you hope to hear that you had accomplished or contributed?”
The letter is stored in a secure Digital Time Capsule and shared with participants at key junctures throughout the next two decades of their lives. Participants will be reminded of their commitment every five years, for the next 20 years, via a text message containing their full letter. It will remind them at various stages of their lives about the goals and aspirations they wrote as teens.
The Digital Time Capsule is more than just a gimmick, says Leven. It reminds them of their commitment. “What good is it to sign the pledge if they don’t remember that they signed it?” he asks. “We are trying to keep the connection.”
The Jewish Youth Pledge has already gotten 10,000 signatures and has partnered with a variety of Jewish youth organizations, such as BBYO, Birthright, NCSY, USY, and Young Judaea.
Our conversation comes to an end, but Mike Leven’s busy day is continuing, as he is about to enter a Jewish Future Pledge board meeting. “I like to get results,” he says. “I am blessed and privileged to be able to help. I’ll rest when I’m looking up at the grass,” he quips.
On a more serious note, he simply concludes that “The world needs Jews. I want to make a difference.” Mike Leven surely is doing that.