Reform: Behind a Big Gift to Hebrew Union College from a Bay Area Philanthropist

Taube Philanthropies recently gave $15 million gift Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Israel. The Bay Area charity and its founder, Giving Pledge signatory, Tad Taube, are known for supporting Jewish organizations around the world. Taube Philanthropies' latest gift, though, is its largest ever to a Jewish organization. 

How did Hebrew Union College and Taube link up for this groundbreaking gift and what broader lessons can be taken from this collaboration? 

To unravel the story, I recently spoke with Tad Taube and Rabbi Aaron Panken, HUC-JIR President. First I should mention that Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion traces its roots all the way back to 1875. The institution has campuses in Los Angeles, Cincinnati, New York, and Jerusalem and has been supported by donors we've profiled like billionaire Michael Milken and Goldman Sachs veteran Stephen Friedman. Tad Taube himself has also backed HUC-JIR. 

Taube's latest gift embraces the idea that Jewish values are under siege and need to be protected. An arm of Taube Philanthropies, the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture, was established in 2003 for this very reason and is particularly interested in advancing "the reform of Jewish institutions, which have often become disconnected from the people they serve." Hebrew Union College also has a reform mission and is focused on training the next generation of Reform rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit leaders.

Rabbi Aaron Panken tells me that one of the great challenges and opportunities for the state of Israel right now is to foster a more open and pluralistic understanding of Judaism. For instance, there's a major conversation going on in certain circles about the Western Wall or Kotel, a sacred space, and Hebrew Union College is very much in the thick of this discussion. To give you an idea of the kinds of transformations that are taking place, 20 to 30 years ago, Panken tells me there were only a few reform congregations in Israel. Now there are more than 60. Hebrew Union College educates reform rabbis who go out into the broader community to make change. 

We often write about the importance of a donor and an organization's vision aligning, and it's apparent that both Taube and HUC-JIR are committed to supporting and advancing Reform Judaism in Israel and beyond. This $15 million gift is evidence of that.

Personal ties also play a role here. Consider Rabbi David Ellenson, chancellor emeritus of Hebrew Union College. Ellenson once said that "no Jewish community has survived without a strong institution of higher Jewish learning at its core." Taube told me that he has a close relationship with Ellenson and was a motivating factor to an extent. The late Richard J. Scheuer, chairman emeritus of the board of governors of HUC-JIR was also good friends with some of Tad Taube's relatives. Scheuer was a pioneering figure in the expansion and building process of Hebrew Union College's nascent Jerusalem campus decades ago. 

Taube Philanthropies' $15 million gift will update, enhance and beautify the Jerusalem campus. A component of the gift involves a collaboration between Hebrew Union College and Taube Philanthropies with a special emphasis on the Jewish community in Poland. Taube's connection to Poland is critical to understanding his giving. Born in Poland, Taube fled the nation in 1931 and arrived in the United States in the summer of 1939, just weeks before the outbreak of World War II. Through the Jewish Heritage Initiative in Poland, Taube Philanthropies aims to "nurture the revival of Jewish life in Poland, further awareness of this resurgence among Jews and non-Jews, and foster positive interest in Poland and Polish Jews among Jews worldwide." 

Right now, Rabbi Aaron Panken tells me that there's a tentative plan to take the Hebrew Union College board to Poland to visit the Museum of the History of Polish Jews and other important sites. As time goes by, the hope is that students and faculty will work together to continue to develop the Jewish community in Poland. 

Ultimately, Taube's gift to Hebrew Union College is a strong example of a donor and an organization linking up to execute a strong shared vision. Panken hopes that Taube's gift will bolster Hebrew Union College's commitment to connecting North America and Israel.