Philanthropists Leon and Toby Cooperman and their family have committed $5 million to a groundbreaking permanent fund intended to anchor activities promoting Jewish identity and continuity among young people in the MetroWest region.
The Cooperman Family Fund for a Jewish Future will endow Birthright Israel for young adults, support Jewish summer camps for youngsters, and promote mitzva projects for teens.
The fund targets three distinct age groups in what is a major push by United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ to “help secure a Jewish future.”
The Cooperman fund will help to form the foundation of a major endeavor to build permanent funding for continuity programming locally and beyond, according to UJC MetroWest executive vice president Max L. Kleinman.
Other leading gifts to that endeavor include major endowment support for day school education from Paula and Jerry Gottesman of Morristown and other day school donors, as well as support for senior transportation, teen philanthropy, and other programs locally, in Israel, and around the world.
“We are very proud of our religion, our heritage, the many accomplishments of the Jewish people, and the enormous contribution they make to society,” said Leon Cooperman. “But we are very concerned about the pace of assimilation and really the disappearance of the Jewish religion.
“Through intermarriage and rapid assimilation, we’re disappearing. We’re trying to make our effort to help either slow that down or reverse it.”
The Cooperman Family Fund for a Jewish Future will be held by the Jewish Community Foundation of MetroWest, the planned giving and endowment arm of UJC MetroWest NJ.
Under the fund, the Cooperman family becomes the first in the nation to create an endowment in support of Birthright Israel, the successful program that brings Jews ages 18-26 on free short-term visits to Israel.
As a result, MetroWest will have the first endowed “Birthright Israel Bus”: The fund will support at least one tour group per year for young Jewish adults from MetroWest and across New Jersey. Every bus holds approximately 40 people and costs Birthright Israel approximately $120,000.
Officials at Birthright, which has depended on the sometimes uncertain support of individual philanthropists, federations, and the Jewish Agency for Israel, welcomed the endowment as a model for other communities as they seek to raise $500 million over the next five years to sustain the program (see related story).
“I’m very, very pleased the Coopermans have taken this leadership role,” said Robert Aronson, president of the Birthright Israel Foundation.
The Cooperman Family Fund greatly expands continuity efforts by MetroWest and its donors, who already earned national attention for a $50 million campaign to increase affordability and quality at area day schools.
“We’ve done a lot of work in these areas in terms of day school endowments,” said Kleinman, but only an estimated 10 percent of local youngsters attend day schools. “So we worry about the other 90 percent. They need additional tools because they are not going to have the intensity of the experience of the kids who go to day school.”
Researchers have been enthusiastic about Birthright and Jewish camping as a means to inspire young people to identify and affiliate Jewishly as adults.
“That’s why an Israel experience and Jewish camping, particularly residential Jewish camping, are so important as a supplement to our offerings here,” said Kleinman. “That’s why what the Coopermans are doing, in addition to what other families — the Gottesmans, and others — have done is so important in terms of ensuring the future of our Jewish community.”
The Cooperman Family Fund for a Jewish Future will also provide ongoing support for a major initiative to increase the numbers of local youngsters at overnight Jewish camps (see related story). The Cooperman family may also use the fund to support JCC MetroWest’s Camp Deeny Riback, a day camp in Flanders.
Between its support for Jewish camps and Birthright, the fund will provide backing for teenagers through support of mitzva projects and other programs. Jodi Cooperman, the wife of Toby and Leon Cooperman’s son Wayne, offered the example of Mitzvah Corps, the Reform Jewish social action project for high school students that combines hands-on social justice work away from home with Jewish education.
“We want to fill in the gap between summer camp and Birthright with things that get teens engaged in Jewish activities, whether through Jewish touring or Jewish mitzvas, or whatever it might be,” said Jodi.
Members of the Cooperman family, including Jodi and Wayne, will consult with foundation professionals and MetroWest leaders annually to decide how best to use income from the fund to support these Jewish identity and service programs.
Included in these discussions will be Courtney Cooperman, the older daughter of Jodi and Wayne. Already at age 12, Courtney has shown the kind of zeal for charitable giving and service projects that her parents and grandparents hope to instill in other teens.
Courtney, a sixth-grader at Millburn Middle School, started a mitzva group called the Peace Friendship Club with her friends three years ago, when she was in fourth grade. The club’s first project was providing healthy treat bags for foster children. Since then, club members have, among other activities, held a bake sale to benefit people in Haiti, made lasagna to serve at a local soup kitchen, collected items for needy babies, and conducted a hat and mitten drive for Bridges Outreach, a charity headquartered in Summit that provides food and other necessities to the needy.
Jodi serves as their mentor and adviser. “Every year they come up with projects they want to do, and I help them figure out what organizations to work with, and help them get in touch,” said Jodi.
“We all like to help other people, and this is a way we can get together and do something worthwhile,” said Courtney, interviewed Jan. 25 in Whippany while attending Mitzvot of MetroWest, an annual fair where more than 1,000 pre-bar/bat mitzva-age students and their parents hear about mitzva project opportunities from over 20 organizations.
Helping create community-wide mitzva project ideas for teens will help to “reclaim the youth into the religion to make sure they are Jewish and stay Jewish, and help them develop a sense of enthusiasm and attachment for Judaism,” said Leon Cooperman.
Asked about their motivation to include Courtney, their eldest granddaughter, in the conversation, Toby said, “She’s the future. She’s the up-and-coming community leader.”
Leon and Toby Cooperman are longtime community leaders and major philanthropists in the MetroWest community and beyond.
Leon, a former chairman and chief executive officer of the Asset Management division of Goldman, Sachs & Co., is the founder of Omega Advisors, Inc., a New York-based hedge fund. He and Toby live in Short Hills.
Wayne, a hedge fund manager, and Jodi Cooperman also live in Short Hills with Courtney and her nine-year-old sister, Kyra. Leon and Toby Cooperman have another son, Michael, who lives with his family in Bangor, Me.