Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s staggering $100 million gift to Newark’s educational system is being seen in many ways:
A godsend to Newark’s struggling youth.
A shining example to other financial titans.
A preemptive strike to define Zuckerberg’s public image before Hollywood could.
But for members of the Jewish community with current ties to and roots in Newark, it may also be seen as the most significant “Jewish” story in the city in decades.
With his gift, Zuckerberg joins a small but passionate group of Jews who are committed to rebuilding Newark, decades after its storied Jewish community migrated to the western suburbs and beyond.
Raised in Dobbs Ferry, NY, the son of a dentist father and psychiatrist mother, Zuckerberg, 26, is perhaps typical of the brainy suburban Jewish kids who go on to top schools like Harvard and join a Jewish fraternity, in his case Alpha Epsilon Pi.
But there is nothing typical about Zuckerberg’s estimated $6.9 billion fortune, based on the 2004 launch from his Harvard dorm, of the globally dominant Internet social network (an event given an unflattering portrayal in the motion picture The Social Network, which opened last week).
Nor was there anything typical about his gift, which he announced on Oprah Winfrey’s television show Sept. 24 in the company of Newark Mayor Cory Booker and NJ Gov. Chris Christie.
“Every child deserves a good education and right now that’s not happening,” Zuckerberg explained on the show. “I’ve had a lot of opportunities in my life, and a lot of that comes from going to good schools. And I just wanted to do what I can to make sure everyone has those chances.”
Zuckerberg, who had no previous ties with Newark (and few significant ties with Jewish life, apparently), met Booker at a conference last summer. “This is Newark’s moment, and I think it has got the whole community excited and energized,” Booker said on the MSNBC show Morning Joe.
Booker said he has raised $40 million of the $100 million in matching required by the Zuckerberg grant. Christie, a Republican, said he would give Newark’s Democratic mayor a major role in overseeing any major changes in the district, which the state took over in 1995.
Not since telecom mogul Howard Jonas moved the headquarters of his company, IDT, to downtown Newark, perhaps, has a Jewish individual made such a visible financial contribution to the city.
For members of the Jewish community who have worked for decades to reverse Newark’s declining fortunes, the gift is a mixed blessing.
Norman Atkins, a Montclair resident who founded North Star Academy in Newark and branched out to form Uncommon Schools — a charter school management company that currently runs 24 schools in New York City, Newark, Rochester and Troy in New York, and Boston — gave his wholehearted approval to the Zuckerberg gift.
“It is a great day for Newark public schools,” he said. “The mayor and the governor and an incredible young entrepreneur have shown tremendous leadership in supporting Newark’s public schools. It is a huge blessing. It is a major piece of tzedaka.”
Robert Steinbaum, publisher of the Newark-based New Jersey Law Journal and a long-time booster of the city, said the Zuckerberg gift is the latest in a long list of contributions to Newark from Jewish individuals and organizations.
Steinberg is himself a leader at Newark’s 105-year-old Ahavas Sholom, Newark’s oldest functioning synagogue. He praised efforts by his congregation, by United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, and by the Chabad Torah Center in Newark in cementing enduring relationships with the city.
The Zuckerberg gift enhances “what is already a positive view of the Jewish community” held by the city’s leaders, Steinberg said.
Others are wary about the gift and its implications.
Paul Tractenberg, director of the Education Law Center at Rutgers University’s Newark campus and a strong advocate of public education, said the gift comes with plenty of unanswered questions.
“It’s problematic on a lot of levels,” he told NJJN. “What $100 million? Where is it going to come from? The guy doesn’t have any cash. His worth consists almost entirely of stock in Facebook, which is not publicly traded. It has to be privately sold. Is he going to sell his stock and donate the proceeds? What are the tax implications? Will Newark be left to market the stock?”
Tractenberg cited a Sept. 22 article in Forbes Magazine. “Zuck likely has very little cash on hand — he lives in a humble rented house in Silicon Valley,” according to Forbes.
“I am very wary of major private funds going into public education,” added Tractenberg. “I think it dramatically blurs the lines of who gets to make policy. In the case of Zuckerberg, do we want an unelected 26-year-old billionaire to decide what is education reform? I am very skeptical.”
Rosemary Steinbaum of Montclair, an educator and former consultant and grant administrator to Newark’s public schools (and Rob Steinbaum’s wife), is also wary of Zuckerberg’s largesse.
“There is a fundamental error in thinking that a single person without the will of the electorate is the answer to a problem,” she said. “We still live in a democracy, and I personally am not willing to trade in the democracy.”
But questions about funding and governance shouldn’t obscure the significance of the gift, said Kenneth Zimmerman, a Montclair resident who served as chief counsel to former Gov. Jon Corzine.
“Any time someone is willing to commit $100 million to education in Newark, that is a positive development,” said Zimmerman, the former executive director of the Newark-based New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “It is important not to let some of the trees overwhelm the forest.
“For all of the questions that need to be answered,” he said, “this level of investment in almost entirely low-income children in the public school system is going to have to be where transformation takes place. So I view it as a positive development, even if there are questions that need to be answered.”