Pearlstone, in family tradition, takes helm of Jewish fund-raising effort

Richard L. Pearlstone, member of a philanthropic family that has left its imprint on the artistic, educational and religious life of Baltimore, was honored here recently for accepting chairmanship of the world's largest Jewish fund-raising effort.

At the annual meeting of Baltimore's Jewish Federation at Center Stage June 16, Mr. Pearlstone received tributes for his record of service to Jewish interests in the United States and abroad. He was installed in New York on May 24 as national chairman of the United Jewish Appeal.


Since 1990, the UJA has raised $910 million to resettle Jews in Israel under Operation Exodus, one of its many international programs. About 500,000 Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union, 35,000 from Ethiopia and 12,000 from Syria were resettled.

Mr. Pearlstone, 46, was born in Dallas. When he was 4, he moved with his family to his mother's native Baltimore, where he attended the Park School and was an All Maryland soccer and lacrosse player. He has a home and business interests in Baltimore, but he, his wife and three children spend most of their time at their home in Aspen, Colo.


His grandfather, the late Joseph Meyerhoff, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra benefactor for whom its concert hall is named, was also national chairman of the UJA -- from 1961 to 1964.

Q: You are 15 years younger than your grandfather was when he assumed leadership of the UJA. Is Judaism strong among your contemporaries?

A: My generation is somewhat of a lost generation in Jewish life. I somehow fell back into it after being out in civic things for a long time. There are not a lot of guys between 40 and 50 who are big in Jewish philanthropy. But I think there are people under 40 coming through the ranks.

Q: Why?

A: There's been a resurgence of Jewish education, which bodes well for Jewish involvement. There's a big thirst out there to be involved in Judaism. When I used to be at a biennial event in Washington for young Jewish leadership, for people under 40, the big sessions were about politics.

Now, it's how to set a Jewish table for Shabbat [the Sabbath], how to transmit Jewish living, Jewish education, all the things that my generation on the assimilation route missed. Jewish people are coming back to their roots.

Q: Isn't that the reason for the Jack Pearlstone Institute for Living Judaism in Baltimore?

A: My wife Esther and I started that in 1987 in memory of my father. He always believed that education was important, that the youth were important.


The institute's purpose is really to provide a Jewish education on a more informal basis than going to religious school. What we're trying to do is encourage families to celebrate Shabbat together, learn together, share Jewish values. We try to work with all the congregations and all the different strains of Judaism so that they can do programs together to promote Jewish learning.

I mean Judaism across the broad spectrum and not just one form or another, whether it's Orthodox, Reform or Conservative. The goal is to make people better Jews and keep people Jewish.

We managed for 4,000 years to stay Jewish, and the educational factor is important. We bring in resident scholars every year. We work with the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies.

Q: How long will you head the UJA?

A: Two years as chairman -- that's really fund-raising -- and two years as president, which is running the financial end of it.

Q: How big is the UJA?


A: We have four regional offices and a staff of about 220. The UJA and the federation system of which Baltimore is a part have been raising about $720 million a year since 1990, and we believe it will go back up to $740 million now that the Operation Exodus campaign is over.

Q: You're optimistic?

A: Jews always tend to look after Jews. There's a tremendous philanthropic thrust toward Israel from the American Jewish community.

But you know the pyramid -- 1 or 2 percent of the people giving 80 percent of the money. That's one of the things that has to be addressed in the future, how to expand the base.

It's estimated that in the next 10 years about $2.7 trillion will change hands. As the older generation dies, that money -- not all Jewish money -- will be transferred to their kids. Part of our goal is to capture some of that $2.7 trillion.

Q: How do you propose to do it?


A: One of my goals in the UJA is to acknowledge the generational change and understand that what my grandfather and parents gave and why they gave are different from why I give and why my contemporaries give. We must articulate this.

Q: An example?

A: We're no longer building a nation. Israel's a big nation now -- it's a different place than it was 50 years ago. We do need Israel. It's an important part of Jewish continuity. Jerusalem's been the center for 3,000 years.

But this is a pivotal point in Jewish history -- I guess every UJA chairman has said that -- and I have to deal with generational change and at the same time I have to keep my old donors happy because they're still giving most of the money.

Q: Will the resettlement of Jews from the former Soviet Union continue?

A: By the turn of the century a million Jews will have immigrated to Israel. Over that time, probably half a million will immigrate to America. Baltimore has gotten 5,000 so far.


Q: What about Jews remaining in the former Soviet countries?

A: With summer camps in Russia, Ukraine, whatever, we're helping a resurgence of Judaism -- a million Jews will still be there.

But by the end of the century, what you'll see is that most of the Jews in the Muslim republics will have left -- not so much because of anti-Semitism, but because of economics and nationalism.

They're basically crumbling places with no prospects, especially if you're not a Muslim. There's no money -- it's Third World-minus.

I'm so grateful I'm an American. It's fate. If my grandfather hadn't gotten out, I could be in Russia today trying to go to Israel. A lot of it's luck of the draw -- we're here and they're there.