Interview with Roger Hertog

PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER:  Let’s start with Zalman Bernstein, whose wealth is part of the Tikvah fund.  Where did he go to school?  What kind of family life did he have?

ROGER HERTOG:  Zalman Bernstein went to Townsend Harris High School, in the Bronx, which was a very selective school along the lines of Stuyvesant High today. He was educated at NYU and the Harvard Business School, after which he worked in Europe for the Marshall Plan.

Sandy had a handful of unique qualities; everyone who knew him would attest to that. He was extremely ethical at core — ethical almost to the point of absurdity. It was manifest in the way he dealt with clients, how he dealt with the people who worked for him, how he dealt with business relationships of all kinds. As a result, ethics pervaded our firm.

He was also immensely creative.  But the unique thing was that his creativity was combined with the precision of a lawyer. This was not only a tremendous benefit in its own right, it gave him the ability to understand and communicate with a wide variety of people.

Then he was extremely entrepreneurial, and willing to work as hard as required to bring his ideas to flourishing life. He loved work: there was no limit on how much he would work.

Finally, he believed in intellectual capital. He believed in investing as much of the firm’s profit as practicable in research and new ideas.  He believed that the more we knew, the more likely we were to do well for our clients, as ethics required of us.

PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER:  Was it his idea to set up the Tikvah Fund?

ROGER HERTOG: Absolutely. When he developed a form of lymphoma and, at the age of 70, realized he would soon die, he decided to give away most of his money. He wanted it to be completely distributed within a generation or a generation and a half, and he wanted the distributing to be done by people he knew.

One of the foundations he established is Avi Chai, another capital pool is Keren Keshet. These are the two most significant. The smallest of the three is Tikvah. He asked me to take charge of Tikvah after he was gone, but he had many different visions for it, none of which came to fruition in his lifetime.

PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: I know you were the main backer of Shalem. Was Shalem also his idea?

ROGER HERTOG: Tikvah was and continues to be the most significant contributor to Shalem. But Shalem was not Zalman’s idea. Yoram Hazony and Dan Polisar had worked tirelessly for years to build its intellectual capital.

Shalem reflected Zalman’s essence:  highly intellectual, spiritual in the sense of really understanding Judaism and Judaism’s role in the West, and revolutionary in the sense of working to assure that Jewish ideas would have real impact on the larger society, both in Israel and in the West.

My guess is that if he had lived long enough, Zalman would have used Tikvah to become a major entrepreneur in the field of ideas.  That didn’t happen, but it’s what we’re doing now.

PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER:  When did you meet Zalman?

ROGER HERTOG:  I worked for him at a company called Oppenheimer. When he left to start Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., Inc., I didn’t want to go with him at first, and he did have trouble in the early stages. But by 1968 I had a wife and two children (still the same wife, still the same children only eventually there were three), and I decided Sandy’s new venture was a good bet.  It would give me a chance to do something possibly great.


ROGER HERTOG:  With Bernstein.  I knew it might fail, in which case I’d have to take a step back and try something else.  But I had a chance.  It was one of those moments that if you don’t take it, you’ll always look back and say, “That was a missed opportunity.”  It doesn’t mean there won’t ever be other opportunities, but there are some moments in life when really important opportunities crop up.  It’s like meeting the woman you’ll marry: at a certain point you know that you’d better marry her! Is the situation perfect?  Who knows whether it will work at all?  But you take the leap.

Same thing with a business opportunity. You have to study it as much as you can, think hard about it, and ask yourself whether the potential reward is worth the risk. Will it fulfill what you’re trying to do? That’s what I did, and at Bernstein we did it routinely.  By “we” I mean the three of us who were the most important partners – one or two of them really gifted people, myself not included. After a while we got to know each other well enough to create a really big success.

PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: I’m most interested in one decision that you and Zalman each made. It’s not about charitable giving; that’s part of the American culture. You give to charity, you get a tax break, most everyone does it.

What I’m interested in is real philanthropy. Not everyone does that. You had a wife and two children, you seized an opportunity, you made good, and as a consequence you became wealthy. At what point did you suddenly think, “I should be giving this away.  It’s not only about me and my children.” How does that happen?

ROGER HERTOG: The United States is unique in this respect. You’ve read de Tocqueville more carefully than I have, so you know that we’re unusual in this among the nations of the world, and we have been from the start. When I was growing up it seemed to me that it was three men who created the philanthropic tradition: Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller.

To this day Franklin’s money is still being spent in Philadelphia and elsewhere.  He had a very intriguing mind. Then there was the remarkable Mr. Carnegie, and, of course, Mr. Rockefeller.

I loved history and biography – I still do. And when I studied these men I began to understand that some day most of us wake up and realize that we’re not going to be around forever. When you’re 20 or 30 you don’t think about it.  But when you start to get into your 40s, mortality becomes real. You ask yourself, “What do I believe in?” Are there things I believe in?  Ideas that I think might help shape a better society? This aspect of life begins to take on great significance. And if you’re blessed with having made some money, you also have to ask yourself, how do I want to spend it? I decided I wanted to spend it in my lifetime.

PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER:  One of the things that impressed me, if I read it correctly in that piece in The Wall Street Journal, was the suggestion that you are a very serious supporter of Catholic education in New York City.

ROGER HERTOG:  That’s true.

PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: How did it come about?  I’m not asking with wonder.

ROGER HERTOG: My parents were poor German-Jewish immigrants, and public education saved my life and made my life. As I got older and started thinking about public policy and what my responsibilities were as a citizen, I started paying more attention to what was going on in the public schools.  Not that I thought schools could make children’s lives without something also going on in the home, because many studies have made that point, but it became obvious to me that schools could make a big difference. I began reading seriously about it and working with a couple of public-policy institutions. A book that influenced me deeply was by Diane Ravitch, a great historian of education who I think is still associated with NYU. She opened my eyes to the fact that our public schools have been failing, and that this is a civil-rights issue, a civic-justice issue.

Then I looked around, and noticed that the Catholic school system, even though massively under-funded, was no longer serving just Catholics, although they certainly were serving Catholics in the Bronx neighborhood where I grew up. And their schools were earning such high returns! The young people educated in Catholic schools had high-school graduation rates of, I believe, more than 80%, as opposed to a bit above 50% for our city as a whole, and I think the public-school statistic also includes kids who take six years to get through rather than four. So supporting the Catholic schools, even with relatively small amounts of money, gave you a chance to benefit the lives of many young men and women.

And it turned out that of the three events that give a young person a real chance of escaping poverty, graduating from high school is the first and foremost. (Second is getting married and having a child; third is getting a job.) Passing these milestones gives people a 70-80% chance of climbing up from poverty. Catholic schools do a very good job on high-school graduation. Many public schools also do fine, but Catholic schools turn out to be remarkably inspiring. It raised an idea in my mind that seemed to outweigh the religious aspects of the situation. The idea was school choice, and that seemed to me something well worth supporting.

PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Are there other memorable projects like that?

ROGER HERTOG: I’ve tried to do a number of things along these lines, and I’ve learned that idea-based philanthropy is a speculative business.  More of my projects have failed than succeeded. But there was one especially interesting project that did succeed — a new-style branch library in the Bronx.

Most of my philanthropy has been anonymous; I haven’t talked much about it.  But I’ve been guided by Archimedes’ assertion,” Give me a lever long enough and I can move the world.”  If you find the right levers, your treasure can have very great impact.

PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: One of the things that stands out is, it seems that neither Tikvah nor you “push” your names.  That was also true for Bernstein?

ROGER HERTOG:  Yes.  There’s no Bernstein Foundation.

PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER:  There’s no Hertog Institute somewhere?

ROGER HERTOG:  No.  I’ll probably end up using my name more in future than I have in the past. I’ve already been convinced to do so a couple of times, but most of the time I haven’t seen the point. For instance, the Alexander Hamilton Center at NYU, which I developed in cooperation with the university’s politics department, could have been called the Hertog Center, but there was no reason for that. It wouldn’t have been as meaningful as the name Hamilton is. I’ll use my name only if I think it can help leverage a project or institution. I know my name. I don’t have to see it anywhere.

PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER:  Has your wife played a role in this world of yours? Either on the business side or on the side of world-shaping philanthropy?

ROGER HERTOG: Perhaps my wife and I are trying to shape the world in different ways. We’ve been married 44 years. She’s an enormously supportive person and very, very smart; she graduated near the top of her class at Hunter College.  I didn’t even graduate from college! I hardly went to classes at all, because I was already working!

But my wife is an intellectual. She loves literature and history, and she’s a writer herself. She’s published one biography and is now finishing another. She’s always been interested in the connections between women and history and the big questions in women’s lives.  But although she’s interested in my philanthropic work, so far we’ve each been working on our own things.

Come to think of it, I’ll have to get her more involved in my projects, because she’ll probably be around a lot longer than I will.

PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Let’s go back now to Tikvah a little bit. You started off by giving me evocative examples: This is what Tikvah is about.  Right now, how do you define the goals?

ROGER HERTOG: The most important Tikvah goal is to promote Jewish excellence. Develop a deep understanding of Jewishness and Jewish ideas and help establish the next generation of Jewish leaders, teachers, philosophers and rabbis, so that they can take it from there. The second goal is to promote Jewish thought and its contribution to Western Civilization on the grand scale.

PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER:  So the focus is on education.

ROGER HERTOG:  That’s exactly right. Education in centers of Jewish excellence, especially the universities, because these are the only places that almost all Jews experience.  If you could impress the young Jewish matriculants — and the Gentile ones too, for that matter — with what Judaism’s contribution has been, the leverage would be tremendous.

There are only 40 or 50 universities with substantial Jewish student representation. What if you could enrich their curricula with deep, serious, interesting courses on Jewish themes, taught by great teachers? First you have to help create those great teachers, which means being willing to promote and fund. Toward that end Tikvah is planning a number of “centers of Jewish excellence” like the Tikvah Centers at NYU and Princeton.  We’ll do three or four others as well, each with its own specific slant.

Then the idea is to promote that education “across the food chain,” as I call it.  We’ll try to identify the 50 best students at Jewish day schools, for instance, bring them together during the summers and expose them to, say, the 20 best teachers on Jewish themes in the world with the objective of developing far greater knowledge among them.

The question is how far we can stretch this idea – how many outstanding teachers we can find across the universe of campuses who can produce outstanding new courses and therein educate new generations of Tikvah scholars, bring them together in summer sessions and the like, form a high-order community, promote Jewish excellence and, eventually, create institutions like perhaps a Jewish Review of Books. There aren’t many courses now in existence that deal with the big questions facing young men and women, even though many young people cry out for such courses. Too much specialization seems to be going on in academia, leading to the study of a wide variety of subjects but from minutely limited points of view.

PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER:  Is anything like a review of books going on now?

ROGER HERTOG: I’m almost certain there will be. It’s important in giving us a way to communicate to a larger audience.  Most of us, at some moment in our lives, have waited anxiously to open up a magazine that we loved, because we felt it understood us, or that we could learn from it. In Jewish thought today, where is that magazine?

We’ll have to see if we can really pull it off. It’s not smart to do too many things at once, but we should think about everything. Why shouldn’t there be a Jewish C-Span, for instance? A place that brings home to us the most interesting talks, conferences, and interviews with authors?

PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER:  It’s a very interesting idea.

ROGER HERTOG:  Some of these ideas will be too ambitious financially. Some won’t work.  But just think if there could be a free website encompassing the Jewish canon!  The 20 greatest professors giving their best introductory lectures on the subjects they care about most — the Jewish issues they’re most passionate about! A family might sit together and experience this on the Web, accompanied by published curricula, giving everyone the chance to learn something from gripping, magnetic scholars. Leon Kass talking about Genesis, for instance, inspiring you to go out and get his book,  or discussing the Ten Commandments, inspiring you to want to reread them because you’ve never thought about them that way before. This is the core mission of Tikvah.

PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: You have some hope, not just about these specific projects, but the big thing.  There are lots of clouds out there.

ROGER HERTOG:  One is how much we’ve neglected Jewish education to date. Yes, there are some very great day schools out there, and they deserve lots of support. But most young Jews go to Hebrew school and that’s it. We’ve invested nothing in intellectual capital for our young. If the parent happens to knows a lot, we’re in good shape, but those threads get frayed over time. You have to reweave them.

I don’t mean to display hubris. But if Judaism is about ideas, and if our ideas are really good, we have a place at the table with Greece and Rome, with the French and English enlightenment. Nobody wants to suggest that Judaism should supplant these cultures, but as you know better than I ever will, Judaism has already contributed an enormous amount to them and it can contribute even now.

PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: The problem in Israel is as acute as it is in the United States, in terms of understanding our heritage and Jewish learning.

ROGER HERTOG: Well, who are the great leaders today in Israel?  What does that tell you about Israel’s leading universities?  I don’t mean to blame the universities specifically, but in America we have a deep, serious understanding of a shared past, of the connections between founders like Madison, Hamilton, and Jefferson, of what might be called the core curriculum of the West. A shared culture doesn’t mean all key players will be great decision-makers, or great presidents, but it’s a good start.   Harry Truman may have lacked a formal higher education, but he had a deep set of religious beliefs and an ongoing passion for learning on his own, which seem to have been his sustaining factors. In addition to remarkable intelligence, what sustained Abraham Lincoln? Again, it seems to have been a deep religious sense, even if not along traditional lines.

People need to hold a higher set of beliefs, a deeper understanding, to learn, to think, to grow. Tikvah will certainly want to do something serious along these lines in Israel as well as the U.S.

PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER:  Are you involved in this new college, Shalem?

ROGER HERTOG:  I’m not. It’s a brilliant idea if they can pull it off.  And a couple of their founders who are working on it are enormously gifted.

PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: I appreciate that you took the time to come down and talk.

ROGER HERTOG:  Stay well.