The following is adapted from an article published in Reflections, Excerpts from Wealth and Giving Forum Gatherings, Issue 3, Summer 2007
Four Generations of Philanthropy
While the Rashi Foundation has existed for 25 years, its true origins stretch back to the mid 19 century. The Leven family moved from Germany to France in 1838. A decade later, Narcisse Leven, while still in high school, established with a group of friends an organization to supports the poorest families in their neighborhood. This initiative quickly spread to other schools, and was so efficient that it attracted the support of prestigious co-patriots such as the writer and political activist Victor Hugo.
The Alliance Israélite Universelle – Social Mobility through Education
As a young lawyer, in 1860, Narcisse Leven founded with some of the same friends, the Alliance Israélite Universelle (A.I.U.) – the first and probably the most significant Jewish institution of the century. The A.I.U.'s objective was two-fold: to protect the rights and liberties of Jews and non-Jews who were being discriminated against, or at risk of being so, because of their religious affiliation; and, the larger goal, to improve the lives of the masses of Jews living in abject poverty in all the Muslim countries around the Mediterranean. In an age when there was no formal education available to these Jews, the A.I.U. opened over a hundred schools in North Africa, Arab lands and Palestine, with huge financial support from Baron de Hirsh and Baron de Rothschild. Mikve Israel was established by A.I.U. in 1870 as Palestine's first agricultural school. By the end of the 19 century, the schools had over seventy thousand pupils. Until the Second World War, they provided free general education, taught in French, along with Jewish education, and instilled tools for employment and social mobility. The A.I.U. continues to operate schools to this day, mostly in France, Morocco and Israel. Narcisse Leven's descendants remained actively involved with A.I.U., as well as with other Jewish communal organizations. Hubert Leven currently serves as A.I.U.'s vice-president.
Gustave Leven, Founder of the Rashi Foundation
Gustave Leven, Narcisse's grandson, upheld this commitment to philanthropy in his own exceptional way. In 1948, he purchased a tiny mineral-water company called Perrier, which bottled about five million bottles a year. When the company was sold forty years later, Perrier was bottling over a billion bottles a year and had acquired several other major brands in Europe and the United States. Perrier had become the largest mineral-water company in the world. Gustave's mother had set up a small charitable trust during the war. By shrewd management of this fund and through the pooling of resources by friends and family, Gustave was instrumental in establishing in 1984 what was to become the Rashi Foundation, under the presidency of his nephew Hubert Leven. Unlike most family foundations, 90 percent of its resources are allocated to projects in Israel, and the balance to local, i.e. French, causes.
Evolution of Rashi: From Check-Book Philanthropy to Major Operator
During the first few years of the Foundation’s existence, it mainly supported programs through grant making – “check book philanthropy.” This approach, however, failed to create long-term solutions and was clearly not the most efficient investment of the Foundation's resources. The Rashi Foundation began to develop more creative responses to the social and educational challenges of Israeli society, in the model of giving known today as venture philanthropy, measuring efficiency in terms of capital input versus social yields. Around ten years ago, the Foundation decided to increase its direct influence over what was happening in the field of educational and social programs by setting up a number of operating arms. This step has transformed the Rashi Foundation into a highly unusual player: both a family foundation with its own resources, and a non-profit organization that initiates, develops and operates programs.
Closing a Circle
The history of the Rashi Foundation curled back on itself in a fascinating way when the Foundation moved from the town of Lod to the Ben Shemen Youth Village in 2004. The original school at Ben Shemen – an agricultural school entitled Kiryat Sefer – was the brainchild of Israel Belkind, who came from Eastern Europe to Palestine in the 1880's together with fellow Zionist visionaries, and studied at Mikve Israel. As he was undergoing training at Mikve Israel, Belkind had the idea of setting up another agricultural school, taught in Hebrew rather than in French, at the Ben Shemen site. After the Kishinev Pogrom he gained the support he needed to open the school at Ben Shemen, right in the Old Courtyard where the Rashi Foundation's offices sit today.
The Past Inspires our Determination Today The Rashi Foundation is the latest chapter of an extraordinary family legacy that was begun in Paris in the 1840's. The origins of the Foundation and the remarkable vision and generosity of the Leven family motivate Rashi's work today. And, although times have changed, many of the educational and social problems that the A.I.U. set out to tackle a century-and-a half ago are similar to those that undermine Israeli society today. Inspired by the past, we are determined to continue our efforts to enable young people to achieve dignified independence and self-advancement.