Citing his vision and creativity, the Avi Chai Foundation awarded Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Menachem Schmidt one of its first-ever fellowships. The monetary grant is part of the largest cash award bestowed on emerging communal and educational leaders within the North American Jewish community.
Schmidt, along with three other individuals and a team of two people, accepted the award in a ceremony Monday afternoon at Avi Chai's offices in New York City. The president of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation and director of the Lubavitch House of Philadelphia, Schmidt has been involved in Jewish outreach since before 1980, when he founded the Lubavitch House at the University of Pennsylvania.
"This is an incredible honor, as well as an incredible opportunity for the Jewish community," Schmidt announced in receiving the award, an annual $75,000 allotment to programs of recipients' choosing. "I'd like to thank the Almighty for His immense blessing in allowing me to reach this important milestone, and for the gift of serving the Jewish community as an emissary of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, for the last 28 years."
The recipients, all pioneers in Jewish education and communal activism, were chosen based on their ability to "see opportunities where others see obstacles," explained Arthur Fried, chairman of the Avi Chai Foundation.
"The Avi Chai Fellowship is intended to be a vehicle for investing in people with vision, creativity, courage, savvy and stamina to try new things," said Fried, "to think outside the conventional boxes or inside them in new ways."
Endowed by the late Zalman C. Bernstein, the Avi Chai Foundation seeks to foster high levels of Jewish literacy, deepen religious purposefulness and promote Jewish peoplehood.
Described in media reports as the Jewish communal answer to the MacArthur Foundation "Genius" fellowships, the genesis of the Avi Chai Fellowships are shrouded in secrecy. The recipients were awarded on the basis of the recommendations of some 20 nominators whose identities were closely shielded by the foundation.
Only when the pool of 40 nominations was winnowed down to seven nominees were they notified by the selection committee.
For his part, Schmidt detailed that he planned on using his fellowship to pursue two programs: the Old City Jewish Art Center in Philadelphia, a one-year-old project that explores the nexus between art and Jewish spirituality, and Jewish Heritage Programs, a pioneer in peer-to-peer programming that engages Jewish college students and alumni in mentoring and networking events. More than 1,000 people attend each of the monthly “First Friday” events at the art center, where people enjoy a Shabbat dinner and explore a new exhibit.
"When my colleagues and I started the Chabad House at Penn in 1980, there were eight full-time campus Chabad Houses in America," explained Schmidt, a guitarist and founding member of the Baal Shem Tov Band. "Later on, in 1993, we began the JHP, which worked as a separate, but sister organization to some of the 23 Chabad Houses then on campus.
"Now the campus landscape has changed," he continued. "Through the generosity of the Rohr family, there are now close to 110 Chabad Houses on campus in North America alone. [They] are a true home away from home, and perform critically important outreach to Jewish students from all walks of life, and on every level of social strata."
After learning of the award today, financier Michael Steinhardt, an early supporter of Schmidt's programs, said that he supported JHP and the Lubavitch House so many years ago "primarily because of Menachem."
"He is a wonderful listener and very committed to his cohort of young, Jewish non-Orthodox communities," explained Steinhardt. "He has a vision that he has been able to translate into reality. JHP, for instance, has the virtue of warmth, a sense of creating a Jewish vision which works on an emotional level, as well as a cerebral level. It's a community where there are people who care. And he's expanded it. He's tried to develop new ideas for all sorts."