Rare species are needed to fill the displays of a natural history museum — but it takes an even rarer one to recognize what preserving those treasures can mean for the State of Israel.
It takes Michael Steinhardt.
The legendary hedge fund founder, philanthropist, and friend of Israel developed his vision for a national natural history museum on the campus of Tel Aviv University over the last decade. And on Thursday, May 6, thanks to a $5 million gift from the Steinhardt family, the cornerstone for the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History building was laid. It will become the home for Israel's first national natural history institution, an open-to-the-public exhibition center that will also provide much-needed space for teaching facilities and sophisticated research.
At the cornerstone ceremony, Knesset member Ze'ev Binyamin Begin applauded Steinhardt's unwavering support for Israel and the Jewish people, as well as his committed vision for the natural history project. "Other fields like high-tech might have more glitter, glamour, and clout," he said, so "we commend you for lending a hand to this special project." Steinhardt is a past chairman of Tel Aviv University's Board of Directors, and received an honorary doctorate in 2006.
In the presence of family, close friends, government officials, and university researchers, officers and students, Michael and his wife Judy poured cement and laid the cornerstone. Located on the southeast corner of the Tel Aviv University campus adjacent to the I. Meier Segals Garden for Zoological Research, the building will house rare species of fossils, animals and plants from Israel and its environs.
From a twinkling to a reality
When the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History building is completed, the natural history collection will continue to be curated by director Prof. Tamar Dayan, providing an active, updated, and comprehensive record of the biodiversity of Israel and its neighboring regions. With millions of specimens, the collection will also reflect the vision of the late Prof. Heinrich Mendelssohn, one of the founding fathers of Tel Aviv University, a zoologist and nature lover whose work supported education about the terrestrial, aquatic, and marine life in Israel and the region.
"Sometimes it takes someone from the outside to fully appreciate the treasures within," said Prof. Dayan, who led the ceremony. "Michael and Judy Steinhardt pledged a generous foundational gift towards building the home to the national collections, and waited with patience and vision for over a decade. We will do our best to repay you."
"It's been a long time coming," said Steinhardt in his address, invoking the late Prof. Mendelssohn as a spiritual guide. "A twinkling in our eye now becomes realized. If Tel Aviv University is the mother of this project, then Tamar Dayan is the fairy godmother."
Steinhardt's love for the natural world is evident in his 51-acre estate in Bedford, New York, with its dense rare plantings and zoo-sized collection of animals including zebras, camels and albino wallabies.
A jewel in the State crown
The new building will not only house an impressive collection of specimens, it will be a research hub for the Faculties of Life Sciences, Medicine and Humanities at Tel Aviv University. It will also be open to all Israeli scientists, and to researchers from abroad. The center is expected to impact environmental science in areas such as climate change, helping researchers isolate new compounds from the Mediterranean Sea for medicinal purposes, for instance.
The treasures at the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History will certainly add luster and value to Israel's leading university, as well as a new dimension to the State itself.
"The collection preserves Israel's natural heritage for future generations," said Tel Aviv University president Prof. Joseph Klafter at the ceremony, noting that the inauguration coincided with the United Nations International Year of Biodiversity. "The building will be a home for a national collection, which enriches our community at large. It will become a great source of pride for TAU, Israel and the scientific community."
Among those celebrating the Steinhardt family's achievement were Knesset member Meir Sheetrit, chair of the Knesset's Science and Technology Committee, and Prof. Israel Hershkovitz of TAU's Department of Anatomy and Anthropology, who aptly invoked Noah in the book of Genesis.
From hedge funds to hedgehogs
Fabled as a pioneer in hedge fund investing, Michael Steinhardt stunned the financial world when he closed Steinhardt Partners in 1995 to devote his time and fortune to the causes of the Jewish world. He is now one of the leading donors to Jewish causes worldwide. He calls the future of the Jewish people "unclear," and says its survival is linked to the Jewish value of learning.
Together, he and Charles Bronfman founded the paradigm-changing Taglit-Birthright Israel, which has brought hundreds of thousands of young Jews from all corners of the world to Israel. In 2001, he and several other investors founded the late New York Sun newspaper, known for its unflinching support of Israel.
Steinhardt established The Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University, and serves on the board of trustees of several educational organizations including the Wildlife Conservation Society in the United States.
For more about the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, visit http://www.mnh.tau.ac.il/en/.