Working for Systemic Change in Jewish Life
By Susan Josephs
Lisa Eisen knew she would spend her life “working for the Jewish people” as a teenager in 1979 when she spent the summer in Israel. “It was the pivot point in my life, to experience Jews from all over the world building their homeland and forging a strong Jewish future,” she says.
Today, Eisen helps make it possible for thousands of people to “see themselves as part of a dynamic, vibrant Jewish community” as the national director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. Since 2001, she has spearheaded numerous projects for the 25-year-old, multimillion-dollar philanthropic network, which has become one of the leading proponents worldwide of innovative programs for young Jewish adults. Responsible for overseeing the foundation’s support of Hillel, BBYO, Moishe House and other prominent global Jewish organizations, Eisen has also jump-started additional new ventures, including the Israel on Campus Coalition, the Israel Institute, the national service organization Repair the World, and the iCenter, a cutting-edge initiative devoted to Israel education, for which she currently serves as board chair.
“I see myself as working for systemic change in Jewish life,” says the 49-year-old Washington, D.C.-based Jewish activist and innovator. “It’s a privilege to help the Schusterman family realize their philanthropic vision, and I feel an enormous responsibility to get it right.”
With a passion for entrepreneurialism and fulfilling the philanthropic vision of the foundation, Eisen spends her days developing grant-making strategies, helping organizations grow, evaluating the impact of current investments and launching new ventures. “I’ll serve as HR director or fundraiser or PR person until we get the organization staffed up. I’m willing to work hard in any way that’s needed,” she says, and credits the foundation’s co-chairs, Lynn Schusterman and her daughter Stacy, for serving as “inspiring role models. They have shown me that leadership comes down to being authentic and having a strong, clear voice.”
Raised in Louisville, Ky., Eisen also found role models in her parents, who tirelessly volunteered for Israeli and Jewish causes and taught her to fight anti-Semitism. When a boy at her high school called her a “kike, I gave him a piece of my mind and told him he should never use that word again,” she recalls.
Eisen developed her leadership skills through her involvement with the youth groups BBYO and USY, where she served as her local chapter’s president. As a history major at Yale University, she became a Jewish and Israel activist, working for Hillel and writing her thesis on U.S. foreign policy during the Yom Kippur War. “I was accused by my professor of being biased toward Israel, and that experience gave me a real passion for making sure that college students can study Israel in a positive, unbiased and multidisciplinary manner,” she says.
During college, Eisen interned for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and later received her master’s degree in Israel and Middle East studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. At 28, she became the executive director of Project Interchange, an institute of the American Jewish Committee that organizes seminars in Israel for global leaders. There she became experienced in the dynamics of the Jewish nonprofit world. Always, “I have been grounded in hope, opportunity and optimism for the Jewish future,” she says.
The mother of Ariella, 20, Tamar, 18, and Jonah, 14, Eisen does her best “to carve out sacred space” for her children and husband Mitch. “There’s no such thing as balance,” she admits. “But I want my daughters and other young women to know they can be professionals and leaders and still have a family life. It is important to me to be a role model to them.”
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