Wednesday, August 17, 2022 -
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Then, oil fortunes. Now, it’s complicated.

By Asaf Shalev

NEW YORK — At the start of the 20th century, Louis Blaustein, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, and his son Jacob drove a horse-drawn wagon through the streets of Baltimore, selling coal oil and kerosene to grocery stores. They eventually grew the business into an oil company that is credited with inventions such as the metered gas pump, the drive-in gas station and the gas tank delivery truck.

A sign shows the entrance of the Sholem Alechem oil facility in Oklahoma. (Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art)

More than 100 years later, the descendants of Louis and Jacob are using a fortune built on fossil fuels to fund, among other causes, environmental groups.

The various branches of the family have set up separate charitable foundations but they work together through the Blaustein Philanthropic Group.

Some branches donate to the major green organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund and to groups focused on local organizing like West Harlem Environmental Action and Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Some of the Blaustein Philanthropic Group supports Jewish climate activism. It has donated more than $300,000 since 2019 to Hazon, an environmental group, and Dayenu, an initiative created to bolster Jewish representation in climate activists circles.

Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, founder and CEO of Dayenu, said she’s grateful for the “critical and generous support” of the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation.

She added that the giving has special meaning because of the origins of the family’s wealth. She sees it as wrongly derived but now rightly distributed.

“When foundations like the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation give to an organization like Dayenu that fights the fossil fuel industry in order to build a more just and sustainable future, it feels like a kind of teshuvah,” she said, referring to the Jewish concept of making amends. “It feels like a reckoning with the source of their wealth.”

Not everyone feels a disconnect between the original derivation of family wealth and the way it is distributed now, according to Coloradan Cintra Pollack, who is active in Jewish philanthropy through the Singer Family Foundation.

Grantmaking offers only limited insight into a donor family’s stance on climate, according to Pollack.

The Singer Family Foundation, named after her grandfather, represents the wealth of several generations of oil entrepreneurs in Okla- homa and Colorado.

While grants to environmental causes don’t appear in the foundation’s tax returns, the underlying endowment, or corpus, is heavily invested in clean energy, Pollack said.

“It’s not a focus of our grant making, but that doesn’t mean that climate change is something we don’t care about,” she said. “With our corpus, we’ve invested quite a bit so far in things like solar energy financing.”

Pollack’s approach to running the foundation comes from the world of impact investing, which is based on the idea that it’s possible to make financial decisions to benefit the public while also turning a profit.

In that way, she sees her outlook not as a break from her family’s legacy but as a continuation of it.

“Even though, clearly, climate change and fossil fuels have been detrimental in so many ways, a lot of good has come out of using it — many people have been lifted out of poverty by industrialization,” she said.

“Now we know better and do things differently as times change and that is very Jewish.”

Jewish wealth might not typically be associated with oil and gas, but the Blausteins are among at least a dozen major Jewish family dynasties whose fortunes come from the industry.

These Jewish fossil fuel dynasties vary by size — from multi-million to multi-billion dollar fortunes — and by their level of engagement with communal Jewish life.

Some, including the Tulsa-based Schustermans, donate heavily to Jewish causes, and others, like the fellow Tulsans at the George Kaiser Family Foundation, donate to secular initiatives.

For some family foundations, like the Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation, a major donor in the Jewish world, oil is but a legacy — the source of the fortune but not a current business concern of the family.

Then, there are the Jewish philanthropists with current links to oil and gas.

Stacy Schusterman, a major Democratic donor, heads both her family’s philanthropic foundation and the new incarnation of the family’s drilling company, called Samson Energy.

In 2011, the Schustermans sold their company, Samson Resources, to a group of investors for $7.2 billlion in one of the largest oil and gas transactions.

A review of the Schusterman philanthropic foundation’s tax returns from 2017 to 2020 shows some $740 million distributed to more than 700 organizations (including JTA’s parent company).

Julie Beren Platt, who is chair of the board of the Jewish Federations of North America, is part of the family that founded and runs Berexco, an oil company based in Kansas.

Nearly all of the Jewish oil and gas heirs that now donate to Jewish causes — including the Blausteins — declined to be interviewed.

Another branch of the Blaustein family, which gives to non-Jewish climate efforts, provided some insight into its philanthropic philosophy.

Jeannie Blaustein, writing on behalf of the trustees of the Morton K. and Jane Blaustein Foundation, said her concern over the climate crisis does not stem from feelings of guilt.

“The origins of our family’s wealth sensitize us to these issues, but I strongly believe — and I think other trustees would agree with me — that we would have the exact same commitment without any personal relationship to the oil industry,” she wrote.

She also said she doesn’t see her philanthropy as a rejection of her ancestors’ legacy.

“Our commitment to climate change is a continuation of the lived values of our parents and grandparents, values born not out of guilt or shame, but out of respect for the dignity of human beings,” she wrote.

With the ascendance of oil at the turn of the 20th century in the US, Jews tended to occupy the lowest rungs of the industry. A common story tells of the Jewish entrepreneur who salvaged decommissioned pipes and old well field equipment and sold them for scrap. These were often recent immigrants who had left Eastern Europe in search of economic opportunity.

Throughout the South, they established communities, building synagogues and other communal institutions. Over time, they moved from the scrappy margin of the industry to its center: the discovery and production of oil.

Jews as well as the Yiddish they spoke were common enough in the early 1920s that the local newspaper in the town of Ardmore, Okla., explained the meaning of the customary greeting “sholem alechem.”

That phrase became the name of a local oil fraternity as well an oil field that is still producing to this day.

In a business marked by booms and busts, at least some Jewish drillers, sought divine intervention via Jewish ritual.

One of the early rabbis of Congregation B’nai Emunah in Tulsa, Harry Epstein, recounts an example in a book about the synagogue’s history:

“One of the functions that developed upon the Rabbi was to recruit a minyan periodically to stay up all night, when one or another of our members was drilling a well for oil, and recite Tehillim [psalms] for the success of the drilling.

“Much to my sorrow I must confess that in many times we so gathered no well of oil came in and I consider this impotency of our prayers to be one of the failures of my administration.”




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