Wharton alum Michael Steinhardt ran a hedge fund, Steinhardt Partners L.P., for 29 years and financed his philanthropic efforts through it. Ahead of a speech here Wednesday, we asked him about retirement, his support of Jewish life, and his views on the markets today.

"It all started at my bar mitzvah. My father divorced my mom. He came around when I turned 13 and gave me shares of two different companies. He said, 'Here, this is your present.' It was $5,300 worth of shares in two companies - Penn Dixie Cement and Columbia Gas. From that point on, I was totally involved in the markets."

For Steinhardt, the gift was an awakening to a different sort of life.

"I grew up in a lower-middle-class environment where the stock and bond market was distant and removed from my life in Bensonhurst [Brooklyn]. And then, it consumed me, it was an extraordinarily intense, committed and focused area of my life. It dominated my life, for good and for bad. Indeed, it was my overwhelming focus from age 13 onward."

During the next four decades, Steinhardt worked on Wall Street, founded his hedge fund, and in the process amassed vast wealth for his investors and himself. One dollar invested with Steinhardt Partners L.P., his flagship hedge fund, at its inception in 1967 would have been worth $462 when he retired from active money management in 1995.

Having run a hedge fund for so many years, Steinhardt began wondering what to do with his fortune.

"I thought there should be something more virtuous, more ennobling. I had taken a year's sabbatical in 1979-1980 and spent much of that time in Israel. I had run the hedge fund from the 1960s until 1995. I retired from managing other people's money in the stock market when I turned 55. And since then, I devoted most of my energy on what I call the Jewish future."

Among his favorite causes is Birthright, which funds a 10-day tour of Israel for anyone of Jewish heritage (www.birthrightisrael.com).

Birthright is open to those between the ages of 18 and 26 who have finished high school. By some estimates, Steinhardt has donated $125 million to Birthright alone.

"I was one of the people who started Birthright Israel, and I'm still funding it," he says.

He chairs the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, co-chairs the Areivim Philanthropic Group, and helps fund Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania and contributes to Tel Aviv University and the Israel Museum.

On Wednesday, he'll address Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy's 14th Annual Gala at the Hilton Philadelphia on City Avenue. Steinhardt will speak on the need to make Jewish institutions more accessible, affordable, and meaningful to community youth.

Why Philadelphia, and why now?

"I have a relationship with several of the people who are involved with Jack Barrack Hebrew Academy," he says, in particular close friend Leonard Abramson.

"We initially got together by being jointly invested in Bank Hapoalim, an Israeli bank. We've been friends for 30 or 40 years," Steinhardt says.

After retiring, Steinhardt spent several years involved with the Democratic Leadership Council, which helped vault Bill Clinton into the White House.

But at some point, he says, "I found politics no longer to my liking. What tempted me was my Jewishness. I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I came from a deeply Jewish area and was totally committed to Zionism and the state of Israel, but at the same time I was an atheist. That created conflicts. Nevertheless, when I left the business I devoted my energy to what I call the Jewish future. That started in 1995, and has led to a host of things I've done."

Yes, this supporter of Jewish life is a self-professed atheist.

"I haven't had much of a journey of faith over the past 21 years. I'm still an atheist. If anything, it's solidified in this period. I'm not guilt-ridden anymore. In terms of faith, I don't really hope as I once did," he adds with a laugh.

That said, "being spiritual and being an atheist are not inconsistent. Being spiritual and being involved and gratified by things of the spirit, I feel that. But it's not through some supernatural being. It's through mostly the human experience, and my view is that the human being is the center of the universe. And things that are sometimes spiritual come from human beings."

"My feelings toward Israel were totally spiritual. It was a function of feeling that this was the great secular Jewish experiment of the 20th century."

The stock markets? Are those different now?

"They aren't different. They're just much more global. They're more international. And they're probably impacted more than they used to be by macro issues. For instance, when China has a problem, you feel it all over the world. Thirty years ago, that wasn't the case."

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