In a rare interview, philanthropists Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein share their philosophy of generosity.
Despite a reputation for reserve and reticence, it turns out Jay Schottenstein has a lot to say. In an ornate, wood-paneled conference room at his Columbus corporate headquarters, the media-shy retail tycoon is enthusiastic and engaged, telling stories about his childhood, his father, even how he met his wife, Jeanie, who sits beside him on this Friday afternoon in early October. When they were both undergraduates at Indiana University, Jay ran a program at the Hillel Center on the IU campus that enticed students with complimentary food. “Jeanie came with all her girlfriends for the free meals,” he says with a smile.
The couple rarely grants interviews, and the conversation starts off a bit tentatively. But the more they talk, the more comfortable they become. In fact, Jay doesn't seem to want the conversation to end. After the allotted hour for the interview and photo shoot, he gives a 20-minute bonus tour of his offices, which are decorated with historic relics, photographs and other mementoes connected to his family's charitable giving, the main talking point of the interview.
Jay is a passionate guide. He talks with pride about a 13th-century Spanish Hebrew Bible he recently loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Standing before a model of the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein National Campus for the Archaeology of Israel, he details plans for the new museum, which will house nearly 25,000 Dead Sea Scrolls fragments when it opens in Jerusalem in the next couple of years. “It'll be the most important archaeological museum in the world,” he says.
The couple's generosity benefits a dizzying number of organizations and programs in Columbus and around the world. According to IRS records, the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Foundation, the family's charitable arm, disbursed nearly $30 million from 2014 to 2016, the most recent years available on Guidestar.org, the online repository of nonprofit financial data. And despite the size of those contributions, Jay and Jeanie still manage to keep a relatively low profile. “They're doing it to benefit other people, and it begins and ends right there,” says Rabbi Gedaliah Zlotowitz, who runs ArtScroll, a nonprofit Jewish publishing house in Brooklyn that is one of the Schottensteins' biggest beneficiaries. “It's not for themselves. It's not to be in the limelight.”
Which raises a question: So why are they talking now? The answer traces to remarks Jay gave at a preview party for the annual gala of the local chapter of JDRF (formerly the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation), another longtime Schottenstein beneficiary. At the small May event in a private suite at Ohio State's Schottenstein Center, Jay shared his philosophy of giving, which he boiled down to two key tenets: You give so you can give more. And what you give determines your net worth, not what you have. Asked to elaborate on those comments for this article, Jay and Jeanie accepted the opportunity, breaking their traditional silence. “We believe the more you give, the more God gives you,” Jay explains in October.
Jeanie says their faith grounds their philanthropy. Charity—or “tzedakah,” as it's called in Hebrew—holds special importance in Judaism. Differing from other religious traditions, Jewish doctrine views charity as an essential, moral obligation for all; it's even considered one of the three human actions—along with prayer and repentance—that can negate an unfavorable divine judgment. “Tzedakah is a very big part of our lifestyle, how we conduct ourselves,” Jeanie says. “Helping each other and being part of a bigger community is something that is within our faith, that is part of what we do.”
And though Jay is clearly proud of his charitable projects, vanity and egotism don't appear to motivate his new public candor. Rather, he hopes his story influences others to share their blessings with the world. “I'm not looking for accolades,” he says. “If God blesses you, and you have the resources, then you have an obligation to do the right thing.”
Home and Homeland
The Schottenstein family traces its history in Columbus to the late 1800s, when three brothers—Joshua, Jacob and Joseph—emigrated from Lithuania. Joshua had nine children, according to a Schottenstein family tree published in Columbus Monthly in 1984, and his descendants eventually spawned an entrepreneurial dynasty that includes successful enterprises in law, furniture, clothing, home building and real estate development.
Jay Schottenstein, the great-grandson of Joshua, is the wealthiest and most successful of all the Schottenstein heirs. When Jay's father, Jerome, died of cancer in 1992, Jay inherited a retail empire that began in 1917, when former horse-and-buggy shoe peddler Ephraim Schottenstein, Jay's grandfather, opened the E.L. Schottenstein Department Store on South Parsons Avenue. Today, Jay oversees a sprawling network of businesses that includes DSW, American Eagle Outfitters, Value City Furniture, liquidation expert SB360 Capital Partners and the Schottenstein Property Group, an owner of 156 shopping centers in 27 states. Though it's difficult to calculate his net worth—which is spread across various public and private entities—Forbes ranked the Schottensteins as the 100th richest family in the country in 2015. He is generally considered the second-richest person in Central Ohio, behind only L Brands billionaire Les Wexner.
Though Jay does his best to avoid publicity—and, in this interview, declines to discuss his private holdings or share dollar amounts related to his giving—there are occasional glimpses into his wealth. Their $4.3 million home in Bexley features extensive gardens that the Schottensteins have twice allowed the Bexley Women's Club to include in its annual house and garden tour, a fundraiser for scholarships.
Their yacht, Just J's—described as having an elevator and a Jacuzzi—appeared in media accounts thanks to a visit from basketball stars Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. James and Jay are old friends. In a 2016 interview with the Plain Dealer, James described Jay and his children as family. He says he met them while playing state championship basketball games for Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School at the Schottenstein Center, the Ohio State University basketball arena named for Jay's father, Jerome. James even nominated Jay in 2009 for the Time 100, the magazine's annual list of the world's most influential people.
Incidentally, Jay's wealth and business acumen weren't the inspiration for that Time honor. Instead, the magazine called out his philanthropy. In Columbus, “The Schott,” as it's commonly known, is his most prominent charitable contribution. In 1995, he pledged $12.8 million to help build the arena, which opened three years later. In turn, the university named the center for his father, while the seating bowl is called Value City Arena for one of Jay's most prominent businesses.
That OSU pledge was a rare high-profile gift. Typically, Jay shares his wealth more quietly. In addition to Ohio State, he and Jeanie are longtime supporters of such organizations as the American Red Cross, the Komen Columbus Race for the Cure, the United Way of Central Ohio, Nationwide Children's Hospital and the Columbus Museum of Art, where Jeanie has served on the board of trustees for 21 years.
At the CMA, the couple gave one of the leading gifts of the museum's Art Matters endowment and capital campaign, says Nannette Maciejunes, CMA's executive director. In recognition of that gift, the museum named its new pavilion space after the Schottenstein Property Group. In addition, the couple, major art collectors, have loaned pieces from their collection to the museum, including three Marc Chagall paintings from July 2017 to March 2018 and, before it was part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Jerusalem in the Middle Ages exhibit, the 13th-century Spanish Hebrew Bible from December 2015 to March 2016.
“They have been remarkably generous,” Maciejunes says. “They care deeply about Columbus, and they care very much about the arts. They're very special.”
Maciejunes says she always feels the couple's deep commitment to Columbus in everything they do. “This is [Jay's] hometown,” she says. “This is where generations of his family have become business leaders. He wants Columbus to be the very best it can be, and for both of them, art is part of how they can contribute to the quality of their hometown community.” They also have a passion for Jewish culture, Maciejunes says, and they've helped the CMA build a relationship with the Israel Antiquities Authority, which loaned a fourth-century Roman mosaic and ancient Roman glass to the museum. “That would never have been possible without the friendship of Jay and Jeanie,” Maciejunes says.
Indeed, Jay and Jeanie support an extraordinary number of Jewish causes. According to 2014-16 IRS filings, their foundation made substantial gifts to the Columbus Torah Academy, the Columbus Jewish Federation, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus, Congregation Torat Emet, the Columbus Community Kollel and the Ohio State University Chabad House, along with a handful of smaller local contributions.
On the global stage, they're even more significant Jewish benefactors. Of the top 10 beneficiaries listed in their 2014-16 IRS filings, half are based in Israel, including the Israel Antiquities Authority, which will name its new archaeological museum for the couple; Diaspora Yeshiva, a Jewish school on Mount Zion; Chasdei Yosef, a social welfare organization in Jerusalem; and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which supports the sacred “Wailing Wall.”
Why are they so committed to Israel? “Because of our heritage, because of our deep commitment to our faith and to the people who are of our faith,” Jeanie says. “Israel is our homeland.” Jay says he wants help ensure the viability and future of the Jewish state. “Seventy-some years ago, there were 6 million Jews murdered, and there was nowhere for them to go,” he says. “If there would have been an Israel, they probably wouldn't have been murdered.”
A Family Tradition
Jay learned the importance of philanthropy from his father and his uncles, who supported a variety of causes—including the United Way, the Jewish Federation of Columbus and the preservation of the Ohio Theatre—and asked for nothing in return. “They believed in helping people,” Jay says. “They always put whatever was better for the community in front of themselves.”
Today, Jay aims to continue in that unselfish tradition. Unlike other major donors, he's very hands-off. “He doesn't crave control,” says his philanthropy chief, Michael Broidy. “He gives people the sense of taking responsibility.” He also doesn't keep score. “I never look back at the amount I give,” Jay says. “I just give, and we always make it work. I just give and go on to the next thing.”
Jeanie says Jay's approach has deeply influenced her. “My family instilled an ethic of kindness and helping other people,” says Jeanie, a Cleveland native. “And I've learned so much from Jay's philosophy—how open-hearted he is, his philosophy of not counting, giving to help other people no matter what it is.”
Still, they can't support everything. So how do they choose? First, they're loyal, nurturing longstanding relationships with organizations in Columbus and elsewhere. Then they look for causes and opportunities in which they can have a big impact, where, as Jeanie says, “recipients feel the benefit.”
Perhaps no project exemplifies those values more than their longtime collaboration with the Mesorah Heritage Foundation, the charitable and fundraising arm of ArtScroll, a New York City nonprofit publisher of Jewish religious books. When asked about this relationship, Jay lights up. He asks Broidy to fetch a volume from the “Schottenstein Edition,” the 73-book English translation of the Babylonian Talmud, or Talmud Bavli, the central compendium of Jewish law, tradition and theology that was written in Aramaic. Broidy returns with a thick, leather-bound book, as well as a yarmulke, which Jay places on his head before opening the sacred text. “This project is the biggest literature project done in the history of American Jews,” Jay says.
Indeed, the series that is now officially called the “Schottenstein Edition” is a towering—and expensive—achievement. Each volume costs about $250,000 to produce, according to the The New York Times—a price tag that would have been insurmountable for ArtScroll without the longtime support of the Schottensteins. For nearly three decades, the family has spent millions underwriting this and other ArtScroll projects. Jerome, who studied at a yeshiva in New York City before deciding to go into the family business, started the partnership with ArtScroll in 1990. When he died two years later, his son agreed to continue the Talmud project, which took 15 years to complete. Jay also expanded it, supporting a Hebrew translation as well.
By removing the language barrier, the Schottenstein Edition revolutionized the study of the Talmud, making it more accessible. Today, you can find the series in homes, libraries, synagogues and study halls all over the world. People study it during subway commutes, on long airline flights and while they wait to see a doctor. Zlotowitz, the president of ArtScroll, the books' publisher, says there's even a barbershop in Brooklyn with a full set for its customers. In 2012, Jay read a special prayer to honor his father before nearly 90,000 Orthodox Jews at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. They were gathered to celebrate the conclusion of a seven-and-a-half-year, page-a-day study of the Talmud Bavli. To appreciate the Schottenstein Edition's impact, consider that just a few hundred people attended a similar concluding celebration about 25 years earlier. “This is the project that the family will be known for for the next few hundred years—or even longer,” Jay says.
Zlotowitz says the Schottensteins are an inspiration to others. “Whenever I meet potential donors or dedicators, for them the gold standard is the Schottenstein family,” he says. “Everyone tells me the same thing: ‘I want to be like Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein. I want to make a difference in the world.' ”
And what do Jay and Jeanie see as their charitable legacy? “That we changed what we thought needed to be changed, and that we stood for something, and that we helped,” Jeanie says.
Jay smiles. “That's good,” he says. “I can't add to that.”***
Dave Ghose is the editor of Columbus Monthly. Giving editor Suzanne Goldsmith contributed to this story.