Joseph Neubauer has long been known for his visionary ideas. As the CEO of Aramark Corp. over three decades, he staved off a hostile takeover and grew the company into a global giant in the food, facilities, and uniforms industry. Today, the retired businessman directs his innovative vision toward ideas he believes will serve the public good. In 1999, he and his wife, Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer, a seasoned corporate communications executive, created the Neubauer Family Foundation, which focuses on education, the arts, and Jewish continuity and invests in people—for example, scholarships to attract top Ph.D. candidates—and ideas with great potential for transformative impact. The foundation is involved with numerous projects around Philadelphia, where the couple has long resided. Most recently, these included founding the Philadelphia Academy of School Leaders, which refines principals’ leadership skills. In only seven years, 128 Neubauer fellows have served more than 100,000 students and demonstrated higher academic and attendance gains compared with other district schools.
Neubauer’s deep ties to Philadelphia—The Pew Charitable Trusts’ hometown—and his long history of supporting the city’s arts community first connected him with Pew in 2004, when plans were underway for Benjamin Franklin’s tricentennial birthday celebration happening in 2006. Neubauer supported the commissioning of a new musical piece by composer Daniel Kellogg for the Philadelphia Orchestra as part of the festivities. He partnered with Pew to move the Barnes Foundation from its longtime suburban Philadelphia location to the city’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway, bringing one of the world’s greatest collections of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings to a larger audience. Neubauer also sponsored the commissioning of the Barnes Totem—the towering modern sculpture on the museum’s grounds that resembles a streamlined lightning bolt and was created by artist Ellsworth Kelly.
Soon a new public art experience will come to life across from the Barnes, one also supported by Neubauer’s generous philanthropy. Groundbreaking is set to begin next year on an innovative gallery and gardens dedicated to the work of sculptor Alexander Calder, a Pennsylvania native. The artist is recognized worldwide for his ingenious mobiles—an art form he created—but many don’t know that he was the third generation of artists in his family, and that two prominent Philly landmarks were created by his father and grandfather: the grand boulevard’s Swann Memorial Fountain by Alexander Stirling Calder, and William Penn atop City Hall by Alexander Milne Calder. The new sanctuary will offer a rotating collection and more intimate way to experience the mobiles and stabiles (stationary sculptures) for which Alexander Calder is famous.
“He is probably the most universally recognized American sculptor of the 20th century, and I think it’s important to show the Calder family’s legacy in Philadelphia,” Neubauer said when the project was announced in 2020.
Although Neubauer today sits on the boards of numerous organizations, including the Barnes Foundation and the University of Chicago, and has been awarded many honors—the Philadelphia Award and the William Penn Award, the city’s highest honors, among them—his personal story began more humbly. Born in Israel to parents who had fled the Holocaust, he was sent to America at the age of 14 to live with relatives near Boston, speaking very little English.
“There’s no other country in the world that somebody who is an immigrant, a teenager without speaking the language, can achieve the success I’ve achieved. … It stays with you all the time, and it motivates me to give back, to my country, to my community,” Neubauer told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2014.
His family history as well as Jeanette’s—her parents also fled the Holocaust and would help to found the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.—motivated Neubauer’s support of the Pew Research Center’s religion research, which seeks to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public life, on a series of surveys about Jewish Americans and religion in Israel. The work illuminated both the continuing demographic vitality and some serious challenges facing the Jewish populations of the United States and Israel.
The report from the first of these surveys, 2013’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” found that American Jews overwhelmingly said they were proud to be Jewish and have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people, but also that Jewish identity in America was changing, with 1 in 5 (22%) describing themselves as having no religion. It also found that 62% said that being Jewish was more about ancestry and culture than religion.
“For those of us who believe in Jewish continuity, who understand that scarce resources have to be deployed in ever more effective and intelligent ways, we hope that this study will provide a factual basis for decision-making,” Neubauer said when the report was released.
Several years later, the report from the second survey, “Jewish Americans in 2020,” found that 82% of people surveyed said that caring about Israel is an essential or important part of what being Jewish means to them. This study also found rising concern over antisemitism, with just over half (53%) saying that “as a Jewish person in the United States” they felt less safe than they did five years earlier.
In 2016, the Center conducted a survey of Israelis. The resulting report, “Israel’s Religiously Divided Society,” found that most Israeli Jews (76%) believe Israel can be both a democracy and a Jewish state. However, when a conflict arises between democratic principles and Jewish religious law, 89% of Israel’s secular Jews surveyed said that democratic principles should take precedence, while 89% of ultra-Orthodox Jews said religious law should prevail.
When the Israeli survey was released, the Neubauers were in Tel Aviv attending a public panel discussion of the findings in a room packed with hundreds of people, which soon devolved into a heated discussion: Panelists were talking over each other, an audience member was shouting, and the moderator was vainly trying to restore order. Alan Cooperman, who directs the Center’s religion research and was at the presentation, says that Jeanette, a huge opera buff, described the scene as “like the finale of a Rossini opera—everyone singing at once!”
“Joe and Jeanette are rare people because they don’t just tolerate different points of view, they absolutely relish different points of view and love a serious debate that makes people think,” Cooperman says. “They’re ideal supporters of the work we do, because they are not committed to a particular outcome, they are committed to fostering honest conversations, bringing forward diverse voices, and unleashing creativity.” The Neubauers will be honored for this Jewish survey work in December, for their seminal contributions on the subject, by the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry.
Education is the most important area of philanthropic focus for Neubauer, and it is quite personal. In several interviews, he has described how teachers made extra efforts to help him along the way, staying after school to assist his English studies when he first arrived in the country and later recommending him for a scholarship to graduate school at the University of Chicago. He emphasized what a huge impact these investments in him had on his life and career, and how important it is to help others. “Education is the basis for everything,” he has said. “Set your sights high, invest in others, and allow others to invest in you.”
“The Neubauer Family Foundation typically initiates its own projects seeking not to sustain the status quo, but rather to support leaders whose fact-based, data-driven strategies are likely to transform organizational impact and benefit society—all of which makes Pew a perfect fit,” says Rebecca Cornejo, the foundation’s executive director. “Jewish continuity and value systems are also very important to us, so we were proud to support the Pew Research Center’s in-depth work on this subject.”
As far as Pew is concerned, Neubauer himself plays a key role in these joint efforts. “Joseph Neubauer’s bold, audacious, and ambitious ideas have been infectious, and are so greatly appreciated. He is a valued partner—not only for his support but also for his wise guidance, encouragement, and commitment to transformative and data-driven change,” says Susan K. Urahn, Pew’s president and chief executive officer. “Joe’s tireless commitment to serving the public good has led to so many good works in Philadelphia and across the world.”
Demetra Aposporos is the senior editor of Trust.
America’s Overdose Crisis
Sign up for our five-email course explaining the overdose crisis in America, the state of treatment access, and ways to improve care