David Lewis

The Jewish Chronicle - - Obituaries - BEN LEWIS

THE BRI­TISH en­tre­pre­neur David Lewis, who made his mark both in Bri­tain and Is­rael, was the man be­hind the de­vel­op­ment of Ei­lat as a pop­u­lar tourist des­ti­na­tion. He founded Is­rael’s prom­i­nent ho­tel chain, Is­ro­tel, 30 years ago, and was also the cre­ative force be­hind the suc­cess­ful Bri­tish cloth­ing com­pany, River Is­land, which he orig­i­nally launched and co-founded as the Chelsea Girl chain

In Is­rael, his open­ing of the King Solomon Ho­tel in Ei­lat in 1980 marked out the town as Is­rael’s fu­ture boom re­sort. For this he was made an hon­orary cit­i­zen of Ei­lat, the sec­ond non-Ei­lati to re­ceive the tribute.The ho­tels’ suc­cess spread through­out the coun­try with 12 Is­ro­tel ho­tels and spas, in­clud­ing Haifa and Tel Aviv.

He was lauded for his broad-based­phi­lan­thropy, re­ceiv­ing a CBE in 1995 for his char­i­ta­ble work, and the Mau­rice Wohl Char­i­ta­ble Foun­da­tion Busi­ness Life­time Achieve­ment Award last year, when he also cel­e­brated 60 years of mar­riage to his wife Ruth. The cou­ple had five chil­dren and 11 grand­chil­dren.

His fa­ther, Louis Pokrasse, was the son of Ukrainian Jewish im­mi­grants. He and his wife Clara were Lon­don green­gro­cers who were aca­dem­i­cally am­bi­tious for their chil­dren. David had three younger brothers – Bernard, the late Ge­of­frey and God­frey. The fam­ily changed its name to Lewis in 1933.

David won a schol­ar­ship to Har­row Gram­mar School, but his school­ing was dis­rupted when his par­ents faced fi­nan­cial hard­ship with sev­eral shop clo­sures. He de­vel­oped an early in­ter­est in pol­i­tics, as his for­ma­tive years saw the rise of Hitler, so­cial re­form in Bri­tain, and the Great De­pres­sion. He and his brothers wit­nessed in­creas­ing acts of lo­cal an­ti­semitism and poverty. The per­se­cu­tion of Euro­pean Jews and the Bri­tish Gov­ern­ment’s in­sipid re­sponse turned him into a young Zion­ist.

Evac­u­ated with his brothers at the out­break of war, David ended up in Wey­mouth with God­frey. He left school at 16 and re­turned to Lon­don aim­ing to be­come a po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ist. How­ever, the sig­nif­i­cant newsprint re­duc­tion dur­ing the war de­pleted jobs. In­stead David opted for ac­coun­tancy, be­came an er­rand boy for an ac­coun­tancy firm and took a cor­re­spon­dence course.

He was in Lon­don dur­ing the Blitz, and en­dured 57 nights of un­in­ter­rupted bomb­ing by Ger­many. Ra­tioning started, but life had to carry on and the shop had to keep go­ing. Now liv­ing in Stam­ford Hill, David’s fa­ther be­came ill, so David han­dled the fi­nances.

Against his fa­ther’s wishes, David vol­un­teered for the RAF as a nav­i­ga­tor. He joined a New Zealand Squadron in Bomber Com­mand, trained in Canada, and was sta­tioned in Nor­folk, Eng­land. He flew in a Lan­caster Bomber as a nav­i­ga­tor and took part in a num­ber of mis­sions over Ger­many, at first drop­ping bombs then, af­ter the war, drop­ping food as part of Op­er­a­tion Manna - sta­tis­ti­cally the most dan­ger­ous job in the Al­lied Forces.

David’s fa­ther died just be­fore the end of the war, leav­ing a poorly stocked shop and a fam­ily with no in­come.

When David was fi­nally de-mobbed, as the el­dest male he took over the role of fam­ily leader and ad­viser. While his brothers helped their mother with the shop, David pur­sued his stud­ies qual­i­fy­ing as a char­tered ac­coun­tant in 1950. He launched his own prac­tice and waited for the clients to walk in. Strangely enough, they did.

At about the same time, his brother Bernard was try­ing to se­cure a new shop for his mother, this time sell­ing clothes. David ne­go­ti­ated the lease and helped to ar­range fi­nance for the shop-fit­ting and shop stock. The gam­ble paid off. The shop was suc­cess­ful. In 1951 he mar­ried Ruth Ben­jamin.

In the early Fifties, the brothers de­vel­oped their fledg­ing fash­ion re­tail chain. As chair­man, David took re­spon­si­bil­ity for prop­erty, fi­nance and legal mat­ters. Their first pro­vin­cial shop opened in Hull, in 1958. Even­tu­ally Lewis Sep­a­rates, spread through­out the United King­dom and by the 1960s, trans­formed into the young mass fash­ion bou­tique chain, Chelsea Girl.

The con­ver­sion proved im­mensely suc­cess­ful, and the busi­ness grew to well over 100 shops. To­day, as River Is­land, the fam­ily re­tail busi­ness has over 300 shops in a dozen coun­tries.

David be­gan in­vest­ing the prof­its from the fam­ily busi­ness and his first prop­erty deals were in Lon­don where he proved his ne­go­ti­at­ing and fi­nan­cial tal­ents. He soon built up a valu­able and sta­ble port­fo­lio.

Aware of the 1960’s grow­ing pack­age hol­i­day mar­ket, he in­vested in re­sort prop­er­ties in Spain - first tar­get­ing a de­vel­op­ment pro­ject in Mal­lorca. It proved im­mensely suc­cess­ful.

David launched a new busi­ness as an op­er­a­tor of, as well as in­vestor in, re­sort ho­tels. He soon de­vel­oped and man­aged a chain of ho­tels and hol­i­day apart­ments in the Bal­learics. His Span­ish Ho­tel Chain, Ibero­tel, was even­tu­ally sold in 2006 for many more times what they had cost.

But the 1973 Yom Kip­pur war pro­foundly af­fected him, in­spir­ing him to help wounded Is­raeli sol­diers with a new foun­da­tion. The Lewis Na­tional Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion In­sti­tute in Is­rael was fol­lowed by the Lewis Fel­low­ship Scheme to fund the train­ing of Is­raeli doc­tors in Bri­tain.

In the mid 1970s, David sold his ac­coun­tancy prac­tice to con­cen­trate on fash­ion re­tail­ing, prop­erty, ho­tels, and char­ity work. He formed the Lewis Fam­ily Char­i­ta­ble Trust, which an­nu­ally sup­ports a large num­ber of char­i­ties in Bri­tain and abroad. To­wards the end of the 1970s, fol­low­ing an ap­proach from the then Is­raeli Min­is­ter for Tourism, David saw his first op­por­tu­nity to in­vest in Is­rael. The min­is­ter per­suaded David to take a look at a sleepy sea­side town on the edge of the Negev called Ei­lat. His ven­ture was rev­o­lu­tion­ary and tremen­dously suc­cess­ful. More ho­tels opened un­der the brand, ‘Is­ro­tel’ and con­tin­ues to ex­pand.

David also sup­ported the fam­ily’s in­vest­ment in prop­erty in the United States, even­tu­ally hand­ing over to his el­dest son Ju­lian.

David was as pas­sion­ate about sail­ing, ski­ing and fly­ing as he was about busi­ness. He owned boats and was one of the world’s old­est qual­i­fied com­mer­cial pi­lots.

In the last years of his life, he com­bined busi­ness with com­mu­nity projects, de­vel­op­ing a new ho­tel in the Negev and a new ma­rina in the Turk­ish Repub­lic of North­ern Cyprus, both suc­cess­ful un­der­tak­ings.

David has ad­vised politi­cians in Bri­tain and Is­rael. Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks praised his re­mark­able sup­port for Is­rael, and his enor­mous con­tri­bu­tion to its ho­tels and tourist in­dus­try - with an un­flag­ging en­ergy.

“He was a man of pas­sion­ate prin­ci­ple whom I greatly ad­mired, a loyal Jew and pas­sion­ate lover of the land and State of Is­rael, who will be greatly missed.”

He is sur­vived by Ruth, his five chil­dren, and 12 grand­chil­dren.


David Lewis: From River Is­land to a place in the sun

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