The Jerusalem Post
The accidental philanthropist
The first time Leona Helmsley fired me, I never dreamed she’d wind up trusting me with more than $5 billion. I’m a lawyer. Leona Helmsley was a client of mine for the last 18 years of her life. She appointed me one of the executors of her estate, charged with selling her multi-billion-dollar holdings, including highlights of the New York City skyline and billions of dollars in other assets. She also named me one of the trustees of her charitable trust with complete discretion to decide which charitable organizations to give her fortune to.
Imagine yourself walking down the street and being suddenly showered with wagon loads of gold labeled “Use only for the good of mankind as you see fit.” That’s what happened to me, and the gold has been pouring continuously for over a decade.
Today – literally today – I signed checks for several hundred million dollars. When you control billions of dollars, you become, I assure you, very popular. My wit is now wittier, my jokes funnier, my opinions more incisive and always worth listening to. Friends, pseudo-friends, former friends, would-be friends, quasi-friends, friends of friends; they all come knocking.
Life has become surreal. On a trip to Israel, I was invited to join then-president Shimon Peres for lunch, beginning at 1 p.m. Shortly before the lunch, I was invited to attend a meeting with then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu beginning at 2 p.m. I responded to the second invitation with, “This is a sentence I never thought I’d utter, but please tell the prime minister I’ll be late because I’m having lunch with the president.”
I pinch myself to make sure this is real. I think I’m awake. Here’s how it happened.
The Helmsley Charitable Trust has so far awarded more than $375 million in grants for Israel, and we’ll have spent many millions more by the time you read this. We built the program from literally non-existent to massive. Though I don’t keep track of such things, we are one of the world’s largest private funders to Israel.
I’m often asked how frequently Leona Helmsley traveled to Israel and how many large gifts she gave there. The questioner is invariably surprised when I answer “Never” and “None.” I can sense the thought sinking in: You mean there was nothing there – no donations, no roots, no nothing – and then you became a trustee and suddenly there’s this unbelievable infusion of money doing Israel a world of good? Aw shucks, yes, that’s what happened.
WHY DID I choose Israel as a program area for the trust? Simple. Because I am a Jew, and Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, has been for nearly 4,000 years, and is necessary for their survival. And because Israel is a democracy, embracing Western values and flourishing in the midst of next-door and nearby countries’ tsunamis of wars, chaos and fanaticism, and the one reliable ally of America in that extraordinarily dangerous part of the world. Israel’s contributions to the world in science, technology, medicine, the arts, you name it, are, like the country itself, miraculous. Investing in Israel is placing nearly can’t-miss bets.
Israel is not just a piece of land. It is a people. In Israel, every person – Jew, Christian, Muslim, other – counts. If you’ve never been there, go and see for yourself. Until then, I’ll share some snapshots.
Shortly after becoming a trustee, I contacted the office of president Peres, explained my role, and scheduled a meeting for my next trip to Israel. The president welcomed us with warmth and eloquence. He was 88 years old at the time and intellectually vibrant.
I told him I had asked to see him because of the unique opportunity I now had to direct significant money to Israel; that although everyone seems to have opinions about what the country should do and what its needs are; the view of the country’s challenges and needs were far less clear from my office in mid-Manhattan than from his in the heart of Jerusalem and as a central figure in the nation’s history; and I would welcome his suggestions as to how the substantial resources of the Helmsley Trust’s Israel program could best serve the needs of Israel. Peres replied, “What distinguishes us from the rest of the world is how we use our heads. Invest in our brains.”
The president of Ben-Gurion University offered me the honor of accompanying her to lay a wreath at the tomb of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first president, on the 70th anniversary of the birth of the State of Israel. I told her it was difficult to imagine a higher honor but that the honor was too great for an ordinary lawyer and accidental philanthropist such as me. Instead, I suggested she offer the honor to any Israeli parent who had lost a child to war or terrorism, or to any Israeli child who had lost a parent or sibling the same way. She asked me to reconsider, but I declined the honor.
The writer is a lawyer in New York City and a trustee of The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, which has given over $410 million to Israeli causes. He is the author of a just-published memoir, The Accidental Philanthropist.