Category Archives: Business & Finance

Jews in the World of Business and Finance

Jews of the Week: Irene and Abe Pollin

The Couple that Brought Sports to Washington, D.C.and Saved Lives

Irene Sue Kerchek (1924-2020) was born in St. Louis, Missouri. She met her future husband Abraham “Abe” Pollin (1923-2009) when she was just 17. The couple married and settled in Washington, D.C. Abe worked for his father’s construction company before he and Irene started their own business in 1957. Together, they built a prosperous real estate empire, raising up both affordable and subsidized housing projects as well as luxury properties. The Pollins went on to found and own the NBA’s Washington Wizards team, the NHL’s Washington Capitals, and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, working hard to bring those three clubs to the city. They also built the Capital Center and what is now Capital One Arena (formerly the Verizon Center), and were credited with reviving Washington’s downtown core. In 1963, the Pollins lost their teenage daughter to heart disease, and Irene lost both of her parents to heart disease that same year. She fell into deep depression and, when nothing seemed to help her, decided to go study psychology and social work herself. She went back to university and earned two degrees. Pollin opened two pioneering therapy clinics, and wrote two acclaimed books on mental illness and counseling. Her greatest mission in life, however, was to combat heart disease. In 2008, she donated $12 million to Brigham and Women’s Hospital (of Harvard) to establish a heart wellness program. In 2012, she donated $10 million to Hadassah Medical Center in Israel to create a heart health institute, and another $10 million to do the same at Johns Hopkins University. The following year, she gave another $10 million to establish one more heart health centre in Los Angeles. After discovering that more women died from heart disease than from breast cancer, Pollin started a number of organizations to increase awareness of female heart disease and to get more women screened on time. The most famous of these organizations is Sister to Sister: The Women’s Heart Health Foundation. Through their efforts, and the screening clinics they set up across America, the lives of countless women have been saved. The Pollins were generous philanthropists and gave millions more to many other causes, including Washington’s Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, the National Symphony, and research into brain disease, which ultimately took the life of Abe Pollin. The Pollins had a summer house in Rehovot, Israel, and were close friends of Yitzhak Rabin. It was Rabin’s assassination in 1995 that was the major reason why they renamed their Washington Bullets basketball team to the Washington Wizards (the new name was selected in a public contest). Irene Pollin also sat on the National Cancer Advisory Board, to which she was appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1986, while Abe Pollin was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame as the longest-serving owner of an NBA franchise (46 years). Sadly, Irene Pollin passed away last month at the age of 96.

Words of the Week

If you were born with a healthy heart, keep it that way.
– Irene Pollin

Jews of the Week: Israel and Nisan Bak

Israel’s First Printers – and Farmers

Page from a Zohar printed by Bak in Jerusalem

Israel Bak (1797-1874) was born in Berdichev, Ukraine to a Hasidic family of printers. He took over the business at the age of 18, and over the next seven years printed thirty books. Unfortunately, the family printing press was shut down, and over the next decade Bak unsuccessfully tried to rebuild the business. In 1831, he made aliyah and settled in Tzfat. He established a new printing press, and Jewish books began to be printed in Tzfat again for the first time since the 1600s, when the previous printing press was shut down. Meanwhile, Bak also purchased a plot of land near Mt. Meron and started the first Jewish agricultural colony. Some credit him as being the first modern Jewish farmer in Israel. It was he that inspired (former Jew of the Week) Sir Moses Montefiore to start investing in more Jewish settlement and agricultural development of the Holy Land—a seminal event upon which the later Zionist movement was built. Sadly, Bak lost everything in the Tzfat earthquake of 1837 and the Druze Revolt of 1838. He relocated with his family to Jerusalem, there establishing the holy city’s first-ever printing press. From there he printed 130 books, as well as the second Hebrew newspaper in Israel’s history, Havatzelet.

Kirya Ne’emana in 1925

After he passed away, his son Nisan Bak (1815-1889) took over the printing business. Nisan sold the press in 1883, deciding to focus all of his efforts on rebuilding Jewish life in the Holy Land. Back in 1843, he had prevented the Russians from purchasing a coveted plot of land near the Western Wall where they intended to build a church and monastery. He was able to procure vast sums of money (with the help of the Ruzhiner Rebbe) to secure the area for the Jews, and there built the illustrious Tiferet Israel Synagogue (also known as Beit Knesset Nisan Bak, and the Hurva, “Ruin”, because it was destroyed by the Arabs in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, before being rebuilt and reopened in 2010). In 1875, Bak founded one of the first modern Jewish towns in Israel, just outside Jerusalem’s walls, called Kirya Ne’emana. He built 30 homes for the Hasidic community, and distributed the remaining plots to large numbers of Iraqi, Syrian, and Persian Jews. In 1884, he co-founded (with his brother-in-law, Israel Dov Frumkin) the Ezrat Niddahim Society to stop Christian missionaries from targeting Jews. The society also established a Yemenite Jewish quarter in Jerusalem, and raised funds to support and educate Jerusalem’s impoverished.

Top left: the Hurva Synagogue in 1930; bottom left: the ruins in 1967; right: the Hurva today (photo credit: Chesdovi). Sir Moses Montefiore paid for much of the early construction. More than half of the money came from the wealthy Iraqi-Jewish family of Ezekiel Reuben. The synagogue was completed in 1864 and originally called Beit Yakov in honour of Edmond James (Yakov) de Rothschild. It was considered the most beautiful building in Jerusalem, and nicknamed “the glory of the Old City”.

Words of the Week

I see Israel, and never mind saying it, as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land almost can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

Jew of the Week: Sammy Ofer

Israel’s Richest Man

Sammy Ofer (Courtesy: www.sammy-ofer.com)

Shmuel Hershkovitz (1922-2011) was born in Romania and raised in Haifa. He grew up by the seashore as his father ran a ship supply shop near the port of Haifa. Hershkovitz himself worked for the Dizengoff shipping company in his youth. When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the British Navy and served on a minesweeper in the Mediterranean. He later fought in Israel’s Independence War serving in what would become the Israeli Navy. Hershkovitz was among Israel’s first naval officers. After the war, he worked for the family business before purchasing his own ship to import goods for the new State. As the business expanded and the fleet of ships grew, Hershkovitz changed the name of the company, and his own last name, to “Ofer”. In 1969, the company partly merged with Israel’s largest shipping company, ZIM. It continued to operate under the management of Ofer’s brother, while Ofer himself moved to Europe to start a new shipping business. By the late 80s, his company had a fleet of over 200 ships, and partly owned Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. It later expanded into real estate, banking, and other industries. Ofer became Israel’s richest man, with a net worth of several billion dollars. He shared a lot of that wealth, too. In 2007, he donated $25 million to the Rambam Hospital in Haifa, most of which went to build a 2000-bed state-of-the-art underground, bomb-proof hospital. (The facility has now been converted into a coronavirus treatment centre.) The following year, Ofer donated £20 million to London’s National Maritime Museum—the largest private donation to a museum in British history. He gave sizeable gifts to Tel Aviv Medical Center and IDC Herzliya as well, and established the Medicines Foundation to subsidize the cost of cancer treatment for those in need. All in all, Ofer donated over $100 million to hospitals in Israel. He also gave $20 million to build the Sammy Ofer Stadium, the home of Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Haifa soccer clubs and Israel’s second-largest sports facility with over 30,000 seats. In 2008, Ofer was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. His two sons remain among the richest Israelis in the world (though they live in Monaco). Last week, his son Eyal donated 10 million shekels to three Israeli hospitals to help fight coronavirus. His other son Idan gave the largest ever donation (£25 million) in honour of his father to the London Business School, whose townhall has since been renamed the Sammy Ofer Centre.

Words of the Week

Every Jew is obligated to study Torah, whether he is poor or rich, healthy or ill, young or old. Even if one is destitute or if he has familial obligations, he must still establish fixed times for Torah study.
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam, 1135-1204 (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:8)