Tag Archives: Philanthropists

Jew of the Week: Mordecai Sheftall

Highest-Ranking Jew in the Continental Army

Mordechai Sheftall (1735-1797) was born in the new colony of Savannah, Georgia to Jewish immigrants from England that had arrived two years earlier aboard a vessel carrying 36 Sephardic and 8 Ashkenazi Jews. The same year he was born, his parents cofounded North America’s third oldest synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Mickve Israel of Savannah (the first is Shearith Israel of New York, and the second the Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island). Seven years later, Spanish troops invaded Georgia, causing the Sephardic families to flee in fear of the Spanish Inquisition. Only the two Ashkenazi families remained, the Sheftalls being one of them. Mordechai Sheftall received a strong Jewish education from his father, who ordered a set of tefillin and Jewish books for his bar mitzvah from England. He even sent a letter when the precious shipment was delayed—which happens to be the earliest-known historical mention of a bar mitzvah in the Americas! At age 17, Sheftall went into the deerskin business and quickly made a small fortune, soon buying 50 acres of his own in Savannah. By the time he married at age 26, he operated a 2000-acre cattle ranch and a tanning facility. The Mickve Israel congregation ran services from a room in his house. Sheftall was also a philanthropist, and a major contributor to the Union Society and the Bethesda orphanage. In 1765, the British imposed the hugely unpopular Stamp Act. Like many colonists, Sheftall strongly opposed excessive British taxation, and became chairman of Savannah’s Parochial Committee of American patriots. When the Revolutionary War broke out, Sheftall immediately volunteered to fight, and in 1777 became the commissary-general of Georgia’s troops. He went on to attain the rank of colonel, making him the highest-ranking Jew in the Continental Army. Sheftall was captured during the First Battle of Savannah in 1778, yet continued to arrange major funds to the American cause from the prisoner-of-war ship he was being held in. The British would purposely give him pork, which he refused to eat, and even greased his cutlery with pork fat, which he refused to use. He was only freed in a prisoner exchange two years later. Having lost everything in the Revolutionary War, Sheftall moved to Philadelphia in 1781 to try a new business. During his brief time there, he also helped build Philadelphia’s historic Mikveh Israel synagogue. Sheftall returned to Savannah to work at its port as Georgia’s official Inspector of Tanned Leather. In 1790, he became president of Savannah’s Mickve Israel synagogue. That same year, George Washington wrote a letter to the congregation (the first ever by a president to a Jewish community) where he wrote: “May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivering the Hebrews from their Egyptian Oppressors planted them in the promised land – whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation – still continue to water them with the dews of heaven…” Like fellow Revolutionary hero (and the very first Jew of the Week) Haym Solomon, the vital loans Sheftall provided to the nascent US government were never repaid. Sheftall was buried in Savannah’s first Jewish cemetery, which he had himself established years earlier.

Words of the Week

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
George Washington, first president of the United States, to the Touro Synagogue in 1790

Jew of the Week: Harold Grinspoon

The Philanthropist Behind PJ Library

Harold Grinspoon (Credit: Robert Charles Photography)

Harold Grinspoon (b. 1929) was born and raised in Newton, Massachusetts to a family of Jewish-Russian immigrants. He had a difficult childhood, struggling with dyslexia and rampant anti-Semitism, poverty, and losing his father at 19. While a student at Marlboro College, he had his first business idea: Putting together some meagre savings, he bought an old laundry machine and put it in the college dorm, charging 25 cents per load. Meanwhile, he worked on an ice cream truck and soon left school to manage a whole fleet of them. After serving in the Navy, Grinspoon bought his first property in 1959. He renovated it and rented out one of the units, and from there steadily built his real estate development business. He founded Aspen Square Management, now one of America’s top-50 private developers, with 15,000 apartments across 16 states. When diagnosed with cancer at age 59, Grinspoon realized he wanted to do something more meaningful with his life. He was particularly troubled by Jewish assimilation and intermarriage. Together with his wife, he founded the Harold Grinspoon Foundation to fund a variety of Jewish causes, and has since donated over $200 million. At one Passover seder, Grinspoon saw how excited his grandkids were to read Jewish books, and came up with the idea of sending a free Jewish book once a month to every Jewish home. Thus, in 2005 he launched PJ Library. Today, PJ Library operates around the world, delivering nearly 1 million free books each month to kids in some 30 countries. PJ Library also delivers popular Arabic-language books to Arab Israeli children. (It’s the largest Arabic book program in the world!) Meanwhile, PJ Library runs weekend and after-school programs, along with over 3000 events a year. The Harold Grinspoon Foundation funds other Jewish programs, too, including Jewish camps and day schools. In 2015, Grinspoon signed The Giving Pledge to donate more than half of his wealth. Grinspoon and his PJ Library have won a number of prestigious awards, including one from the Library of Congress. Grinspoon has been called “the most important Jewish philanthropist you’ve never heard of”. He is also an avid artist and sculptor, and is still very active at 92 years old. Sign up to PJ Library here!

Words of the Week

We are indignant when we are fooled by others but live comfortably with our unconscious desire for self-deceit.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Jew of the Week: Helena Rubenstein

First Self-Made Female Millionaire

Chaya Helena Rubinstein (1872-1965) was born in the Jewish ghetto of Krakow, Poland, the oldest of eight daughters in a very religious family. Her cousin was Martin Buber. At age 16, she was arranged to be married but refused to go along with it, instead running away to Switzerland, and then Australia. Although she spoke no English, the local ladies fell in love with her fashion sense and makeup. After agreeing to sell off most of what was in her luggage, she realized she could start a business. With help from an aunt, Rubinstein found her way to the region of Coleraine, famous for its millions of sheep, which produce lanolin, the key ingredient in her creams. Rubinstein worked as a waitress by day, and experimented with her creams by night. With some help from a wealthy admirer, Rubinstein launched her business. It didn’t take long for her to open up her own shop in the heart of Melbourne. Within five years, she opened two more locations: in Sydney and London, England. At the time, women were barred from getting bank loans, so Rubinstein saved up all the money herself and paid in cash. In 1912, she moved to Paris with her first husband, and there opened a new salon. During World War I, the family fled to New York, and Rubinstein opened up shop there as well. Business boomed, and Rubinstein expanded to another twelve cities. She soon became the most famous businesswoman in the world—and the richest. She has been credited as the world’s first self-made female millionaire. After her first marriage fell apart, Rubinstein tied the knot with a Georgian prince, and took on the title “Helena Princess Gourielli”. Rubinstein was a huge philanthropist, and her charity distributed around $130 million to causes around the world. She had a great life-long rivalry with Elizabeth Arden, of whom she said: “With her packaging and my product, we could have ruled the world.” Rubinstein faced a tremendous amount of adversity, as well as anti-Semitism. (In 1941, she was rejected from living in a Park Avenue apartment because she was Jewish, so she bought the whole building!) Nonetheless, she persevered through it all and became a pioneer in the cosmetics industry, in business, and in marketing, continuing to work into her 90s. Among her innovations were waterproof mascara and what may be the first sunscreen. Today, her company is owned by L’Oréal, which presents the Helena Rubinstein Women in Science Awards yearly in her honour.

Words of the Week

We have been waiting for 2,000 years. Is that hurrying?
Golda Meir, to King Abdullah of Jordan in a May 10, 1948 meeting, when he asked not to “hurry” to declare independence.

Helena Rubinstein cuts the ribbon at the grand opening of her Museum of Art in Tel-Aviv (1959)