Tag Archives: Philanthropists

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

Jew of the Week: Giacomo Meyerbeer

Biggest Superstar of the 19th Century

Jacob Liebmann Beer (1791-1864) was born near Berlin, then in the Kingdom of Prussia, to a wealthy, observant Jewish family. His father was the president of Berlin’s Jewish community and ran a large synagogue in his home. His mother received the prestigious Order of Louise from the Prussian queen, and because she was an observant Jew, got a small statue instead of the traditional cross. The Beer children received the best secular education, as well as private tutors in Jewish studies. All three sons became famous: Wilhelm Beer as an astronomer, Michael Beer as writer, and Jacob Beer as a composer. When his beloved grandfather Meyer passed away, Jacob added the name to his own, changing it to Meyerbeer. He also vowed never to abandon the faith of his fathers, while many of his friends “converted” to Christianity to be accepted in society and to take on jobs otherwise barred to them. Meyerbeer was taught music from a young age by some of the best instructors of the time. He performed his first public concert at just age nine. Meyerbeer’s early work involved writing religious music for his father’s synagogue, and his first big production was a ballet-opera called The Fisherman and the Milkman, followed by the musical God and Nature, and the opera Jephtha’s Vow. He wrote beautiful pieces for the piano, clarinet, and full orchestras, and vacillated between composing and playing music himself (which he preferred). Having faced many difficulties in his youth, Meyerbeer founded the Musical Union to support up-and-coming composers. In 1813, he was appointed Court Composer for the Grand Duke of Hesse. Several years later, he felt he had lots more to learn and moved to Italy. There he wrote some of his most renowned operas. By 1824, he had become world-famous, and his 1831 grand opera, Robert le diable, made him the equivalent of a modern-day superstar. The following year, he received the Legion of Honour, the highest award in France. In 1841, he was described as the “German Messiah” who would save the Paris Opera from its death, and shortly after also became director of music for the Prussian royal court. Not surprisingly, his success and wealth drew the ire of his colleagues, and Meyerbeer faced terrible criticism and anti-Semitism (especially from Richard Wagner, once his pupil). Meyerbeer remained graceful nonetheless, and never responded to the attacks on him. He continued to compose popular works until his last day, and has been credited with being “the most frequently performed opera composer” of the 19th century. He inspired the works of later greats like Dvořák, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky. He was also a generous philanthropist, a devoted husband and father to five children, and never broke his vow to die an observant Jew. Meyerbeer remains one of the greatest musicians of all time.

Words of the Week

One who looks for a friend without faults, will have none.
– Hasidic proverb

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)