‘Exodus’ survivor inspires son who sold SodaStream for $3.2 billion

Rabbi Birnbaum’s life story makes the sale of his son’s company even more unlikely. Birnbaum, 89, was born in what is now Slovakia and initially was in hiding during the Holocaust.

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August 24, 2018 00:28
3 minute read.
SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum congratulated by his father, Rabbi  Ervin Birnbaum

SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum congratulated by his father, Rabbi Ervin Birnbaum, at Monday's press conference in which Birnbaum announced that he had sold the company to PepsiCo. (photo credit: LENS PRODUCTIONS)

 
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All that SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum told his parents, Rabbi Ervin and Hadassa Birnbaum, on Sunday night was to come to a function of his company at the Tel Aviv Hilton the following afternoon.

They did not know until the rest of the world did that the purpose of the event was to announce the sale of his carbonated drink-machine maker to PepsiCo for $3.2 billion. Standing alongside PepsiCo President Ramon Laguarta, Birnbaum paid tribute to his father.

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He spoke about the Exodus 1947, the ship that was turned around by British soldiers upon its arrival to Mandatory Palestine in 1947. The elder Birnbaum was one of the passengers on that ship, and 22 years after being forced back to Germany, he finally made it back to Israel with his wife and three sons, including Daniel Birnbaum, who made aliyah from the US at age seven.

“Who would have believed, Dad, after you lost your family, that you would get to this moment to see a thriving country, to take the ashes of the Holocaust and turn it into a moment of glory and pride,” Birnbaum said at the press conference. “This is a defining moment in the State of Israel’s journey.”

Ervin Birnbaum told The Jerusalem Post in an interview Thursday that he was moved by his son’s tribute.

“I was very touched and had tears in my eyes,” he said. “It doesn’t happen often that children connect their success to their parents’ experience.”

Birnbaum said the sale of his son’s company was great for Israel, because it proved the Jewish state could produce successful companies that are not hi-tech.

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“For the country, it’s an enormous benefit,” he said. “I was very proud of it because I cannot even encompass the figure he sold it for in my mind. We are very proud of him and grateful to the Almighty for a child like him.”

Rabbi Birnbaum’s life story makes the sale of his son’s company even more unlikely.

Birnbaum, 89, was born in what is now Slovakia and initially hid in an attack during the Holocaust. After he was betrayed and escaped, he reached Budapest and took part in the Underground Zionist Youth Movements in Hungary using non-Jewish identity papers.

“My only ambition after the war was to get out of Europe and reach Israel,” he said.

But after he was sent back to Europe on the Exodus among 5,530 others, he received word that his mother was sick and went home to her. When communists were taking over Czechoslovakia, Birnbaum’s father received papers to take the family to the United States.

While enrolled at Columbia University, where he initially had hopes to become a diplomat for Israel, he began his studies as well at the nearby Jewish Theological Seminary. Though Birnbaum considered himself an atheist after his Holocaust experiences, he wanted to discover why others still believed in God.

Science restored his faith, and Birnbaum brought his young family in 1970 to the Negev, where he taught at the newly-founded Midreshet Ben-Gurion in Sde Boker.

When the family moved to Netanya in 1978, local residents pushed Ervin to officiate at High Holiday Services at the local Conservative synagogue. He served as the rabbi until 2000, when he “retired,” only to continue in the exact same role on a volunteer basis since then.

Daniel Birnbaum remains a Conservative Jew, and is now arguably the wealthiest supporter of religious pluralism in the country. He has backed pioneering outreach programs for Russian immigrants at his father’s synagogue, and he still goes back annually to Cincinnati, Ohio, to serve as a cantor for services where he lived when he worked at the international headquarters of Procter & Gamble.

Rabbi Birnbaum recalled that his son already showed his business acumen at age eight, when he started selling pizza from his family home in Sde Boker, and then opened a makeshift kiosk at the local swimming pool.

“Danny already showed a great ability in business back then,” he said. “Little did we know how far he would go.”•

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