Throughout his lifetime, New York City’s premiere realestate mogul, Harry
Helmsley – along with his wife Leona – spent decades focused on philanthropic
giving, donating millions of dollars to a wide range of organizations and
With prestigious Manhattan properties in the company portfolio
when Harry passed away in 1997, Leona became the heir to the family
Among many other well-known properties, the Helmsley’s owned
(and Leona Helmsley’s estate now owns) the largest economic interest in the
Empire State Building.
In 1999, Leona established the Leona M. and Harry
B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, and continued giving exceptionally generous sums
to those in need, primarily in the fields of health, science and human services.
The estate’s interest in the Empire State Building will be effectively
transferred, with the proceeds going to the trust.
Recognizing her own
humanity, Leona planned for the future and decided to set up a staff of trustees
who would ensure that nearly every dollar from the family empire would enter
into the trust upon her passing.
Five trustees were handpicked by Leona
herself to oversee the family’s fortune.
Two of the trustees were family
members, grandchildren to be precise, while the other three were close business
While none of them had a background in philanthropy, they
were selected based on their relationships to Leona, and particularly on the
trust established between her and each of them over the years.
died of heart failure in 2007 at age 87, the trustees were given full discretion
to distribute what today amounts to around $5.5 billion in assets, earmarked for
charitable causes. One of those charged with this highly challenging-
yet-rewarding task was New York City attorney Sandy Frankel. Frankel, who
describes himself as a “Conservative Jew and lover of Israel,” has played a
leading role ensuring that the Helmsley Trust adopt “Israel” as one of its
primary program areas.
Frankel, a litigation lawyer who represented Mrs.
Helmsley from 1990 until her death nearly 18 years later, says he earned Leona’s
trust, not only as her attorney but due to “offering personal advice in a
relationship which broadened over the years.”
Frankel, now 69, with three
children and five grandchildren, had humble beginnings. He says he grew up in
the Bronx “with everything a young boy could want: a used rubber ball and a
broomstick to hit it with.” He says that while his family didn’t have much in
terms of material goods, he was instilled with the importance of tzedaka,
“charity” from an early age.
“My grandparents used to have a blue and
white pushke (“tzedaka box”), which we would put pennies into.
was full we would take it to the JNF [Jewish National Fund] and exchange it for
an empty pushke.”
“Life is funny,” he says. “It’s surreal to be
instrumental in providing enormous amounts of money to important projects in
Israel through the trust, coming from a background of putting pennies into a
A DETAILED document listing cash grants approved by the trust to
at least 30 organizations, institutions of higher education, scientific research
projects and other worthy causes in Israel from 2008 to the present reveals
pledges nearing a whopping $90 million.
Frankel explains that the mission
of the trust’s Israel branch can be classified into a three-pronged strategic
approach. The first is “to strengthen Israel’s performance in science,
technology and medical research, through major grants, which will benefit not
only Israel, but the rest of the world as well,” says Frankel.
branch “is a focus on healthcare and medical preparedness.
We’ve made a
number of grants that are ‘tragic’ – helping to fortify underground hospital
facilities [under the threat of missile attack] including [Haifa’s] Rambam
Medical Center, so patients of all religions can be treated when terrorists in
the North open fire.”
In addition, Frankel says that the trust funds
“re-enforced health clinics and armored vehicles in Sderot and surrounding
areas, so that doctors can visit patients – innocent men, women, and children
who are in need of receiving medical treatment.”
Finally, Frankel says
that the trust also helps “victims of terror, and wounded heroes of the
country.” While Frankel admits that he would rather earmark funds toward
research for the benefit of humanity, reality has dictated otherwise.
would be a wonderful world if instead of helping to build and fortify these
cities, would could have brains focused on helping create change on earth, but
reality is what it is, so we’ve had to make substantial grants in those
The third area of commitment, says Frankel, focuses on “Israel’s
standing in the world.” While he is adamant that the trust is apolitical – “we
don’t propagandize, or politicize,” he says, “but we try to help people see
Israel for what it truly is – and the best way to accomplish that in my view is
for people to be there [in Israel] and to form their own impressions based on
You can’t teach people wisdom, but you can give people
knowledge. Knowledge comes from one basic direction: from being in Israel, and
seeing the country.”
It is with that rationale, explains Frankel, that
the trust is engrossed with projects that attempt to encourage people to come to
Israel and explore the country for themselves. Therefore, he says, the trust is
very involved with Birthright Israel (Taglit), “which allows tens of thousands
of young people to connect with the country,” as well as with the President’s
Conference, in addition to the creation of a new Jerusalem Press
Under the auspices of the Jerusalem Foundation, the Jerusalem Press
Club is slated to open its doors in mid-June.
With the subject of Israeli
hasbara or public relations a hot topic on the minds of Israel supporters these
days, Frankel gives a detailed description of his vision for the Press
He starts by giving credit to former Jerusalem Foundation (and
Jewish Agency) chairman and ambassador to the US Sallai Meridor for proposing
the idea of a press club several years ago, saying that the vision ultimately
came to fruition as a result of impeccable timing.
“What he [Meridor]
didn’t realize,” says Frankel, “is that what he was trying to sell, when he
approached the trust about the idea of a press club, is that we were looking to
buy a ‘truth machine,’ to let the world accurately learn about Israel – what it
is, what it isn’t, its challenges, how remarkable its people are, and how it
flourishes despite those challenges.”
The purpose of the Press Club, says
Frankel, is “to create a viable and visible hub for international journalists
and their publications, which will share the truth about Israel based on facts
and not fantasy. Everyone has an opinion [when it comes to Israel] and sometimes
people say Israel needs good PR. However the club is not designed to
propagandize about Israel, it’s designed to allow people to see the facts as
they are – both about country and its people.”
According to Frankel, the
Jerusalem Press Center “will accommodate journalists from all countries, as a
place where they can gather, meet, talk, listen to speakers from time to time,
and can be helped to witness and understand the different places in Israel –
within a neutral setting.”
He continues, “Israel’s friends and foes, the
Eastern bloc and Western bloc, they will all be welcomed there.
will be trying to paint Israel as a ‘perfect country.’ We are simply creating an
opportunity for the press from all over the world to come and see Israel for
what it is.
“What they’ll see is a free, democratic country where
everyone can speak his or her mind, vote for his or her government, and worship
his or her own God without fear for doing so. When they see that they can write
or broadcast whatever they want. Hopefully they will learn Israel is not simply
a sliver of land defined by conflict, but an extraordinary place of people with
an ancestry who have been here for thousands of years and accomplished
extraordinary things under extraordinary circumstances.”
Turning back to
the operation of the trust’s Israel programs in general, Frankel clarifies the
process by which the trustees determine whether or not they will support a
project. He says that normally, “we reach out to the leadership of major
research institutions and discuss their needs with them, evaluate them
internally and consider possible grants based on potential impact the funding
could have on the facility, on Israel, and on the world.”
says Frankel is sustainability.
“With all of the post-doctoral talent in
the world, when making a decision we try to determine whether the
program/project can be self-sustained when the grant ends.”
that while he travels to Israel often on behalf of the trust, he fully
recognizes that his view of Israel “from 45th Street and Park [Avenue in
Manhattan], is very different from the view in Jerusalem.” Therefore, he says,
that “we speak regularly with Israelis and Israeli leaders to get their
Frankel acknowledges that one of the first things the trust did
when beginning to fund Israel projects, was to meet with President Shimon Peres,
who Frankel says “was extraordinarily generous and helpful with his time and
ideas, and the suggestions he made.”
Reflecting back on 2007, when he was
given the demanding yet fulfilling task of working for the Helmsley Charitable
Trust, Frankel, whose wife he says is a “born sabra [native Israeli] whose roots
in Jerusalem go back many generations,” is grateful for the trust and discretion
given to his fellow trustees and to himself by Mrs. Helmsley.
painting on a huge empty canvas using a palate of infinite colors,” he says.
“Each trustee brings his own passions to the table in terms of where
philanthropic dollars can do the most good. For me one of the answers was