In Israel we trust

The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust has made Israel a focus of its efforts by providing funding for numerous projects including one that it hopes will help people see the country for what it truly is

June 13, 2013 12:48
Harry Helmsley, and his wife Leona spent decades on philanthropic giving.

Harry Helmsley 370. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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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 causes.

With prestigious Manhattan properties in the company portfolio when Harry passed away in 1997, Leona became the heir to the family fortune.

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 associates.

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.

When Leona 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.

Once it 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 pushke.”

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.

The second 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.

“It 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 areas.”

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 reality.

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 Club.

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 Club.

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.

Nobody 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.”

Another factor 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.”

Frankel says 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 ideas.”

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.

“We were 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 ‘Israel.’”

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