When Ehud passed the hat in Texas

My friendship with the prime minister dates way back to 1974, when he visited Cleveland, Ohio, on an Israel Bonds speaking tour.

olmert smiley 224 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
olmert smiley 224 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Well, here goes one that's guaranteed to win me no friends and generate countless nasty e-mails and phone calls. But not everyone has an eyewitness account of Ehud Olmert's fundraising efforts, and I do… one that occurred around 10 years ago. My friendship with the prime minister dates way back to 1974, when he visited Cleveland, Ohio, on an Israel Bonds speaking tour. At 29, he was the Knesset's youngest member, a firebrand representing the Free Center Party. I was a young PR guy for the Jewish Federation, and we hit it off. He was even my house guest for two or three days. Two decades later when he was a few years into serving as mayor of Jerusalem, I ran into him at a conference and tossed out a spur of the moment idea: Would he consider, on one of his visits to the US, to volunteer some time to raise funds for one of the capital's smaller but most effective hospitals? I wanted to piggy-back on an already scheduled trip so the hospital could avoid covering the international part of his flights. His reply was immediate: "Sure, I'd be happy to." He knew the facility by reputation only, had no strong connection to it and didn't know the primary donors who then supported it. I'm not sure he had ever even set foot inside the hospital. I followed up, and when the very next opportunity presented itself, Ehud agreed to fly down to San Antonio, from Colorado, on an early Sunday morning and be at our disposal -- no other agenda - for about 36 hours. I met him at the local airport and rushed him into a Hallelujah-peppered reception at no less than Pastor John Hagee's Cornerstone Church, replete with 5,000 worshipers. Ehud gave a great pep talk about what he had learned of the Jerusalem hospital, and the Christians passed the hat - literally. Nearly $20,000 was collected in cold cash. Ehud continued to a parlor meeting at some wealthy folks' home, and we flew early the next morning to Houston, where a donor luncheon had been organized. That accomplished, he headed off into the sunset and traveled back to his regular engagements in New York. All in all, some $50,000 had been collected to strengthen in some small measure the quality of care for elderly patients back in Israel. I CANNOT comment on any other episode of Olmert's fundraising experiences. Although not relevant, I do not share most of his current policies or politics. Yet this is what I personally observed: • Ehud's reflexive predisposition was to say "yes" to helping a worthy Jerusalem institution; he volunteered time away from his family without thinking twice. • He asked for no benefit or reciprocity in return. Zero. He never saw, counted or touched one cent of the funds raised. He did ask me how much came in before he left and commented, "A shame, we should have done better." • Yes, he requested an upgraded airplane seat but made no bones about where we housed him (in a modest airport motel). His sole demand: That the lodging had cable TV to enable him to watch World Cup semi-finals throughout the night, as he puffed away on numerous cigars. • He was exceptionally gracious and charming, as I have always known him to be. I recall a leisurely dinner on San Antonio's delightful River Walk, with two or three of my local friends, including a staff intern whom I brought with me. The mayor conducted an animated philosophical discussion for over an hour with the young man, who remembers it fondly until today. What's the point? I have no reason to believe Ehud is a saint. There's very few of those around, even in our holy environs. But while reports of cash-stuffed envelopes make the rounds, I suspect that there are many, many other stories around that more closely resemble the tale I have told. Such episodes may not be the preferred subject of inquiry for investigators or newsmen, but they certainly do speak well to the true character of a leader under unprecedented fire. The writer is a Jerusalem-based communications specialist.