Laudable achievements

Ronald S. Lauder celebrates 20 years of his foundation by - what else? - inaugurating another Jewish school.

lauder 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
lauder 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Kristina Schelling holds up her camera. She wants to get a good picture of a person who has changed her life: Ronald S. Lauder, the US businessman, philanthropist and art collector, who stands amid a throng of Schelling's classmates at the Lauder Business School in Vienna, celebrating its official inauguration. The students look up to Lauder, and not only because he is quite tall. They tell him about their dreams for the future, and they thank him. He seems like a shy giant, almost blown away by the force of what he has done. This past week in Vienna, stock was taken of what exactly this man has done in the 20 years since he founded his Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. In short, an estimated 34,000 Jewish youth have attended schools, summer camps and other Jewish educational programs in Central and Eastern Europe, thanks to this New York-based businessman's investment of $350 million, and his no-nonsense approach to the challenge of assimilation. If someone had told him in 1987 that he would bring so many young Jews back to Judaism, "I would have told them they were crazy," Lauder, 63, said at a dinner for special guests at city hall, marking the foundation's 20th anniversary. Back then, he "knew very, very little about Jewish life, very little about Judaism." Today, former Lauder campers have become rabbis and teachers in Lauder schools. Young Jewish women and men have met through Lauder programs, married and started families. Future rabbis are studying in Berlin. A network of 15 major schools is linked by the Lauder name in 15 countries, and they represent various streams of Judaism. In all, there are 47 schools and related programs under the foundation's umbrella. In a rare feat, Lauder has managed to bring together Jews who often don't see eye to eye. They may not agree on everything, but one thing is for sure: They all see a brighter future for Jewish life in their region. "My parents' generation didn't really have this option," said Rabbi Maciej Pawlak, principal of the Lauder Morasha Jewish Day School in Warsaw, whose own first contact with Judaism was at a Ronald S. Lauder summer camp in Poland. "I started to learn, to get involved and connected," recalled Pawlak, 30, who later spent a year in Israel and earned his ordination at Yeshiva University in New York. He returned to Poland to "teach and be helpful to other Jews - because I speak their language." "After 60 years, a new generation is being born that will speak Hebrew and will be aware of themselves as Jews," said Silvia Heim, who teaches Hebrew and Judaism at the Lauder-Hugo Kon Jewish elementary school in Zagreb, Croatia. With its 26 pupils, it is "the only Jewish school in ex-Yugoslavia," she said, adding that there are some 1,500 Jews in Croatia. Lauder has had "an impact of historic proportions," said Rabbi Pinhas Goldschmidt, chief rabbi of Moscow. "He started schools where the Jewish community said there's no Jewish future." "It is remarkable to see what one person could do," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a board member of the Lauder Foundation. "The vast majority of Jewish donors give to non-Jewish causes. And here is a Jewish donor who has all the options in the world, and he has opted to donate the bulk of his philanthropic dollars to Jews in Eastern Europe. Just think of the incredible impact, if more would do the same." TO BE SURE, 20 years of reinvigorating Jewish life in this region is not uncontroversial. Some of the schools accept non-Jewish pupils, and this causes major problems, critics say. But those schools that get public funding must be open to all. Another point of contention is the idea of promoting Jewish life in countries whose Jewish populations were devastated by the Holocaust. Shouldn't Jews there be moving to Israel? Lauder, who is a major donor to the State of Israel and chairman of the board of the Jewish National Fund, told The Jerusalem Post that Jews outside Europe used to question his commitment to Europe. But "today I am never asked. Why? Because people are starting to see Jewish life coming about, and they realize what we are doing. And now they are asking what they can do to help." In fact, many Lauder programs now are co-funded by private donors or state funds. He says he'd like to see more such cooperation. "Our aim is to build Jewish life in Eastern Europe," Lauder said. But Israel is always part of the picture: "We are promoting Israel as the center of everything." Children in Lauder schools learn Hebrew and those who wish to make aliya are applauded. "But at the same time we are also promoting Jewish life in the various countries. Unlike the Jewish Agency, which only promotes aliya, we promote both." At the same time, people on the ground note that some former citizens are returning from Israel - to stay or to do business. While this development surely is troubling for Israel, Jewish leaders in Eastern and Central Europe don't seem worried. "They started coming back three or four years ago, and they tend to get involved in the Jewish community," said Goldschmidt. Sarah Bald, who heads the Acheinu Lauder school in Lviv, Ukraine, said Jewish families had been coming back from Israel over the past five years. While right-wing anti-Semitism remains a problem in the region, Eastern European governments tend to be more supportive of Israel than their Western European neighbors, Hoenlein commented. And several members of the Lauder Foundation board also reported positive relations with local Muslim leaders, much to Lauder's surprise. The bottom line is that Eastern Europe is no longer a dead zone, Jewish leaders say. "Poland is not only one huge graveyard for Jews," commented Rabbi Michael Shudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, who first came to Warsaw from the US in 1990 at Lauder's behest. Then, Poland's estimated Jewish population was 6,000. Today, that estimate is up to 25,000, due largely to people losing their fear of being openly Jewish, Shudrich said. "Within this graveyard, there are those who survived, and their children and grandchildren," he added. "And [Lauder] was the first to say it's our obligation to help." LAUDER WAS BORN in 1944 in New York, the second son of Estée and Joseph Lauder, founders of Estée Lauder Companies. His mother had roots in Budapest. As a young man, Lauder studied business at both the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Brussels. He started working at his parents' company in the 1960s. He later became involved in Republican politics. He and his wife, Jo Carole, have two daughters. A renowned collector of 20th-century German and Austrian art, Lauder has a personal mission to recover works that the Nazis stole from Jews. Items from his collection can be seen in the museum he opened in New York City in 2001, the Neue Galerie. Lauder's philanthropic work focuses primarily on Jewish causes - including the JNF, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Brandeis University and the Abraham Fund. This year, he was elected president of the World Jewish Congress. It was Lauder's brief stint as ambassador to Austria in 1986 (appointed by president Ronald Reagan) that triggered the decision that would change the lives of thousands Jews. "And first of all, my thanks go to Kurt Waldheim," he said, with irony: The so-called "Waldheim Affair" - revelations that Austria's newly elected president had whitewashed his role in the Nazi military - made it painfully clear that Austria needed to do some soul-searching, four decades after the end of World War II. What shook Lauder even more was a chance meeting with an elderly man on Tempelgasse street in Vienna. "He told me that the most beautiful synagogue in the world had been there - Temple Synagogue." It was destroyed on November 9, 1938, during Kristallnacht. Lauder began to consider what had been lost. A week later, Rabbi Jacob Biderman of Chabad came to see Lauder in his Vienna office. "I knew I had been bar mitzva'd, but I didn't know why a rabbi would want to see me," Lauder joked. Actually "he was the one who was looking for me," Biderman insists today. "I had no idea that the American ambassador was Jewish." Lauder "raised the question of what could he do for the Jewish people of Vienna," said Biderman. "I find this wonderful. He is not someone who has to be approached. He turns to the people and asks them." A friendship developed between the rabbi and the non-religious businessman-diplomat. At one point, Biderman brought Lauder a photo of the destroyed synagogue. Later, he took him to visit the kindergarten he had started with children of Russian Jewish emigrants "whose families got no further than Vienna" - then a transit point for Soviet Jews on the way to Israel or the US. Biderman recalled seeing Lauder's "long colonial black Mercedes car stop in front of the nebich [very poor] kindergarten overcrowded with children. And he sat down on one of these kindergarten chairs. He said he would stop by for 15 minutes, but he stayed for two hours, talking to five-year-olds, asking them questions and communicating with them. Imagine - the American ambassador!" Recalled Lauder, "My heart went out to them. Shortly afterward I helped him get an extra floor for his kindergarten." And then, said Biderman, Lauder asked, "Can't we get the floor above?" A few months later Lauder was visiting Budapest, where he met Jewish parents who said they wanted a kindergarten, too. "I don't know why I said yes, but I said yes," Lauder told his guests at city hall. "Maybe it was the Hungarian charm, or great food. But really, it was more about the children." The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation was born. Moving eastward, the foundation started programs in the Czech Republic, Poland, Belarus, Bulgaria, Estonia, Germany, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Slovakia and Ukraine. Some opened with a handful of children, others with hundreds. "When Ronald came to us in Hungary in 1988, and asked, 'How can I help bring together Jewish kids,' we were still under the communist era," noted George Ban, executive vice president of the foundation. "Two years later, the whole political system collapsed, and we were a little afraid that programs would collapse." Instead, they got even stronger. And, 20 years later, it is still "about the children." And "it's about the Jewish communities and their desire to bring themselves back," Lauder told the Post. "My role is nothing other than a catalyst to help them succeed. The greatest thing that we can do in Eastern Europe is to make people proud of their Judaism and to make it a positive, fun experience. Too often it is approached as something you have to do, as a chore. By making it voluntary, you have a much better chance" of helping young Jews become closer to their spiritual roots. To that end, the Lauder programs include summer camps and educational programs that offer both secular and Jewish content. Though Lauder says he does not need to see his name all over, he has a fine-tuned business sense. "My name gave people more and more confidence. It's not like buying a car, which if it doesn't work you can get another one. They are committing the most valuable asset they have: their children. They are taking a chance that the school would stay in business. And we have not let down one child," he said. While some schools - like the Lauder Chabad School in Vienna - accept only students who are Jewish according to Halacha, others accept non-Jews as well as students who identify Jewishly but do not have a Jewish mother. Some school directors say non-Jewish parents are seeking out their schools because of the excellent academic credentials. Waiting lists are not uncommon. Orthodox sensibilities are always considered. And not only in terms of kosher food and holiday observance. For example, the Lauder Business School got official permission to temporarily retouch an early 20th century ceiling fresco in a restored building, putting clothes on a nude female figure. Meanwhile, students of all backgrounds mix in the classes. Not kosher, say some. One Orthodox observer - who otherwise applauds Lauder's efforts - said it was unfair to encourage such togetherness, only to insist on separation in dating and marriage. Far from fostering good interfaith relations, it could actually lead to resentments, he said. In fact, Lauder is pushing for a higher percentage of Jewish pupils in schools with mixed populations. He also wants to find more private donors. Replacing public with private moneys would enable schools to determine entrance requirements. But Becca Lazarova, vice president of the Shalom Organization of Jews in Bulgaria, said she is grateful that Lauder does not always tell directors of foundation schools what to do. "He respects the opinion of the people in the field," said Lazarova, director of the Jewish School of Sofia. "I had told him that in Bulgaria it is impossible to have a religious school. And he said, 'Just write down your vision for me.' And that's how I did it." Lauder said his philosophy is to "let the community decide what type of school they want to have. I ask people what we can do, what they think and feel." He doesn't try to influence them, except on one point: "I do not believe in extremism. I do not believe in a school being too Orthodox or too secular. The only time I get involved is if I feel that they are talking too much." For his part, Hoenlein would like to influence his friend to put more emphasis on Israel. "Ronald's feeling has always been to stay in the communities and develop Jewish life there," said Hoenlein. "I think it should be more balanced." Yes, provide Jewish education. But also "strengthen their ties to Israel, get them to study in Israel, expose them to Israelis. Because for many of them, it will be the future." Meanwhile, they are learning in Sofia. And in Zagreb, in Moscow, in Berlin, in Budapest, in Prague and Lviv. "The one thing they have in common is their passion for learning," said Lauder. LAST WEEK IN Vienna, several hundred pupils at the Lauder Chabad School lined the staircases leading up to the newest floor, where Lauder was to help install a new mezuza. Kindergarteners stood on the lowest steps, and as the stairs climbed, so did the ages of the children - at the very top stood the teenage boys and girls (some girls inexplicably wearing pink fuzzy slippers). All joined to sing a welcome to Lauder, who paused to shake hands on his way up. "The children were sticking out their hands to him, and he stopped to speak to them, to six-year-olds or 12-year-olds," said Biderman, who is school director. Likewise at the Lauder Business School, Lauder mingled with students after the brief inauguration ceremony. Sitting on the sidelines, student Michael M., 20, said he cherished the chance to study here. "In Warsaw, I was mostly hiding my Jewish roots," said Michael, who learned he was Jewish when he was 14. "My whole world was broken down. But then I learned about Judaism at the Lauder summer camps." Back home, "there is still a high level of anti-Semitism. Even my best friends don't know," he said. But there's no secrecy in Vienna: "I can keep Shabbat and every Jewish holiday, and I can meet other Jews." "I was not very much into the Jewish religion," said his classmate, Schelling, who was born in Siberia and moved with her family to Israel when she was an infant. Now, in addition to preparing for a career in international business, she is learning about Judaism in a user-friendly way. "We get to ask all the questions we want, and rabbis come from all over the world to explain things to us," she said. "We are all united here. There are people coming here from across Eastern Europe, who couldn't afford it on their own. This is their whole world now - they eat and sleep and learn here." Lauder has learned something, too, over the years - he is no longer afraid "to walk into an Orthodox synagogue… The most important feeling is that of not being embarrassed by what you don't know." Said Biderman, "I learned from the Lubavitcher Rebbe [the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson] that these categories of Orthodox, Reform and Conservative are superficial. One may say formally [Lauder] is not religious. But, I don't know. He is a man who does a lot of mitzvas. And he is always getting closer... He came to Vienna as the United States ambassador. And he ended up as an ambassador for Judaism."