Flamboyant billionaire Stewart Rahr wows Israel

A unique brand of humanitarian philanthropy takes the capital by storm.

STEWART RAHR meets with President Shimon Peres after visiting Leket, the national food bank. (photo credit: DUDI SAAD/THE MEDIA LINE)
STEWART RAHR meets with President Shimon Peres after visiting Leket, the national food bank.
(photo credit: DUDI SAAD/THE MEDIA LINE)
 Photos: Dudi Saad/The Media Line What amazes about Israel’s United Hatzalah emergency first response organization is the speed with which its ambucycles, motorbikes equipped with the latest lifesaving equipment, arrive at the scene of an accident or to a person in need of medical assistance.
What amazed Israelis about colorful billionaire philanthropist Stewart Rahr was the speed with which he responded to an array of needs-at-hand: doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars virtually on the spot to “do good things.”
While in Israel for only a few short days, Rahr took the first step toward doubling the United Hatzalah fleet of bikes, and underwriting half a million dollars to bring Holocaust survivors to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps in Poland to bring closure to their nightmares. Along the way, Rahr met with charities and politicians anxious for a chance to tickle his generous fancy. (The trip to Poland had been the brainchild of Jonny Daniels, the 28-yearold executive director of From the Depths, a foundation dedicated to keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust.) Those in attendance described as “electric” the “magic moment” on a rooftop in Jerusalem’s Old City, when a dozen new motorbikes were hoisted by crane to provide the backdrop for United Hatzalah’s charity auction. It wasn’t long into the bidding that Rahr – just off the plane from Poland, and not having slept for two days – took over the auctioneer’s prerogative from United Hatzalah founder Eli Beer and threw down a challenge to match pledges.
In a fitting analogy to Hatzalah’s remarkable signature three-minute response time, Rahr’s dynamic rooftop performance saw – in what spectators said felt no longer than 180 seconds – the number of motorbikes he had already donated multiply to a total of 50 new ambucycles.
To Israelis, for whom there is nothing novel about a visitor seeking his or her bona fides from the Jewish state, the man called Rah-Rah offered an intriguing and enigmatic counterpoint to those seeking to just take from the ancient backdrop.
Flamboyant, yes: Witness the yellow eyeglasses, yellow wristwatch and bright yellow articles of clothing. But, as Rahr told The Media Line, yellow represents the sun, and we all know that “the sun will come out tomorrow.” An optimistic coda, indeed.
Similar was Rahr’s obsession with the number 13. But far from being anchored in superstition or Las Vegas-style luck, to Rahr it’s the day of the month (March) on which his father, Joseph, was born – “the luckiest day of my life.” He wore No. 13 on his Little League jersey and in high-school sports. “I’m very proud of it,” Rahr said. “It’s my lucky number.”
To many others, their luckiest day comes when Rahr enters their life. For the Holocaust survivors, it meant his paying for their travel with about half of Israel’s legislators to spend a memorable and moving 16 hours on the ground in Krakow, where the Knesset convened in a historic session far from the Jewish state. To Rahr, it was an opportunity to give back that required little thought.
He said that when told about plans for the trip by businessman Yummy Schachter of Charity Bids, “I thought it was a wonderful opportunity for me. I hoped that those who suffered terribly, the survivors, would have some sort of closure to their horrible ordeal. And that it would be an awakening for those who are Jewish or non-Jewish, about the survival issue. They should never forget what happened to us in our history. I got excited about doing something that will enhance the next generation and the generation afterwards.”
In conversations with The Media Line, Rahr spoke of his drive to “give back,” a trait echoed by those who know the Brooklyn-born do-gooder. He credited a taxi driver in Las Vegas for honing his perspective. “The driver would comment about the owner of each casino/hotel as we drove past,” said Rahr. “When we passed one particular landmark property, he said, ‘Someone should tell that guy that there are no luggage racks on top of a hearse.’ That was a tremendous example of what I live by today: You can’t take it with you.
I’m blessed to have these billions of dollars. I just feel that I’m compelled, that I have a responsibility to give back to those less fortunate.”
The billions he’s now worth all began with the $30,000 in inventory Rahr had to work with when he brought his father’s failed pharmacy into the world of distribution – according to Rahr himself, selling only to the little guy, “the underdog” – a distinction that remains key to his present-day philosophy of philanthropy. When his company, Kinray, Inc., which began with two employees, was sold to Cardinal Health in 2010 for $1.3 billion, it serviced 4,000 pharmacies.
Prior to his life-changing introduction to the world of distribution, Rahr had earned a degree from New York University and completed a year of law school. He retains a close relationship with his former wife, with whom he has two children.
Crediting his “closest friend,” Michael Milken, with taking him into sponsorship of medical issues – including $20 million to Milken’s own foundation for prostate cancer research – Rahr spent a considerable amount of his brief trip to Israel visiting one of the nation’s inspirational treasures: Shalva, an institution for children with disabilities. Before touring its existing facility, Rahr was joined by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat at the construction site of what will be a beacon of hope for Israel’s Jewish and Arab families in need of services, and a blueprint for other nations seeking to emulate the best in caregiving for children with disabilities. When completed, Shalva will be contained in a $50m. campus comprised of a 18,500-square-meter, 11-story building surrounded by 2.4 hectares of parks – all of which will serve thousands of children. Rahr and Barkat saw a glimpse of the future as they walked down successive flights at the current Shalva facility, soaking in the smiles of the various groups of children they encountered on each level.
“Shalva is the first place a mother comes straight from the hospital if a child has special needs,” explained Shalva founder and chairman Rabbi Kalman Samuels. “All of Shalva’s programs are about supporting the family, enabling the family to raise their special-needs child at home and, at the same time, giving the child what he or she needs to fulfill his potential and inclusion in society.”
While at Shalva, Rahr connected with Samuels’s 37-year-old son Yossi, who is blind and deaf after having been vaccinated at age 11 months with a defective batch of DPT vaccine. Director Avi Samuels told The Media Line that at age eight, his brother had a “Helen Keller experience,” which enabled him to speak through signing.
That was the defining moment when his mother, Malki, said, “We have to give back,” and Shalva was created. Incidentally, the conversation between Rahr and Yossi covered a gamut of issues, from smartphones to automobiles, despite Yossi’s challenges.
Rahr’s friend Michael Levine told The Media Line from New York that he would expect no less than Rahr’s keen interest in a facility like Shalva. Levine, a commercial painting contractor, tells the story of how he met Rahr by chance three years ago, while having a lunch he won as the highest bidder in an auction to dine with Donald Trump and his children. Levine was sharing the story of his son Matthew’s battle with a rare kidney disease called FSGS, when from several tables over a voice shouted out, “I want to help you save your son’s life; I want to help save these children’s lives.” About 10 minutes later, according to Levine, Rahr again shouted out, exhorting, ‘Hey Michael, you’re talking so loud. If you talk a little lower, I’ll overnight $100,000 to the Nephcure Foundation.” He did so the next morning.
Levine said, “That we met that day three years ago changed my life. Stewart has become our largest donor in the world, close to half a million dollars.” Levine sees Rahr as the “ultimate angel, the ultimate gift from God, the ultimate friend. I call him the ‘Yellow-Caped Crusader.’ He delivers dreams and miracles every day.”
Trump himself believes the media don’t understand Rahr, his friend of several years. Trump told The Media Line that Rahr has greater business acumen than the media give him credit for, and is a serious businessman. “You don’t accomplish what Stewart has by luck,” Trump said, detailing how Rahr attended a charity dinner where the real estate tycoon was being honored and “just stood up and gave a million dollars. That’s the way he is.”
Also on the Rahr docket was a visit to Leket, the largest farm dedicated to feeding Israel’s poor, a visit where Rahr would meet and hit it off with Israel’s celebrity-in-chief, President Shimon Peres. Following his meeting with the nonagenarian politician, Rahr admitted, “Normally, I’m always talking; but in his presence, I listened so I could learn. He talked about technology and how that changed the world… It gives me such hope that he’s like a rock star.
I know many rock stars, but he’s in his own class.”
Rahr seemingly has no more shortage of friends than he does of dollars.
But he turns serious when asked whether if others would mimic his penchant for giving, it would result in a better world. “I can’t speak for others,” he said, but then recited a list of Hollywood headliners he considers to be pals, pointing out that the list includes only those known for their own charitable work: “Alicia Keys, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, LL Cool J, Tobey Maguire… “I’m only attracted to those that I meet in the social environment. Those who don’t give, I don’t meet. I go out of my way not to meet them; they’re not my cup of tea,” he said emphatically.
“In the small remaining journey of life that I have left, I want to choose who I want to be with and to hang around.”
Several Hollywood producers are considering having Rahr host a reality television program based on charitable giving. “We met three or four years ago when Stewart was thinking of selling his company, which he eventually did, and wanted to concentrate on his philanthropy,” Milken told The Media Line from Los Angeles. “Stewart and I speak five or six times a week, and have many conversations on the leveraging of philanthropy: how you teach people to fish rather than give them fish. You get people to stand on their own two feet.”
Milken said Rahr, through his challenges to others via matching grants, “is not only introducing people to philanthropy but leveraging his philanthropy, like he did with the United Hatzalah ambucycles in Israel.
He has an unbelievable heart and passion for anything he does.”
Rahr, the extroverted philanthropic humanitarian, loves fun and games, but even his personal amusement is predicated upon helping others. One typical Rahrism is Rah-Rah Celeb-RAH-ty Trivia, a game he plays each month with his “immediate circle friends,” about 720 strong.
Rahr explained, “I meet people I know who are in the celebrity limelight – entertainers, politicians – and take pictures with them and send the photos to the list, along with five or six questions. The first one to answer correctly receives a $5,000 donation to his or her favorite charity.”
In the past six months, Rahr has donated about $1.5m. to more than 110 charities. Levine, for example, told The Media Line, “Personally, I have played the Stewart Rahr celebrity challenge, winning $75,000 on behalf my pet charities.”
The latest edition of the Rahr charity game was won by New York attorney Benjamin Brafman, who correctly identified photos of Rahr with Peres and Barkat. Brafman’s charity, Torah Live, a nonprofit that teaches business ethics, received $5,000.
Rahr reflected on his trip to Israel and is already preparing to return regularly, despite the 20-plus years between this trip and his last. “It’s a constant turmoil here in Israel with what is going on, but you get the feeling they have an attitude of survival. As you know, I’m all about victory for the underdog.”
When asked who in Israel will be next to benefit from the Yellow-Caped Crusader, Rahr texted, “Shalva, of course.”