Appreciation: Remembering Sam Rothberg

Philanthropist Sam Rothberg, a founder of Israel Bonds, died on Saturday at 97 in Peoria, Illinois.

candle88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Sam Rothberg was a giant of a man, whose life formed a lasting chapter in Israel's history. He led the major efforts of UJA in the years before and after the creation of Israel in 1948. These campaigns were amazingly successful in sustaining the remnants of the Nazi camps, and helping bring them to Israel. Sam visited the "displaced persons" in these camps after World War II. From that moment, his life changed. He enlisted - full-time - in the cause of reviving Jewish peoplehood and statehood. Golda Meir was his campaign partner in a coast-to-coast drive to galvanize American Jews. When Israel's founders, David Ben-Gurion and his associates, realized the State needed another financial arm, Sam initiated and conducted the State of Israel Bonds Campaign. He was responsible for a movement which helped carry Israel through the lean days of warfare, the harsh years of mass immigration, rationing and hand-to-mouth financing of Israel's basic development. His mark can be found in every village and town, in the basic supply of water through the National Water Carrier project, in spurring the development of industry. While doing all this, Sam never lost sight of the people. Though a man of the people, he became a close friend and confidant of the founding fathers. Legends from Israel's history were first names to him. Every prime minister, every minister of state was available to Sam, as he was - day and night - in the service of strengthening the Jewish state. Teddy Kollek, until his last frail days, always met with Sam on each of the hundreds of trips Sam made to Israel. His love for Hebrew University, and his devotion to the memory of Israel's leaders, led him in 1956 to lay the cornerstone on the fledgling Givat Ram campus, for the economics building there named for Israel's first finance minister, Eliezer Kaplan. Levi Eshkol, the supreme builder of Israel's infrastructure, together with his associate Pinhas Sapir, were among Sam's closest friends. Eshkol, the second finance minister and third prime minister, saw Sam as a comrade, a man with whom he could share his problems and dreams. THEY ALL, I am sure, saw him as one of the founders of Israel. On Independence Day, I would often refer to Sam in my messages as "A Founder of Israel." The founding generation was all but gone. Someone who had worked with them had to say it in their place. The years just before and following the 1967 War found Israel in a serious economic depression. Sam, together with Abraham Harman, then Israel ambassador to the US, and prime minister Eshkol, and the head of the his bureau, Dr. Ya'acov Herzog, launched a worldwide effort to organize the Jerusalem Economic Conference. This brought together Jewish and non-Jewish businessmen from all over the world to move Israel into a new era of science-based industries. This is considered to be the take-off point for Israel's hi-tech and advanced industries' growth. Sam and Harman charged me (then on study leave in the US) with organizing the North American participation in the conference. Sam then became chairman, literally, of the American Friends of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and then of its World Board of Governors. Sam, together with the newly elected president of the university, Abraham Harman, led the university to new heights after the Six Day War, spearheading fund-raising that was crucial in building the Mt. Scopus Campus. When the crisis on the universities in the US sparked student takeovers and revolts, Sam and Harman decided that the time had come to build on the existing One-Year Overseas Programs (which Sam had initiated in 1955) a new all-inclusive School for Overseas Students. Again, he and Harman enlisted me as the executive charged with seeing that this came about. In later years, as his health deteriorated, he named me deputy chairman of the Board of Overseers of the School, together with his and Jean Rothberg's daughter, Heidi, who continues in his place in the university leadership. THERE IS not an inch of Israel that has not been touched by Sam Rothberg. There is not a millimeter in Hebrew University that has not been enhanced or improved by Sam Rothberg. He did not seek to put his name on the school. Typically, he claimed this would make potential donors feel their support might not be needed. The university forced the name on Sam. Among other places, the great Scopus Amphitheater and the grounds of the Givat Ram campus bear the Rothberg name. Sam won friends in Israel and throughout the world through his unswerving loyalty and love. His life partner and wife, Jean, his children, all supported him in his leadership role, often at the expense of shared time and family moments. For years, he teamed with Lou Boyar in his efforts for Israel, and expressed his love for him and Mae, Lou's wife, by having the Rothberg International School building named for Lou. The dwindling number of his friends, inexorably losing their battle with time, will never - can never - forget him. Israel has lost a founding father. American and world Jewry have lost an inimitable and indomitable leader. We are all diminished and bereft. We can truly say, "From Samuel the Prophet until Samuel Rothberg, there was none like Sam…." His memory will be a blessing to the legion of students of the Rothberg School, and of the entire University, from the early 1950s as long as the university endures.