The POSTman Knocks Twice: Sam Rothberg: I only did what I had to do

Rothberg never forgot his origins, and helped thousands of young people directly and through programs he established.

Sam Rothberg (photo credit: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
Sam Rothberg
(photo credit: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
Sam Rothberg probably used more air and road time, and devoted more days and nights to creating and building Israel and to more initiatives that changed the face of the state than any other Diaspora Jew.
1947 and 1948. The state-to-be urgently needs money. Golda Meyerson (Meir) the American-raised leader of the Israel Labor Movement, was dispatched to the US to raise funds urgently. At her side as they barnstormed through city after city, community after community, was Sam Rothberg, tall, urbane, totally dedicated. And again in 1948.
Dinners, private meetings, parlor meetings.
Always the same formula. “Will the waiters please leave the room.” The speeches, the pitch. “Lock the door. I have the key. Nobody leaves till everybody gives.”
Sam knew them all by name, knew how to have a warm word for each. Each rose and announced his pledge. Those funds in 1948 may have saved the fledgling state and the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons waiting to come from the camps to Israel.
Sam had visited the displaced persons in these camps after World War II. He was then in his mid-30s, a chemist by training, a distiller by profession. From that moment, his life changed. He enlisted – full-time – in the cause of reviving Jewish peoplehood and statehood.
1952. When the State needed a financial arm, Rothberg and Henry Montor initiated the State of Israel Bonds Campaign. A year later at the Second King David Hotel Conference with UJA and Bond organization leaders, the handsome, charismatic Rothberg was arguing with the UJA leadership over problems of timing and coordination. He wanted Israel given top priority.
He became a close friend and confidant of the founding fathers. Legends from Israel’s history were first names to him. Every prime minister from David Ben-Gurion on, every minister of state was available to Rothberg, as he was – day and night – in the service of strengthening the Jewish state. Teddy Kollek always met with Rothberg on each of the dozens and dozens of trips Rothberg made to Israel.
1968. The years just before and following the 1967 war found Israel in an economic depression as it made its transition to a more open, competitive society under the leadership of prime minister Levi Eshkol. Rothberg and the head of the Prime Minister’s Office, Yaacov 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 an era of science- based industries. It is often considered to be the takeoff point for Israel’s hi-tech and advanced industries’ growth.
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 the 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 saw Rothberg as a comrade, a man with whom he could share his problems and dreams. His closeness with Golda Meir was legendary.
Rothberg saw to it that Eshkol and Sapir had institutes bearing their names in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, respectively.
After the Six Day War, Rothberg also became chairman of the American Friends of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and then of its World Board of Governors. Rothberg, together with the president of the university, Abraham Harman, spearheaded fund-raising that was crucial in building the Mount Scopus Campus.
When the crisis on the campuses in the US sparked student takeovers and revolts, Rothberg decided that the time had come to build on the existing One-Year Overseas Program, which he had initiated in 1955, and create anall-inclusive School for Overseas Students at Hebrew University, which now bears his name: The Rothberg International School.
There is not a millimeter at Hebrew University that has not been enhanced or improved by Sam Rothberg. Among others, the Scopus Amphitheater and the grounds of the Givat Ram campus bear the Rothberg name. He established a Glaucoma Center in Tel Hashomer Hospital, and he did not neglect his hometown of Peoria, Illinois. Its Jewish community and Bradley University felt his imprint and generosity.
Rothberg won friends in Israel and throughout the world through his unswerving loyalty to them. 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. Their daughter Heidi, is carrying on the leadership role for Hebrew University and many other projects.
Rothberg never forgot his origins, and helped thousands of young people directly and through programs he established. Eliyahu Honig, a former vice president of the Hebrew University, pointed out to me “his great and most sincere concern for the underprivileged young person. Giving young people a second chance.” He made pre-academic studies for soldiers lacking high-school matriculation a major priority. With his own generous contribution in memory of Yitzhak Rabin, he established a scholarship fund for disadvantaged students who have served in the army. One young student told me that her single-parent mother was a house cleaner, and without the scholarship she would never have been able to do a degree.
Honig writes: “He was such a great innovator.
The Truman Center for Peace, and the Hubert Humphrey Center for Cancer Research... He had so many great ideas, but his greatness was in being able to implement them…” In his later years, enfeebled as he was becoming, he never disguised his impatience with the new type of Diaspora leader, who was not prepared to harness his business and personal time for Israel, but relied on professional staff to do the work.
At one major function in Jerusalem, an orator traced – year by year – Sam Rothberg’s indelible mark on American Jewry and on Israel. It was an excellent speech. I know. I made it. As the speaker waxed eloquent having reached the year 1957. Sam, rose to his feet, and shouted: “Bull***t! I only did what I had to do!” Sam Rothberg, the founder, only did what he had to do.
That was what made him larger than life.
It is his epitaph.
Samuel Rothberg was born on the third day of Hanukka,1910, and died in July 2007. Avraham Avi-hai worked closely with Rothberg on some of his major initiatives. The writer interrupts a series on the human face of prime ministers to outline another type of leadership on behalf of the people of Israel. Avi-hai’s novel, A Tale of Two Avrahams, continues to attract excellent reviews.