The Helmsley impact

By: David M. Weinberg

Feb 12, 2014

Sandy Frankel of the Helmsley Trust is an accidental philanthropist with a well-developed approach to giving. He seeks to invest in Israel’s strength and scientific progress, without boycotting or dictating. 

Published in Israel Hayom, February 12, 2014.

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These days, it seems that we have a glut of dogmatic conglomerates that know exactly what Israeli ventures they’re going to boycott. We also seem surfeited with opinionated philanthropists who know exactly what Israel ought to be doing; their donations are increasingly becoming narrow and partisan.

Fortunately, there also are dynamic new donors emerging who seek to invest in Israel’s strength and scientific progress, without boycotting or dictating.

The most exciting philanthropic player to have blessedly burst on the scene is the New York-based Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. Since it began awarding grants to Israel five short years ago, Helmsley has granted over $110 million to charitable projects here, including $22 million this year.

Its focus: Projects that strengthen Israel’s scientific, technological and medical leadership, and its medical preparedness; as well as projects that buttress Israel’s standing in the world. This includes fortifying hospitals with bomb-proof underground facilities, providing scholarships for academic study to disadvantaged IDF soldiers, and supporting research at Israeli universities into cancer, Crohn’s disease, brain science, bio-fuels, marine sciences, and nanotechnology. The Helmsley Trust has also invested heavily in the new Jerusalem Press Club as a tool for better educating about Israel’s challenges and aspirations.

With over $5 billion in assets from the estate of Leona Helmsley, the trust clearly has the ability to make a global impact. It is mainly thanks to one man, Leona’s ex-lawyer Sandor Frankel, that the trust has come to invest significantly in Israel. Frankel is an accidental philanthropist, but he nevertheless has a well-developed, impressive approach-of-principle with regard to Israel-giving.

Frankel draws the line at dictating to Israel how it should defend itself militarily and diplomatically. “If you want to know how to protect yourself in the Bronx,” he says colorfully, “ask me. If you want to know how Israel under siege should conduct itself, I say that Israelis themselves have to decide. Israelis best know the dangers, risks, territory, turmoil and opportunities in the region. So it’s their decision to make. And after all, if Israel makes the wrong decisions, it’s Israeli blood that will be shed.”

Frankel: “Furthermore, Israelis are bright and practical. I trust them and admire them. They don’t need a lawyer-philanthropist from New York to tell them what to do.”

“What Israelis do need is assistance in coping with some absurd challenges. Take Helmsley’s investment in underground, reinforced Israeli hospital facilities. These are sad grants; grants that are not necessary anywhere else. What other country in the world has to build such things – because close to 200,000 terrorist missiles are aimed at it?! Wouldn’t it be wonderfully normal to be able to redirect these funds to important social service and scientific projects?”

As for all the recent talk of boycott and isolation, Frankel says that Israel needs to be seen “for what it is.” Israel is “a flower of democracy in a region undergoing a tsunami with mass killing and skyrocketing terrorism. The upheavals span from North Africa to Pakistan. Amidst all that, Israel is quite extraordinary and stirring.”

The 70-year-old litigator is essentially writing on a blank slate. The Helmsleys left no directives as to the use of their enormous estate, so Frankel and the other trustees (Helmsley grandsons and a business associate) are charting their own ideological course. The trust’s grant-making now focuses on five main areas: health (including rural healthcare) and medical research, human services, education, conservation, and uniquely – on the security and development of Israel. This country-specific focus comes from Mr. Frankel. Among other connections to this country, Frankel is married to an Israeli. (And in an interesting aside, it’s perhaps worth noting that so is Frankel’s mega-philanthropist colleague, Sheldon Adelson).

“You can count on one hand the number of people in the world who get such an opportunity,” Frankel says. “I have a-once-in-a-lifetime privilege to participate in granting an enormous amount of charitable funds, and it is a wonderful experience. Especially with regard to Israel: At a time when the Jewish state is being delegitimized and undermined, we are doing our best to uphold its reputation, boost its security, and strengthen its already-successful scientific prowess – to benefit both Israel and the world. That’s the Helmsley impact.”

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About David Weinberg

David M. Weinberg is a spokesman, speechwriter, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »


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