Mitchell Bard 
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© Mitchell Bard 2016

The Weinberg Motto: Give, Then Give Some More

Harry Weinberg was a self-proclaimed contrarian and the foundation that bears his name and that of his wife reflects his iconclastic views. Unlike other large foundations that publish glossy annual reports and seek publicity, the Harry & Jeannette Weinberg Foundation does neither and has remained remarkably anonymous considering it is one of the 25 largest foundations in the country, with assets of more than $1 billion. Until his death in 1990, Harry Weinberg was one of the largest contributors to any individual Jewish federation and his foundation has been one of the biggest single donors to the UJA, including a remarkable $20 million gift to Operation Exodus. In the most recent fiscal year alone, the Foundation gave $4.245 million to UJA and more than $4.5 million to individual federations.

“Harry was never active in the Jewish community in terms of holding office, but he was always charitable,” says Bernard Siegel, President of the foundation. “For someone who seldom if ever walked into a synagogue, he had a great deal of religion in his own way. He felt very connected to Jewishness.”

The Weinberg Foundation spends roughly two-thirds of its money on Jewish projects and is specifically barred from funding colleges, universities, art museums, or symphony orchestras, according to Harry’s brother Nathan, who is one of the foundation’s trustees. “Everything Mr. Weinberg considered the ‘tuxedo crowd,’” adds Siegel. “He didn’t have anything against these things. He thought they had a social cachet and there would always be wealthy people who would attach themselves to them. He also preferred projects for the aged as opposed to those for children. He must have told me a thousand times that if you have a baby that needs its diaper changed, 200 women will fight for the opportunity, but, if you have an 80-year-old incontinent, he gets shoved in a back room so no one has to see him. So he always looked for people he considered underserved.”

During an interview in the nearly two year old building the Foundation built for itself in Owings Mills, Maryland, Siegel pulls out a map of Israel dotted with markers noting foundation-supported projects, several of which are day care centers and housing projects for seniors. Approximately one out of every four seniors in Israel benefits from services provided with support from the Weinberg Foundation.

“When you walk in and see people in a senior center, and they are happy with their living conditions, you see three tables of bridge and 20 people around a circle having a hot political discussion, you don’t have to ask too many questions,” says Siegel in reference to the foundation’s hands-off approach to giving.

Siegel and Weinberg are especially excited by the work of Yad Sarah, a nonprofit volunteer program that began more than 20 years ago by providing loans of medical equipment to the elderly. Today Yad Sarah offers a range of free services to seniors, including a national computerized communication center to provide emergency aid to the elderly and disabled. “We provided funding for their alarm system. They have 65 separate locations around the country where seniors are monitored,” Siegel notes. “The alarms are distributed to seniors who need only push a button on a bracelet to alert the police. If Yad Sarah’s monitors do not hear from the person within two minutes, they immediately contact someone.”

Siegel says the foundation has supported many projects of the Joint Distribution Committee in places like Turkey, India, Greece and the nations of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. A foundation grant, for example, paid for laser equipment that allowed ophthalmologists in Rumania to treat people with cataracts. “The last we heard they’d restored sight to something like 250 people. Cataracts blind people and they had no way to deal with them. Now, they’re able to cure these people” Siegel said.

The Weinberg Foundation’s approach to identifying the projects it will support is also unconventional. “I don’t believe it’s important to find the best projects, we operate without staff and don’t have the resources to do that. Instead we find charities that do things efficiently and could do better, or serve more people with extra money. As long as they meet those criteria, we don’t feel we need to measure one charity against another. We’re dealing basically with known charities that have a track record and can access talent already in place. That’s why we contribute to UJA and JDC.” Siegel adds, “When it comes to what the Joint does, I’ve never met an organization I’d be more willing to trust.”

Unlike other large foundations that believe they should stimulate innovation, the Weinberg Foundation is again contrarian. “Harry was always afraid we’d get carried away with new ideas and neglect basic needs,” recalls Siegel. “Thank God there are people who fund innovations. There’s room for everybody. Someone will find cures to all the diseases and while they’re looking, people are hungry and need roofs over their heads.”

As an example of helping the needy, Siegel cites the situation in the former Soviet Union where the population is mostly poor and elderly. “The young people have mostly left. Because of inflation, pensions that were once sufficient to buy food and medicine are now probably a dollar and change a month, so they do without. We’re supporting a feeding program in Kiev and Odessa. We’re not proud of the packages we’re sending them. I try not to look at them. There’s a little bag of rice that wouldn’t sell in a supermarket because it’s an ugly package. There’s some flour. The recipients think they’re the most wonderful things they’ve seen in their lives.”

The foundation goes out of its way to avoid entanglements in political or controversial issues, according to Siegel, and finds the idea of using contributions to send messages to the Israeli government or apply pressure abhorrent. “We’re old-fashioned and believe in supporting whatever administration is in power in Israel. If it changes tomorrow, we still will support the administration. We support the country, not the government.”

Siegel criticized federations that send less money to Israel for being short-sighted. “They’re playing with fire and will discover that it is detrimental in the long-term. There is not a finite pot. Giving is a habit. They were so afraid when Exodus came up that the local gifts would be cut, but it turned out just the opposite, they increased more than ever. It’s the projects like that and the projects in Israel that have stimulated the giving. Once they lose that, unless they find something very, very wonderful to replace it with, they’ll find out it’s counterproductive.”

And how committed is the foundation to UJA?

“We’ll give to UJA as long as we think the organizations they support are doing an effective job,” Siegel replies. “It’s as simple as that. I would hate because of something I didn’t like personally to see the mechanism that has been very successful in raising funds over the years disappear.”

And Nathan Weinberg’s message to his fellow Jews?

“There are tremendous needs out there. Don’t argue about what to give, just give and give more.”