How to Give: Don Sami’s Noble Example

“It’s not a big deal to give when things are going well.
The real test is to give even when things are rough.”
Sami Rohr

by Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky

With the passing of Mr. Shmuel (“Sami”) Rohr one year ago, the Jewish people lost one of its most extraordinary sons.

And I lost a partner, a mentor and, above all else, a dear friend.

History will record that Don Sami – as he was known after his years of residence in Bogotá, Colombia – was a man who expressed his love of Judaism through a dizzying range of philanthropic activities. Across the world, from the rugged mountains of Montana to the desolate wilderness of Siberia, in cities as distant as Santiago, Chile, and Dresden, Germany, there is scarcely a Jewish community that did not benefit from his vision and his generosity. Indeed, many of these communities were all but created by him!

Working as closely as I did with Don Sami, I learned some unforgettable lessons from him. To mark his first yahrtzeit, I’ve attempted to distill some of those lessons, which I offer here in the hope that they will inspire future generations of Jewish philanthropists.

Don’t just stand there; do something! When the Jews of Bogotá, Colombia, needed a Chabad representative, Don Sami brought one. When the Jews of the former USSR finally tasted freedom, Don Sami anticipated their need for community and set the process in motion. When he saw the potential rebirth of Jewish communal life in the Germany of his childhood, he forged ahead and established Chabad Houses in dozens of cities there. Feasibility committees, news releases and all the other appendages of modern philanthropy were not for him. Don Sami simply rolled up his sleeves and made it happen – leading every step of the way.

Invest wisely. Ever the entrepreneur, Don Sami had an instinctive feel for those causes that would obtain the best results. He did not believe that charity was a black hole, and always invested with a plan. If he was funding a new Chabad center, he wanted to ensure its long-term viability, with local support picking up where he left off. In initiating and sustaining Jewish growth in the former Soviet Union, he took to heart the axiom “buy low, sell high.” He had done his due diligence and knew how much there was to accomplish there.

Invest your SELF. Don Sami would pray for the success of “his” Chabad centers, and thought about them when he couldn’t sleep during the night. He had a gift for grasping the “little things” that make a community go ’round, like how a hearty cholent could do wonders for growing synagogue attendance. He called the shluchim directly, and was never shy about sharing his ideas. Frequently, I’d arrive in my office in the morning to find that Don Sami had left me a series of messages through the night, eagerly and thoughtfully outlining his views on how we could achieve even greater successes. Along with his hard-earned resources, Don Sami invested something even more important – his heart, his mind and his soul.

There is nothing sweeter than modesty. Entire communities were dependent on Don Sami, but trying to express public gratitude to him was fraught with risk. He’d push back, saying, “Loz op di narishkeiten,” “cut out the silliness.” As I repeatedly discovered, trying to get Don Sami and his family to accept some of the credit for their munificence was harder than pulling teeth. My only trump card, which allowed me a modicum of success, was also related to helping others: “How else will others ever invest similarly?” I’d ask. Or: “When they grow up, your grandchildren will need to know!”

No pain, no gain. During one particularly rough economic period, I received a call from Don Sami. “Are you upset with me?” he asked. “I haven’t heard from you in a long time.” I told him that I’d been reluctant to bother him with charitable matters when he was overwhelmed by business concerns. “That’s for me to worry about,” he reassured me. To those close to him he’d often say, “It’s not a big deal to give when things are going well. The real test is to give even when things are rough.” Throughout his life, he made sure to contribute at least ten percent of his earnings to charity. But during this past decade, when things slowed down for so many, standing by his long-term commitments meant far exceeding that amount. Don Sami did so happily, grateful for the opportunity to give of himself to serve G?d and His people.

Be grateful to give. One of Don Sami’s most admirable traits was his kindness to people – despite the ceaseless stream of requests he received. He never made me feel bad for asking him again and again and again. To the contrary, he would always express his thanks to me for bringing him more “business.” And even if he was unable to do something or other, he still always found something good to say to make you feel better.

Never be satisfied. Don Sami had an insatiable desire to do more. What we had done in the past was good, and what we were doing at any particular moment was also good, but he was always pushing for more. And he made sure that his children and grandchildren were schooled in the same spirit of commitment, so that they would carry on his efforts after he was gone.

Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky is the director of the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries and Vice-Chairman of Merkos L’lnyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

courtesy Chabad.org News