Philanthropists Consider the Value of Jewish Giving at the Jewish National Retreat

By Yehudah Wengrofsky

Three major Jewish philanthropists joined a panel on values and giving at the 2019 National Jewish Retreat in Washington, D.C. The event featured David Magerman, founder and director of the Kohelet Foundation; George Rohr, president of NCH Capital and Rohr Family Foundation, and a Trustee of the Avi Chai Foundation; and Michael Scharf, president of the Palm Beach Synagogue and a supporter of Jewish education. It was chaired by Holly Cohen, executive director of the Kohelet Foundation.

There were five key takeaways: how each came to philanthropy, whether we can become too involved with the organizations we support, how to think about lending one’s name to a project, how to transmit the Jewish value of giving across generations, and how people of ordinary means can significantly give.

Introduction to Philanthropy

Holly Cohen opened the discussion by asking panelists to discuss how they came to be Jewish philanthropists. George Rohr reflected on growing up in Bogota, Columbia, whose closely-knit Jewish community gave him a sense of the preciousness of each individual Jewish life. His father also provided guidance and a role model: “[he] instilled in my sisters and me a sense of obligation for tzedakah. From the time that we were little and would get allowances, it was monitored with strict discipline that ten percent would be for tzedakah … And then, watching [my father] … informed me.”

In contrast, David Magerman “grew up unobservant … and stumbled into philanthropy not driven by any principles…” His first major donation came about by happenstance: “I accidentally bought a building. …. A friend of mine, who I was meeting in a business context … was lamenting that, as president of a Jewish school, there was a building he … could not afford to buy … I decided I was going to buy the building and donate it… [Then I came to realize] that I needed to do this more responsibly and thoughtfully.”

The Importance of Letting Go

When he initially got involved, he also came on too strong and had to adjust, a lesson he offers to others: “I got turned on to the idea of entrepreneurial philanthropy, which meant getting very involved in the business of the organization you are giving to.… I was going to sit on the board and use my brilliance and wisdom to tell them how to do their jobs and guide them to success. There was a lot of arrogance and hubris and failure in all of that … I’ve learned to let go of the money I give.”

What’s in a Name?

George Rohr was the first to answer: “Part of the donation is lending my name to it. I have seen … that it motivates other people to give when they otherwise would not have.” David Magerman chimed in, “I always view it as a strategic decision, whether my name and presence will add value to the cause….” Michael Scharf took a different position: “When I was younger … I would typically accept … but I almost never accept honors anymore … Giving should just be giving.”

Teaching Giving to the Next Generation

When asked by Holly Cohen about what to teach young people about charitable giving, David Magerman argued that the key is what we teach children about wealth: “We need to differentiate for our children between the money [they need] to live on … the resources that give us the luxuries in life … and what is the excess beyond that. … If, G-d willing, they have the responsibility of overseeing the third kind of money, they [should] recognize it as an obligation to share.” George Rohr followed along this line, understanding that we need to “inculcate in children the fundamental idea that the wealth is not ours. It is given to us by the Almighty for his own reasons to see what we can do with it.”

Advice for People of Modest Means

The panel closed with advice for those of us with modest finances. David Magerman began, “Whatever blessings you have is your wealth – the ability to save lives or teach people or the ability to spread Torah. Don’t consider the number of zeroes on the checks you write. Consider, out of the wealth that you have been given, how much you can contribute to the Jewish people.” Likewise, Michael Scharf suggested we “give what is meaningful and be honest in that assessment.” George Rohr reiterated his fiduciary understanding of wealth: “at all levels, what you have is not yours. You must be a thoughtful custodian of how you will use it, how you will fulfill your obligation … not just financial … but the ability to give of your heart and talents.”

The National Jewish Retreat is a program of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. To view the full discussion visit:

Yehudah Wengrofsky is a freelance writer based in the historic Lower East Side of New York City, where his family has lived for over a century. Wengrofsky blogs for The Times of Israel, serves as Editor-at-Large at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, and contributes to many publications. His edited volume of the writings of the late Professor Irving Block on the mysticism of Aristotle is under review by the University of Toronto Press.