This past COVID year has allowed me to reflect on those who have had a profound influence on my life. My first serious, full-time job was working for philanthropist, businessman, art collector and passionate Jewish community activist, Ambassador Ronald S. Lauder. I first met Mr. Lauder when I was a college student in 1992 volunteering at a summer camp retreat organized by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. It was a summertime retreat for Polish Jewish survivors and their families. I continued to volunteer during college, my year as a Fulbright student living in Krakow, and during graduate school at Oxford. In 1998, Mr. Lauder hired my wife Rachel and me as directors of the RSL Foundation in Poland, where we served until Fall 2001. Here are a few of the many things I learned from Mr. Lauder working with him.
1. Make a Teacher for yourself
The first time I was in Mr. Lauder’s office was not for a scheduled meeting with Mr. Lauder, rather I was sent to meet his rabbi. Mr. Lauder, a titan of business and the art world, chairman of JNF and the head of the Conference of Presidents, created an office in his suite for an advisor, an elderly Polish-born chassidic rabbi named Chaskel Besser. Rabbi Besser, a retired businessman and Chairman of Agudath Israel’s Daf Yomi Commission, was one of the most respected elders of Jewish life in America. Rabbi Besser was a close confidant of Rabbi Mendel Menachem Scheerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Sherer, Co-Chairman of the Agudath Israel World Organization, and many other Jewish community and political leaders.
Rabbi Besser approached Mr. Lauder in the 1980s to help support Jewish outreach and education efforts in Poland, as Mr. Lauder had recently started a foundation and was opening Jewish schools in Austria and Hungary. The entire story is written about in detail in The Rabbi of 84th Street, a valuable and inspiring book by Warren Kozak. Mr. Lauder not only backed Rabbi Besser’s projects in Poland, creating a new division for Poland, he asked Rabbi Besser to be his rabbi, rabbi of his foundation, and to have an office in his suite on the 47th floor of the General Motors building. Mr. Lauder even hosted Rabbi Besser’s daily Mincha minyan in his boardroom. Mr. Lauder consulted with Rabbi Besser about life, business, and his foundation until Rabbi Besser’s passing in 2010.
Pirkei Avos teaches, “Make for yourself a Rav”, and Mr. Lauder — a secular Jew who grew up going to reform temples on the High Holidays — made Rabbi Besser his rabbi.
After that meeting with Rabbi Besser, I did too.
2. We are All Ambassadors
I thought I was getting sufficiently dressed up for my meeting with Mr. Lauder. I wore a tie, slacks and a sports coat. That was sufficient for the graduate student world I was leaving, however, I never considered all the implications of being a representative for one of the most important Jewish leaders in the world. Mr. Lauder said to me, “when you work for me, you represent me,” and proceeded to tell me about the dress-code he expected from his new country director.
Mr. Lauder is always immaculately dressed. With dark pin-stripe suits, crisp white shirts, understated but stylish ties, pocket handkerchief, cufflinks and polished shoes, Mr. Lauder is a very well dressed man. I realized that now that I was going to be Mr. Lauder’s country director for Poland, I was to represent him by my work and in every other way.
So Rachel and I quickly ran out and bought me a few nice suits and shirts. The advice proved incredibly helpful. Whether meeting with community leaders or government ministers, they took me seriously and understood that I was Mr. Lauder’s ambassador in Poland. When you work for someone, you represent them. And when you work in a position of Jewish leadership, you also represent the Jewish people.
3. Follow Your Instincts
I remember walking into Mr. Lauder’s office the first time. Along the hall were some of his favorite pre-war Austrian and German paintings. These weren’t the paintings that I had seen growing up as the son of an artist, nor were they paintings I expected to see in the offices of one of the world’s most influential Jews. Mr. Lauder’s offices didn’t even have enough walls for all the artwork, which leaned several deep in rooms set aside for his art team. But Mr. Lauder knew that early twentieth-century Austrian and German art, despised by the Nazi’s, was precious. So he collected it.
According to the Wall Street Journal, “He started with works by the French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, then became captivated by the Austrian Egon Schiele. At first, he couldn’t find any Schiele works to buy. He persisted and soon bought his first, a watercolor, for $700. (He also bought a Klimt for the same price.)”
Decades later, he opened the Neue Galerie New York, presenting a remarkable collection to the world. The centerpiece of the exhibit is Klimt’s iconic Woman in Gold, which Mr. Lauder purchased in 2006. The incredible story is chronicled in the award winning film, The Woman in Gold. There are many other ways that Mr. Lauder’s success in business and influence in the Jewish world are a direct result of following his instincts and not advice from others.
4. Find a Place You Can Make a Difference
There are many ways to improve our world and help the Jewish community. When Mr. Lauder started the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation after serving as Ambassador to Vienna, he began building Jewish Day schools in countries without Jewish schools. Most American Jews thought his money should be invested elsewhere, not in a “graveyard” of Jewish civilization. People were outright hostile. However, Mr. Lauder knew that no one else was going to invest millions of dollars to help the Jewish children of Central and Eastern Europe get a Jewish education or attend a Jewish summer camp. He saw the scale of the need. Former Soviet Jews in Vienna, Hungarian Jews, Czech Jews, Polish Jews, Bulgarian Jews, and other communities didn’t have the means to start Jewish schools or adult education efforts. So Mr. Lauder began investing heavily in creating a network of Jewish schools and youth centers. He established Camp Sarvas with the JDC creating a regional summer camp for Jewish youth. His efforts resulted in a generation of Central and Eastern European Jewish youth staying Jewish, and not becoming another statistic of assimilation and the world forgetting about them and giving Hitler another chance for a posthumous victory.
5. Invest Wisely in People
When we stepped into the offices of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in Warsaw we had never run a Jewish non-profit, but we each had a decade of experience in Jewish informal education, outreach and community building. More than that, we were deeply passionate about the cause and given the right oversight, discipline and budget, Mr. Lauder felt we could make a big impact. We were not alone. There were other Jewish young professionals and young adults tasked with this giant task in Poland, Germany, Slovakia etc. Almost everyone that Mr. Lauder invested in went on to be community leaders whose impact on their respective communities has been significant. We saw that when the millions he used to support the efforts of the Foundation were invested in community driven programs and leaders, it changed the course of history, and it will surely yield results for generations. His commitment to supporting growth was personal as well as communal. After working for Mr. Lauder in several capacities for almost a decade, I told Mr. Lauder that I could help the Jewish people more by completing my rabbinic studies. Mr. Lauder, always investing in people, sponsored me so I could complete my studies.
6. Create Your own Legacy
There is a famous chassidic teaching told about yichus, pedigree, “The best pedigree is the one that you create for yourself.” Your parents may have been successful — not many were more successful than Estee Lauder — but that doesn’t mean that you cannot make your own mark on the world. You cannot depend on the legacy of your parents to count for you. You have to also earn the respect and admiration of others through your own hard work. Wealth can be inherited. But a good name you have to make for yourself. Mr. Lauder could have simply relied on the Lauder name and wealth that he inherited. It would have been much easier — and cheaper. Someone else could build those schools, restore the prestige and importance of legacy Jewish organizations, fight for the reparation of Jewish property stolen by the Nazis, preserved the physical evidence of the Holocaust at Auschwitz-Birkenau — and many other causes. However, Mr. Lauder lives by the maxim of Hillel the Elder who taught, “… If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? (Pirkei Avot 1:14).”
Mr. Lauder established the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in 1988 to ensure his legacy. The Foundation distributes millions of dollars annually to support educational projects in at least fifteen countries in Europe and Israel. The Foundation supports many Jewish communities’ hope, education, and future leadership.
By his monumental effort, devotion and generosity, Mr. Lauder created his own legacy, as one of the great, visionary Jewish leaders of all-time.