Bnai Zion renews efforts in SoCal

Like old soldiers, Jewish organizations never die. For proof, look to Bnai Zion.

Established in 1908 in New York as the Order of the Sons of Zion B’nai Zion,  the organization has, over the years, changed its name and mission, and even lost its apostrophe. Now known as Bnai Zion, the organization is enjoying an infusion of energy and funding, including stretching its muscles in the Los Angeles area after a lengthy hibernation.

The organization’s founding purpose was to provide health and life insurance at affordable group rates to the masses of Jewish immigrants, mainly from Eastern Europe, who were streaming into the land.

After World War II, Bnai Zion extended these services to a new stream of Holocaust survivors, and then later to immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

But when the waves of Jewish immigration began dwindling in the early 1950s, the organization reinvented itself as the Bnai Zion Foundation and shifted focus to supporting five specific Israeli medical, educational, youth and artistic institutions: Bnai Zion Medical Center in Haifa; Ahava Village for Children & Youth in Kiryat Bialik, which works with at-risk kids; the Quittman Center in Jerusalem, a home for the mentally disabled; the David Yellin Academic College of Education in Jerusalem, which attracts secular and religious Jews as well as Muslim and Christian Arabs and new immigrants; and a library and music conservatory in Ma’aleh Adumim.

A Western regional office was established in 1975, and for a while flourished under the direction of such men as Fred Kahan and Rabbi Jack Simcha Cohen, but in recent years has been largely inactive.

Aptly, the renewal, both nationally and locally, of this organization founded to aid immigrants is being sparked by a man who, as a child, left his native Hungary after the 1956 revolution and grew up to become a wealthy entrepreneur.

That man’s name is George W. Schaeffer, which may not ring a bell to everyone but is legendary in what is known as “the professional beauty industry,” particularly the nail polish division.

Arriving in the United States, Schaeffer’s parents settled in Brooklyn (as George’s accent still attests), and after college he joined the family garment manufacturing business. Moving to Los Angeles in 1981, Schaeffer took over a dental supply business and soon made one of those seemingly small but life-changing discoveries.

He noticed that the acrylic “porcelains” used to make dentures were similar to, but actually better than, the material used for crafting acrylic nails.

Today, Schaeffer’s company, OPI Products Inc., makes and distributes 200 shades of nail polish and is branching out into body lotions, hairsprays and shampoos, with one of the latter bearing the Orthodox Union (OU) approval seal.

Annual sales come to about $300 million, Schaeffer said, and in 2010 he sold the company to Coty. Terms of the sale are confidential, but Bloomberg News reported at the time that Coty had paid about $1 billion in cash.

Schaeffer, as OPI’s president and CEO, remained on the job, as did his 500 employees. Schaeffer proudly observed that the very first employee he hired, in 1981, is still working at the company.

Perhaps because of his own background, Schaeffer was drawn early to Bnai Zion. He organized its first youth chapter while still living in New York and has just concluded six years as national president.

Last year, a first step in reviving the Los Angeles chapter was to hire Igal Zaidenstein as Western regional director. Born in Israel to parents who had made aliyah from Paraguay, Zaidenstein studied political science at Tel Aviv University, graduated from law school and said, “I have a life-long passion to strengthen Israel-Diaspora relationships.”

Zaidenstein, who previously served locally as political adviser for the American Friends of the Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel, has organized multiple introductory meetings for Bnai Zion in Los Angeles and is planning to reactivate groups of supporters in Orange County and San Diego, as well as strengthen ties with local synagogues.

In a recent meeting at his large headquarters building in North Hollywood, Schaeffer, wearing an open-neck shirt and suspenders, pointed to wall-size map in a conference room highlighting the 110 nations in which his products are available. The countries include Dubai, Kazakhstan, Russia (one of his largest customers) and China (where his products are widely counterfeited).

“I’m a three-day synagogue Jew,” Schaeffer said, “but I keep kosher at home, and every doorpost in the company’s 25 buildings has a mezuzah on it.”

He also paid for the recent renovation of the Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, said to be the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles.

Schaeffer has been a major benefactor of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and he will be honored by the City of Hope on July 21 in Las Vegas.

It bothers Schaeffer that many Jewish charities and institutions spend up to 30 percent of donations on administrative expenses. At Bnai Zion, he played a key role in establishing a $30 million endowment, which will cover almost all of the organization’s operational expenses and allow all contributions to go to the projects in Israel.

Right after World War II, Bnai Zion had some 150 chapters in the United States, according to Jack Grunspan, Bnai Zion’s national executive vice president. Currently,  it has offices in New York, Philadelphia, South Florida, Dallas and Los Angeles.

Grunspan puts the number of contributing members at about 30,000 nationally, and 2,500 in the Los Angeles area. Total contributions come to between $1.5 million and $2 million annually, a figure Schaeffer would like to raise to $3 million to $5 million a year.

According to the Bnai Zion brochure, the organization played a major role in establishing the American Red Magen David Adom for Israel, and in aiding the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv and the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.

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