Torah, Technology and Tolerance

David Wilstein is among the breed of men who built and shaped the postwar Jewish community in Los Angeles. He migrated from the East Coast as a young man, made a great deal of money, and then poured much of his energy and business savvy into the welfare of the community as well as into the strengthening of Israel.

Last Sunday, 400 friends and colleagues gathered in Beverly Hills to laud the vision and philanthropy of David and Susan Wilstein. In turn, Wilstein conferred an award on the evening’s other honoree, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who responded with one of the more philo-Semitic speeches in recent memory.

Beneficiary of the black-tie event was the Jerusalem College of Technology, one of Israel’s lesser-known but most pragmatic academic institutions.

Founded 30 years ago, JCT currently turns some 800 students into high-tech computer engineers, applied scientists, and managers. The college’s graduates have helped transform Israel into a Middle East Silicon Valley; they serve in the armed forces; and they are integrating young Russian and Ethiopian immigrants into mainstream society.

As an integral part of their curriculum, students receive a strong religious education. After all, JCT’s motto is “Torah, Technology, Tolerance.”

This approach appealed immediately to Wilstein, who first visited the campus nine years ago and who went on to become regional chair of JCT’s American support organization.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in civil and structural engineering from his hometown school, the University of Pittsburgh, Wilstein headed for Los Angeles. In short order, he met his future wife and landed a job with the state Division of Highways.

“I was involved in building the Pasadena and Hollywood freeways and the four-level downtown interchange,” he said during an interview in his spacious Century City penthouse office.

The work was challenging, but so was his small paycheck. So he decided to get a contractor’s license and go into business for himself. Wilstein, who says, “I like to think ahead,” built the first condominiums in Beverly Hills and “almost had to give them away — people didn’t understand the concept.”

Over the years, he also built the first private medical center and hospital in the West as well as the first high-rise building in the Los Feliz area, battling neighboring homeowners all the way up to the Supreme Court.

In 1968, he founded the Realtech Group, a consortium of companies and partnerships that provides a full spectrum of real estate services, and focuses on the development of commercial office buildings. Some recent projects include the Maple Plaza in Beverly Hills and the World Savings Center in Brentwood.

With his business secure, Wilstein became more involved in community service, particularly with Israel Bonds, the University of Judaism, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and the Jewish Federation’s United Jewish Fund — as campaign chair.

He remains active in the UJF’s major gifts division. “Each year, I take 50 to 75 cards [of large donors] and close [the gift commitments] myself,” he said.

He also established the Wilstein Institute for Jewish Policy Studies as a bicoastal think tank, whose main activities are now centered in Boston.

In the early 1980s, he began investing in Israeli high-tech and biotech companies — then considered speculative ventures — as well as real estate in Tel Aviv. He also founded “The Nation,” a short-lived English-language daily in Israel.

In recent years, Wilstein, who defines his religious orientation as “Conservadox” and belongs to the traditional Congregation Mogen David, has become “fascinated” by Torah studies and the spiritual aspects of Judaism.

“I go to Israel two to three times a year to study at Aish HaTorah,” he said. “They teach me about Torah, and I teach them a little about business.”

When in Los Angeles, he continues his studies with local Aish HaTorah rabbis and at the University of Judaism.

Prominent in his office is a treadmill, on which the 71-year-old Wilstein exercises daily while working the phone or reading at the same time.

Wilstein and his wife are currently spearheading a $5 million campaign to erect a new school of engineering on the JCT campus, which will bear their names.

Another contribution has been the establishment of the JCT Wilstein Award for Achievements in Technology, which was conferred, for the first time, on Murdoch at last Sunday’s dinner.

Murdoch is the controversial chairman of The News Corp., which controls a vast international media and communications empire, as well as the Los Angeles Dodgers.