A Big Giver

Anyone who cares about the future of Jewish life in Los Angeles eventually explodes in frustration over the community’s inability to tap its own enormous wealth.

On one hand, we see Jewish gazillionaires pour the vast majority of their donations into non-Jewish institutions. Just 6 percent of Jewish megadonors give to Jewish causes, according to the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco.

On the other hand, we see the huge communal need — indigent Holocaust survivors, developmentally challenged children, families struggling with day school and camp bills, underpaid Jewish educators, programs and facilities that fail to attract and inspire the next generation. Don’t get me started.

In Los Angeles, where by my count 26 individuals on the Los Angeles Business Journal’s 2006 list of the “50 Richest Angelenos” are Jewish — 26! — it’s enough to make you scream, or cry.

That’s why this week’s news of a merger between the University of Judaism and Brandeis-Bardin Institute should resonate even beyond the substantial number of stakeholders in both those institutions. The people and process behind it demonstrate that, given the right leadership, our institutions are capable of the kind of bold moves, backed by what the Wall Street types call solid fundamentals, that are irresistible to the mega donors.

Megadonors like Peter Lowy.

Lowy, 48, is group managing director of Westfield Holding, the largest publicly-held real estate company in the world. You know his well-serifed “W” beckoning you from afar to the Westfield shopping centers in Century City, Woodland Hills, Sherman Oaks — among some 120 others worldwide.

He also has served as chairman of the board of the University of Judaism during its merger negotiations with the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, forming a new institution of great resources, talent, property and promise — the American Jewish University.

Three years ago I met Lowy in his office overlooking Brentwood and the Santa Monica mountains. He had just been named chairman of the board of the University of Judaism. My biggest question was why a young, dynamic guy would want to take the chairmanship of an institution whose finances were known to be troubled and whose profile was less than world class.

Simple, Lowy explained to me. He believed in the mission of the University of Judaism to reach out to all Jews, regardless of affiliation or denomination.

“The UJ needs to be viewed as a community institution,” he told me. “We need to be able to give these benefits to the Orthodox community, the Reform community, the Conservative community and the Reconstructionist community. We need to change the mindset of the community. It’s a very difficult job to do.”

Step one for Lowy was getting the UJ on firm financial footing. The problem, he said, was that too many Jewish institutions don’t perform at the standards of well-run for-profit companies. He refinanced the university’s debt, halving the interest rate. He taught people to stay within a budget. Within a short time, more money was coming in than going out.

Fast-forward three years, and I’m back in Lowy’s office, hearing him explain how the Brandeis merger came about. The UJ’s solid grounding gave it the confidence and competence to pursue an idea Lowy knew in his gut was important. “Looking ahead 10, 15 years,” he said, “I wondered where the UJ was going to physically grow.”

He also knew the deal was fraught with financial, bureaucratic and emotional obstacles. And he relished it.

Lowy learned to step up to the plate from his father Frank, a Hungarian Jew who survived the Holocaust and arrived in Palestine in 1945. Frank Lowy fought as a Golani commando in the War of Independence, then moved to Australia, where he built shopping centers. Lowy, a Sydney native, worked in investment banking in London and New York before coming to Los Angeles 17 years ago. Over that time he has overseen Westfield’s regional growth from 6 centers in California to 59.

He brought this same business style to his oversight of the UJ-BBI union: “This was basically M&A,” a UJ board member said of Lowy’s expertise in mergers and acquisitions, “and that’s what Peter does.”

What Lowy doesn’t do is dither. “There’s this Jewish tendency to process, until you can actually see an idea just die on the floor, just discuss it to death,” UJ President Rabbi Robert Wexler told me. That’s not Lowy’s style. “These deals have a lifespan,” Lowy said. “They’re there and then they’re gone. What will you know in six months that you don’t know now?

“To achieve the impossible, you need to start the process and try.”

Lowy met his counterpart in Linda Gross, the chair of Brandeis-Bardin: a sharp, youthful businesswoman not wedded to the status quo. Behind every merger, goes the Wall Street wisdom, there’s really an acquisition. But Lowy said that wasn’t the case with Gross across from him. “It wasn’t a desperation move on Brandeis’ part,” he said. “She was quite good on the other side of the table.”

And in little more than six months, the deal was done. A lot of Jewish institutions can’t change a light bulb that fast.

Last Thursday night, at a banquet at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, the UJ celebrated its 60th anniversary by honoring Lowy. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was there, and President Bill Clinton and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sent their best by video.

But what could have been yet another exercise in warm salmon and cold speeches turned out to be refreshingly moving and honest. Janine Lowy introduced her husband as a man devoted to his four children, to the Jewish community, to civic involvement and, somehow, amid it all, to “finding the time to run a small business.”

Janine Lowy, an experienced lawyer herself, also noted her husband’s other considerable quality: his charm. Indeed, nearing 50, Lowy has most of the hair he left his 20s with. He has blue eyes, an athletic build and a disarming amount of laid-back Aussie ease for a man on that L.A. Business Journal list.When it was Lowy’s turn to speak, after a moving tribute to his wife, he showed the charm — and brashness.