May 21, 2019

Get a Lot, Then Give It Away

Photo from PxHere

The Jewish Journal’s Oct. 19 edition seemed like a one-trick pony: On page after page, ads expressed the same beautiful sentiment: praise for Jack Nagel, a philanthropist who died Oct. 12 in Los Angeles at the age of 96.

Upon reading the first ad, I felt saddened because of his death. After reading the second ad, I felt proud of his indescribable generosity. And after reading the third ad, I began to feel ashamed that I don’t prioritize giving. The only building that would ever have my name on it would probably be called the Tabby Refael School of Passive-Aggressive Ranting … and Kabob Management. 

By the time I had read the Journal cover to cover, I wanted to be like Nagel. We all should have felt this way.

I have a certain vision of myself as a great-grandmother: There I am, seated in a rocking chair surrounded by many Jewish great-grandchildren, my loyal robot dog by my side, telling stories that impart the most important thing elders can teach youth: good values that are hard to argue against. 

As my drone butler brings me a cup of Persian tea (without spilling it on my head this time), my great-grandchildren, in all their glorious wisdom, ask me what my life can teach them. Hey, it’s my daydream, and I’m allowed to have unrealistically wise great-grandchildren. 

The stories I’ll recount, whether having endowed chairs in Israel studies in the United States; or having brought every remaining Jew out of Iran; or having lavished local Holocaust survivors with amazing accommodations; or having funded centers for education or rehab programs that now bear our family name — every story will exude the same theme: I didn’t keep; I gave.

“By the time I had read the Journal cover to cover, I wanted to be like Jack Nagel. We all should have felt this way.”

I want money. I want lots of it. I want it so I can give it away. 

Of course, I’ll put some of it aside for my kids’ (and their kids’) Jewish education, for trips to Israel to reunite with family, for tzedakah globally, and for an occasional, giant tub of saffron and rose water ice cream that I’ll devour in the comfort of my rocking chair and in the company of my robot dog.

Nagel’s great-grandchildren know about his philanthropy but what about every student at YULA in Los Angeles or Bar-Ilan University in Israel?

I’m not suggesting that everyone who has benefited from Jack and his wife Gitta’s generosity tattoo the name “Nagel” on their foreheads. In fact, Judaism reveres anonymous giving. But here’s the problem: Our eyes have become so accustomed to seeing family names on hospital or school buildings, that we seldom stop to really think about what they gave us, whether a good education at Bar-Ilan or access to life-saving care at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.

At schools, I propose that during orientation or on the first day of the academic year, students are taught about the people, lives and legacies of those whose altruism often has provided the foundation on which they stand — and I’m referring to the literal foundation of the building. 

I’m sure that many schools already try to impart these values, but I guarantee that if I show up to a campus and ask students young and old to list even one philanthropic name who made the endeavor possible, there would be a cricket or two chirping. 

It’s not the students’ fault. It’s no one’s fault. We simply need to learn how to stop and pause in front of all those lovely, bronze plaques that adorn the walls of schools, hospitals and synagogues, even if the cynic in us wonders whether some well-endowed folks simply liked to see their names on plaques. 

I need to go back to thank some kind folks, and so do you, I’ll bet.

After reading through eight ads in the Journal that thanked Jack Nagel, I understood that he didn’t care about names and plaques, but I also got a glimpse of his story: a Holocaust survivor who lost everything and then spent the rest of his life giving everything. Now that is a story that should be taught on the first day of school.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer.