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30 Years flying under the radar: An interview with Ron Solomon

Once or twice a week, every week, I have the honor of having lunch with a close friend, Ron Solomon.
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January 8, 2015

Once or twice a week, every week, I have the honor of having lunch with a close friend, Ron Solomon.  I met Ron more than a decade ago as we were both working as organizational leaders in the Jewish community.  I, like most professionals, had moved a few times between organizations, but Ron… Ron, he’s a relic from a different time. 

Ron is currently the Western Region Executive Director of American Friends of Bar-Ilan University.  He started in that position in 1984.  For those with difficulty in math, that’s 30 years!

Few people can stay in one job for 30 years; even fewer in development, and fewer still in the Jewish community.  However, Ron has not only persevered, he is indelibly linked to, and an important part of the growth and success of Bar-Ilan University. 

As is always the case, wealthy donors who build structures and programs are celebrated and heralded, and their names live forever.  The truth is though, behind most major gifts, especially with those that change an institution, there is a development professional; one who works passionately and tirelessly for the cause.  In this case, Ron Solomon, as much as anyone anywhere, has helped build Bar-Ilan into what it is today, a leading world-class university. 

Because so much has changed, I thought it would be a great opportunity to interview Ron on his 30th anniversary at Bar-Ilan.  A time capsule, if you will. 

Jack Saltzberg: What were you doing before you started working for Bar-Ilan?

Ron Solomon:  I was managing editor of the B'nai B'rith Messenger, at that time the oldest and largest Jewish newspaper in Southern California.

How did you come to Bar-Ilan?

While at the Messenger, I interviewed Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, then president of Bar-Ilan.  I was taken by his vision of this university that requires a core curriculum in Jewish studies, but where half the students are secular and half are religious. 

Rabbi Rackman said that no student who “passed through our hallways” should be ignorant of his or her heritage.  I related to that mission and I wished I had studied in a place like that. Rabbi Rackman later offered me the job.

How has the Jewish landscape changed in the Los Angeles region since you first started?

Back then, Israel was THE priority for most Jews who survived the Holocaust or were around during that era.  There was nothing more important. 

Today, the entire atmosphere has changed.  The second generation does not have the same priorities.  They didn't see the war first hand and their giving patterns indicate different priorities.  Whether it is cultural or educational giving, they don't necessarily see Israel as their number one cause as their parents did.  Many of them have children who have intermarried and the attachment to and tradition of Israel isn't the same, if it exists at all.

The landscape has also changed in the religious community, but for different reasons.  Between tuitions, local needs, and institution building, there is not as much left.  I can't tell you how many times I have spoken to donors who “live” for Israel, take trips to Israel, and their kids might even live there.  It is in their everyday prayers and they are the most ardent Zionists in every way.  Except in their giving.  So I’ll challenge them to take a look at how much of their philanthropy dollar actually goes to Israel, the place.  Many times they come back and admit that I was right, and even they didn’t realize how little financial support they give to Israel.

Also, foundations that are controlled by Jewish contributors have changed significantly.  We’ve been given this unique opportunity of supporting Israel with Uncle Sam as our partner, yet so few of the vast Jewish controlled foundations utilize that opportunity.  Only a small portion of the 5% that the foundations must give even goes to Israel.  

How has your fundraising changed since you started?

It has changed considerably.  Donations were kept on ledger cards in the office.    There were no computers.  If you needed a picture of something in Israel to show to a donor it took about two weeks until we received it.  

We used to do very large fundraising events.  I remember an event in 1987.  Our guest speaker was Prof. Elie Wiesel.  Frank Sinatra performed.  We honored Dr. Armand Hammer who had just arranged for the release of prominent refusenik Ida Nudel, and he flew her to Los Angeles for the dinner.  It really took the community by storm.

However, today, because of expenses and the labor-intensive nature of large events, we raise our funds through strategic network development and major gifts in smaller (non-traditional fundraising) events. 

But one thing has never changed is the way that we raise multi-million dollar gifts.  It is not done via technology or large fundraising events, rather in face-to-face meetings.  There is a saying in fundraising that is as true today as it was 30 years ago.  There is no elevator in major giving.  You always have to take the stairs. 

Consistently, you’ve been one of the leading fundraisers, not only in your organization, but among all the Israel-based non-profits in the country, yet you’ve done it without much hoopla or fanfare.  How is that?   

I have always used the model of putting those who write the checks out front.  We, as professionals, fly under the radar.  They are the real heroes… the chairmen… the donors.  They associate themselves because they feel strongly that this is a great cause.   We don't twist arms.  Rather, we educate people to the beauty and importance of the institution and we do it in a quiet way.  After that, it is up to them to make the decision of where to spend their charity dollar.  Fortunately, this style has resonated with a number of very generous people. 

What is the most difficult aspect of your job today compared to 30 years ago?

I would say the most challenging part is being able to get appointments with people to articulate the current needs.  This is due mainly to competition both domestically and in Israel.  Someone once told me that there were nearly 2,000 Jewish/Israeli charities operating and competing in the U.S.  Sometimes it feels that way just in Los Angeles. 

Unfortunately, in our profession, we attend a lot of funerals and we’ve seen many things.  Can you share a unique story?

It is quite hard to work so closely with people and to become a part of their lives, and they a part of yours, and then in the natural course of life and death they pass away.  Each funeral takes something more out of you.  And I am not necessarily speaking about funerals with a huge amount of people.  There are two stories that really stick out in my mind:

One of our donors passed away and left us a bequest of nearly her entire estate.  Not huge in terms of dollars, but she had no children and it was all she had.  I went to the funeral and there weren't enough men for a minyan.  And she was a religious woman.  I ran around to try to get people in the mortuary… people who were visiting relatives who passed.  Finally we accumulated a minyan, but I always felt sad that this woman who had so much to give in life didn't have enough people to come to her funeral.

Once I attended a funeral for a man who was a lifelong Zionist.  He lived and breathed Israel his entire adult life.  It was the first thing he spoke about when you came to visit and the last thing he mentioned.  He joined every organization and gave money to every worthwhile Israeli charity.  At the funeral the word Israel or Jewish was not mentioned.  I mean nothing.  His own kids, who lived out of town, knew nothing of his passion.  When we left to go to the burial plot I asked the rabbi if I could say a few words before he was put into the ground.   And I spoke to mostly his family at the burial site about his love for Israel.

Bar-Ilan is considered an Orthodox university.  Does it attract secular Jews as well? 

Half of the students are religious and half are secular.  I have called Bar-Ilan one of the few places in Israel where religious and secular Jews can meet in substantial numbers and find respect for each other.  They don't live together.  They don't go to the same entertainment.  They don't eat in the same places.  But they can attend the same university for three or more years and find a way to get along and even appreciate one another.

Do most of the donations in the U.S. come from Orthodox Jews?

We get a considerable amount of support from traditional/Orthodox Jews because Bar-Ilan is the only Israeli university that requires a mandatory course of study in Jewish studies.  However, the mission of the university is not to make people religious, rather to provide them with an understanding of their Jewish heritage and traditions.  So you can get a degree in chemistry or law or social sciences or physics and you still have to complete a core curriculum in Jewish studies above the normal course load.   

We believe that Bar-Ilan has fewer graduates living outside Israel because once they complete these courses they know why they are in Israel and it can create a greater love for the country.  And, thank G-d, we get some very substantial donations from people who are not religious, but who respect what our university stands for. 

Your handprints are all over Bar-Ilan and Israel.  What project that you helped facilitate really stands out?

Whether it’s the sciences or humanities or Jewish learning, all of these projects have their own impact.  So it is impossible to pick out one. But perhaps it is the human story behind the projects… two recent stories stand out:

We recently concluded a large grant for Alzheimer's research in the name of one of our longtime donors.  We did not know it, but we learned while the donor was speaking to the researcher, that the researcher’s own father has dementia.  He has a personal stake in this research.  

Another story involves a dear friend of mine who suffered the worst tragedy a parent can suffer: the loss of a child.  He established an important research project at the medical school under his child's name.  It’s the backstories that makes my work so personal and meaningful. 

What's next for you?

Finding the donor who will name the entire Bar-Ilan Medical School Complex.  Probably around $100 million. 

It is a challenging goal I have given myself.  But if you dream…

Ron, you’re always the fundraiser!  I was asking what’s next for Ron Solomon the person?

Raising money for a good cause will always be part of me.  But I plan to try to make up for all the lost time I missed over the last 30 years… more time with my kids and grandchildren… more Clippers games.  And more Jewish learning.    The keys are there for all of us.  They were bequeathed to us by our G-d.  All we have to do is insert them and turn. 


The first part of Jack Saltzberg’s career was in film and television; the second part, for almost 20 years, has been in professional leadership for nonprofit organizations helping Israel. Saltzberg served in combat in an anti-terrorist unit inside the Israeli paratroopers.

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