Hier and Hier: From yeshiva boy to global storyteller

The longer I live in America, the more fascinated I become with the story of American Jewry — how a wandering and persecuted people discovered a free and open nation and have given so much back.
December 30, 2015

The longer I live in America, the more fascinated I become with the story of American Jewry —  how a wandering and persecuted people discovered a free and open nation and have given so much back.

At the heart of this story are some larger-than-life Jews who have influenced every facet of American life, from Hollywood, Wall Street and Silicon Valley to academia, popular culture, media, social action and politics. 

One Jew who surely belongs to this prominent cast is Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Here is a yeshiva boy from New York’s Lower East Side who grows up to become one of the world’s most influential Jews, thanks to a special brew of smarts, chutzpah, faith and humor.

Those traits are in full view in Hier’s new memoir, “Meant to Be,” which offers up hundreds of little anecdotes to paint the portrait of a big life. The book’s title speaks to Hier’s faith that everything in life happens for a reason, and that it is always for the good.

But Hier easily could have titled his book “To Make a Long Story Short,” because the man’s life revolves so much around stories — stories about things that happened to him or to others, stories that he has handy for any occasion, stories from the Bible that move his soul, stories that help him land a big donor or a movie star, and, his favorite type, stories that make him laugh.   

From left: Sen. Edward  Kennedy, Simon Wiesenthal and Rabbi Hier, when the senator received the Wiesenthal Center’s Humanitarian Award at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

“There are many reasons why we Jews have survived nearly three thousand five hundred years of persecution and turmoil,” he writes. “I am convinced that one of the them is our ability to laugh, even during the most trying circumstances.”

Hier is one of those people for whom smiling seems to be the default position, as if he’s always on the hunt for good news. You can imagine him smiling as he wrote some of the stories in the book, as when he recounts his first meeting with Frank Sinatra in the late-1970s. At the time, his plan for a Holocaust museum was still just a dream. Sinatra offered to help, but because he called himself only an “honorary member of the Jewish tribe,” he reached out to his Jewish neighbor, Danny Schwartz, asking him to bring along his “Jewish telephone directory.”

Like so many stories in the book, the Sinatra story leads to a series of other events and meetings that invariably lead to good things. Most of the stories are connected to people — from Hollywood stars, world leaders or major donors to quirky characters, including funny rabbis and even janitors.

Perhaps the quirkiest story is the one that ignited Hier’s mission to honor the victims of the Holocaust.

It started innocuously enough during a family outing to the La Brea Tar Pits in the summer of 1977. Hier overheard a little girl asking the tour guide: “Will dinosaurs come back to earth one day?”

As Hier recounts the story, “The amiable guide smiled and reassured her that the earth’s changing climate conditions prevented dinosaurs from returning.”

Oddly, something about that answer stuck with Hier. His mind wandered. He thought about “human creatures, whose time on earth is dependent as much on political conditions as environmental ones.” And then he wondered if a political climate can ever return a monster like Hitler to power.

That question weighed on him for weeks: “How many of the visitors who came to the La Brea Tar Pits to learn about prehistoric animal fossils knew anything about the cataclysmic events that had engulfed our world in the 1930s and ’40s? Why didn’t America have a major Holocaust education center like Israel’s Yad Vashem to teach the story of the murder of six million Jews — one third of the world’s Jewish population? Why hadn’t the American Jewish community — the world’s largest — built a major Holocaust museum?”

Hier then recounts the decisive story of the book: Over Shabbat cholent in his Pico-Robertson home, he brings up the idea of a Holocaust center with his lifelong partner, his wife, Malkie. “It’s a great idea,” she tells him. “It will have an impact on the whole community. I think you should do it.”

That cholent meeting set off a decades-long adventure to build two of the most prominent institutions in the world. But while the building of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance have garnered enormous attention and made Hier a global name, when you read the book, you realize that something has gotten lost in the media picture: Hier is still, at heart, a yeshiva boy from the Lower East Side.

It’s easy to overlook that Hier began his career as a successful pulpit rabbi in Canada, eventually leaving after 10 years because “there were no yeshivas for my sons in Vancouver.” When he moved his family to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, he had no idea he would ever be involved with the Holocaust or fighting anti-Semitism. His plan was to start a yeshiva for post-high school students of all backgrounds and denominations and contribute, as he says, “to the unbroken chain of Torah study that had sustained Jews over the centuries.”

By forging an association with Yeshiva University (YU) of New York, one of the oldest Jewish educational institutions in America, he gave his new yeshiva instant credibility. With the help of initial funding from the Belzberg family, he bought an empty building on Pico Boulevard and began his new life in Los Angeles immersed in Jewish education.

One of my favorite stories in the book is when Hier visits the empty building on Pico and meets the janitor, Jack Rufus, a “tall, slender African-American man with deep worry lines on his forehead.”

Hier tells Rufus about his plan for starting the school, admitting that “I don’t exactly have any students, and we haven’t hired any teachers yet.”

Rufus, who was hoping to keep his job, responds: “You mean to tell me, you don’t have any teachers or students, but you bought this building? Rabbi, I don’t mean any disrespect, but that doesn’t make much sense to me. That’s like going horseback riding without a horse.”

Hier proceeds to tell Rufus a Chasidic story about two men who went to see the same rebbe for a blessing to have children. The blessing worked, but only for the man who immediately bought a baby carriage — in other words, only for the man who had true faith in the blessing. Hier told the janitor that he had received his own blessing from a rebbe to open the school. He had so much faith in that blessing, in fact, that he hired Rufus on the spot.

It’s while Hier was building his new yeshiva that his improbable visit to the Tar Pits led him to think about building a Holocaust center. From then on, Jewish education and Holocaust remembrance became his two consuming passions. Only two months after the yeshiva opened in late 1977, the Simon Wiesenthal Center opened inside the yeshiva’s west wing.

A key story in the book is how Hier convinced Wiesenthal, the legendary pursuer of Nazi war criminals, to agree to have his name on the center. Hier recounts a long courtship, punctuated by a hairy car ride through the streets of Vienna.

At a meeting with the great man, Hier mustered all his chutzpah: “Mr. Wiesenthal,” he said, “I recently visited a museum in L.A .where people come from all over America to learn about dinosaurs. In fact, there are a half dozen such places in America. But where can people go to learn about the Nazis? Who will teach them that thirty-two years after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is still going strong? If we don’t teach young people now, we will once again be caught unprepared, and history will repeat itself.”

The Wiesenthal name helped put Hier’s Holocaust center on the map, just as the YU association did the same for his yeshiva. As they both took off simultaneously, the two tracks of Hier’s life began to take shape: an international leader around Holocaust remembrance and fighting anti-Semitism, and a local leader in Orthodox Jewish education in Los Angeles, first with the yeshiva and then with its successor high school, Yeshiva University of Los Angeles (YULA), which he led until 2005. 

These two sides symbolize the two Marvin Hiers: the global storyteller who wants to change the world, and the yeshiva boy who stays loyal to his Jewish roots.

The yeshiva boy dreams of keeping the flame of Torah alive with the Jews of his community; the global storyteller dreams of keeping the memory and lessons of the Holocaust alive with people everywhere.  

The yeshiva boy wears a yarmulke on his head; the global storyteller wears a smile on his face.  

The smile and the stories help Hier attract prominent people to his projects; the yamulke keeps him grounded in the story of his people and the primacy of Torah observance.

Hier is not just one of these. He’s both. He’s as comfortable telling stories in Yiddish to a group of yeshiva students as he is receiving an Academy Award for one of the documentaries produced by his film company, Moriah Films.

But if I had to venture a guess as to which side is more dominant, I would pick the yeshiva boy. It is the yeshiva boy who drives the global storyteller in a way that always comes back to help the Jewish people. It is the yeshiva boy that nourishes his faith that, in the end, everything will come out for the good. 

“As I look back over the trajectory of my life, from New York’s Lower East Side to Vancouver, Los Angeles and Jerusalem, from yeshiva bocher to rabbi, political activist, film producer and museum founder,” he writes near the end of the book, “I realize that I have always held firm to that deceptively simple idea. I have always believed that no matter how many people try to extinguish the flame of the Jewish people, they will never succeed, because the irrevocable covenant God made with Abraham will always produce unexpected helpers and new circumstances to rekindle it.

“I have always believed in miracles, whether the ancient types, staves that turn into snakes, seas that split, manna that falls from trees, or the greater miracles of our own time, the creation of Israel, the incredible victories of the Israeli army and the renaissance of yeshivas and Jewish day schools throughout the world.”

Hier’s obsession with Jewish education counters the critique that, for all of the universal imperatives of Holocaust remembrance, it’s not an enduring source for creating a Jewish identity. Showing how Jews died and how Jews are hated doesn’t teach Jews how to live. Hier understood that only Jewish education can do that.

Early in his rabbinic career, while teaching a class for teenagers, Hier quoted Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s interpretation of the biblical verse, “And he [Abraham] sat at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.”

What is the significance of the “heat of the day”? Soloveitchik explained that “Abraham purposely positioned himself at the entrance of his tent in the midday sun, despite the fact that it would have been more comfortable inside, because the Covenant of Abraham demands that every Jew stand guard, engage with the world, and contribute to it, despite the challenges even ‘in the heat of the day.’ ”

Maybe because of his undying faith, Hier never seems intimidated by the heat of the day. That might also explain why Hier refused to stay comfortable inside the Simon Wiesenthal Center, despite its successes. He writes:

“By the late 1980s, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Moriah Films had established international reputations. Our social action campaigns were effective and widely covered by the press, and our films were being screened in theaters and shown on television stations around the world. The Center had an active board, a national staff of thirty, and a membership approaching one hundred thousand.”

But Hier was restless. It wasn’t enough to teach the world about the Holocaust. To increase global impact, he needed to make the Holocaust more relevant, more universal. He decided to broaden the scope of the museum to promote the value of tolerance.

Hier and his team raised money for a new, larger facility that would link the events that took place between 1933 and 1945 to “post-Holocaust history, which was rife with examples of atrocities that resulted from racism and hatred. We wanted both to teach the story of the Holocaust and to apply its lessons to the present and the future in a Museum of Tolerance.”

The deliberations over whether and how to include the persecution of non-Jews in the new museum provide some of the more sensitive stories in the book. In the end, the deciding factor, brought up by none other than Wiesenthal himself, was that “Jews needed friends and allies to conquer hatred.”

On the heels of the success of the Museum of Tolerance, a phone call in 1993 from the legendary mayor of Jerusalem, the late Teddy Kollek, would change Hier’s life once again — this time with a mission to build a Museum of Tolerance in the heart of Jerusalem.

Thus began another long journey, complicated by legal challenges over the site, as well as endless delays and major fundraising needs. The ability of Hier and his team to raise significant funds and stick to his mission through all the ups and downs is a testament not just to his tenacity but to his faith. The Jerusalem museum, now scheduled to open in 2017 (24 years after that first phone call from Kollek), is a good example of both. It is Hier’s faith in God that gives him the tenacity to keep going.

Hier mentions so many of the “unexpected helpers” who have supported his dreams through the years — donors, partners, employees who remain loyal for decades, prominent Hollywood and political figures, family members and so on — that you get a sense he wrote the memoir as much for them as for anyone.  

There’s nothing wrong with that. If this book becomes a long thank-you letter to all those who helped a yeshiva boy from the Lower East Side write his own great American story, then surely it was meant to be. 

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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