October 17, 2019

Lorin Fife: Full-time philanthropy

Lorin Fife has essentially had a second career since he retired from his position as senior executive and attorney at the financial services holding company Sun America in 1998, when he was only 45.

In the years since, he’s served on the boards of various Jewish institutions, including chairing The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Partnership, serving as president of Adat Ari El in Valley Village and, most recently, as board chairman at the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles (JCFLA). 

So who would have guessed that Fife, now 60, wasn’t always Jewish?

Born in Granada Hills, Fife was raised in the Presbyterian tradition. But it never sat quite right with him, he said, and he started exploring other faith traditions early on. 

“My high school girlfriend was Catholic,” he explained. “I’d gone to Catholic Mass with her a lot, so my plebe year at the [United States] Naval Academy, I was singing in the Protestant choir, and I was going to Catholic Mass on the side. … I was sort of a spiritual wanderer.” 

Fife’s interest in Judaism preceded his involvement with his future wife, Linda, who is Jewish and whom he’d known as a high school student. He began his studies on a Navy cruiser on its way to Vietnam in 1972 and changed his Annapolis student records to list him as Jewish before graduation. He underwent a Reform conversion in the Navy after graduation.

He eventually went through an Orthodox conversion as well, and though he’s affiliated with a Conservative synagogue, he doesn’t identify with a particular Jewish denomination. 

“I really just think of myself as Jewish,” he said.

What especially drew Fife to Judaism was the story of Abraham arguing with God over Sodom and Gomorrah.

“Jews are charged with arguing with God, with trying to perfect the world,” he said. 

After Fife spent several years in the Navy, he and his wife lived for two years in Israel, where they studied Hebrew at the World Union of Jewish Students in Arad. Fife worked on an MBA at Tel Aviv University, before later receiving his law degree through the USC.

But it was the Jewish message of trying to perfect the world that Fife took to heart and acted upon when he decided to leave Sun America, giving him more time to devote to family, volunteering, philanthropy and other activities. 

He became board chairman at Adat Ari El in 2000 and president two years later. Next up was the Tel Aviv/Los Angeles partnership, which oversaw cultural exchange between the two cities. Fife called it “a dream job.”

“It really combined my passion for Israel with my passion for what’s going on in the local Jewish community,” Fife said.

In 2009, he started his stint as board chairman at JCFLA, which, by virtue of managing more than $800 million in charitable assets, stands as the largest such manager for Greater Los Angeles Jewish philanthropists. It was both a great opportunity and a challenge.

“I think the JCF is one of the great gems of the Jewish community, and not necessarily so well-known … in terms of what it does,” Fife said. The foundation is “there to help individual philanthropists fulfill their own philanthropic goals. … [It helps] individual donors to … figure out what they want to do thoughtfully and strategically with their money, and it gives them the financial tools and the expertise to help them find things in the Jewish community in particular, but in the broader nonprofit world as well.”

Fife was thrilled to take the job, but he inherited it at a particularly difficult moment: The Great Recession was well under way, and Bernard Madoff’s shady dealings had come to light just three months prior. Fortunately, Fife was experienced in crisis management from his days as a lawyer in the corporate finance world.

“There are a lot of things that happen in that kind of context that are not necessarily intuitive, which you really have to do,” he explained. “It’s not a situation where you can just hunker down and try to ride through the storm; you need to turn everything inside out. You need to make sure that everything that’s being done is transparent, that if there’s anything that anybody did that was wrong, you need to make sure that it’s taken care of … and you need to make sure that everyone in the community understands exactly what happened, and if there were problems, that you’ve addressed them.”

The foundation’s investment with Madoff turned out to be small, about 3 percent of its total assets, and the executors of Madoff’s estate have since determined it will be fully recovered. 

“The good news is that no one had done anything that was wrong,” Fife said. “Well, other than making an investment with a crook. It turned out to have been a bad investment decision, but nobody had gotten any kickbacks or anything that was inappropriate.” 

With the internal assessment complete, Fife turned to reassuring investors and strengthening the foundation. 

“The first couple of years were really focused on trying to stabilize things, figuring out what happened,” he said. Fife also made it a priority to “move the demographics of the foundation’s board so that it was a broader, more accurate representation of the Los Angeles Jewish community. … Trying to bring down the age demographic on the board and trying to bring on more women.

“Then the last two years were really trying to consolidate everything that we had done during the first couple of years, and really get us back on a growth track,” Fife said. “We ended up north of $800 million in total assets at the foundation at the end of last year.” 

Fife’s term at the foundation was up in February, but he has no intention of relaxing. He’s working on a book about his city-championship-winning Granada Hills High School football team — on which he played center — that he said essentially invented the now-famous spread offense tactic. An artist who paints and sculpts, he’s also thinking about going back to work or getting involved in a new nonprofit. 

For Fife, that kind of active engagement is paramount to living a life in the spirit of his family — he comes from a line of educators, policemen and other public servants — and Jewish life. It was also a way to give back to the community that had given so much to him, especially when he lost his only brother, Alex, to AIDS in 1993.

“Alex’s death, which was terrible, long and painful, emphasized how fleeting and fragile life can be, and when I realized during the summer of 1998 that I had the opportunity to give back to the community that had given my family and me so much support, I felt blessed to be able to take that opportunity.”

It’s the giving back that matters, Fife said, not how one does it.

“When we were first married and raising our sons, we had very little in the way of financial resources, so Linda and I both invested tremendous amounts of passion and sweat equity in our philanthropic interests,” he said.

“While we’ve both continued to work hard for the nonprofits about which we are passionate — for example, Linda’s work for [the volunteer-led Jewish learning organization] LimmudLA, which she co-founded, and my work for the Jewish Community Foundation — we’ve also been blessed with the financial resources over time that have allowed us to provide financial support for our charitable passions, as well. We view volunteering our time and our money in a very similar light. In some respects, our time is even more precious.”