January 19, 2019

Marvin Markowitz: Knocked down, but standing taller than ever

In the middle of a water physical therapy session, Marvin Markowitz, a 65-year-old businessman and passionate Los Angeles philanthropist, telephoned to explain what forced him, 15 months ago, to add rigorous, daily physical therapy to a schedule that already includes running a famous deli, real estate across Los Angeles and an events venue in Pico-Robertson.

The culprit: West Nile virus.

The mosquito-borne virus is known to be a major risk in places such as the Caribbean and Africa — and even poses a regular threat on the mosquito-ridden East Coast — but the virus is rare in Los Angeles, where Markowitz contracted it from a mosquito bite in August 2014. 

“It happened right here in our backyard in Beverly Hills,” Markowitz said. “I didn’t go looking for trouble — it found me.”

The virus impacted Markowitz’s central nervous system — something that happens in a small percentage of all cases — putting him in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for three months and nearly killing him. 

“My upper body has come back very strong. My arms, my chest, very strong,” Markowitz said. “Because of that, I’m able to transfer myself multiple times every day in and out of the wheelchair.”

For decades, Markowitz has been a staple in Jewish and pro-Israel philanthropy, and he credits his charity work with giving him “the drive to basically push along” during his recovery, so that he can continue to run his businesses and make money to support the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, the Jewish National Fund, Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, Bnai Zion Foundation, the Hatzerim Airbase in southern Israel, the Shanti House for at-risk children in Israel, Friends of Israel Scouts and the Museum of Tolerance, among others.

A man who says he’s “driven by emotion,” Markowitz brings the same passion to his charity work that he brings to running The Mark for Events, a popular venue for parties and fundraisers; Factors Famous Deli, located two blocks away; and MarMar Group, his family-owned and operated real estate investment company. “All of those venues have given me the opportunity for charity,” Markowitz said.

“I’m driven by passion, so be it designing a building for my daughter to manage, or be it the restaurant to expand and be better and bigger, or my charity,” Markowitz said, “it’s a passion; it turns me on; it drives me.”

Born and raised in L.A., Markowitz graduated from Fairfax High in the late 1960s and intended to pursue a law degree, but soon after, his father was diagnosed with cancer and their family purchased Factor’s deli from the Factor family. At 18, in order to help his dad, who died in 1973, Markowitz eschewed higher education and he has run Factor’s with his siblings ever since, expanding the restaurant into adjacent stores, including the former Four Star Bakery and a laundromat. 

In the 1980s, he had entered the real estate business, designing and constructing multifamily units. Five years ago, he opened The Mark, a beautiful, cozy venue where, on any given Saturday, passers-by hear the sounds of a bar or bat mitzvah, and on any given evening, see Angelenos dressed to the nines attending a party or fundraiser. 

Jewish and pro-Israel groups regularly hold events at The Mark, and for causes close to his heart, Markowitz said, he’ll often give either a discounted rate or cover the cost of the venue for an evening.

During his next trip to Israel, for which he hopes he’ll be physically ready in the near future, Markowitz said, he plans to support Shaare Zedek’s efforts to treat wounded soldiers with neurological issues. “[Let’s] see what we can do with them — and me — to get them out of a wheelchair one day,” Markowitz said. “We’re going to do something special.”

One of his favorite philanthropic achievements began over a lunch in 2006 with his friend William Shatner. The star of “Star Trek,” “Boston Legal” and the current face of Priceline advertisements is also an avid horseman and keeps some of his horses at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Griffith Park.

A believer in equine therapy and the healing potential of horseback riding, Shatner listened as Markowitz suggested he bring his passion to Israel. And together with the Jewish National Fund, Shatner and Markowitz raised $10 million to assist 30 therapeutic riding centers across Israel in offering therapy to Jews and Arabs with physical, mental and emotional disabilities, including wounded soldiers and victims of terror attacks.

When Markowitz talks about the last 15 months, he sounds remarkably energized for a man who, during that time, faced such severe physical challenges.

“Initially, when it happened, it shut me down, because I was fighting for my life, but now I feel that since I’ve fought for my life and I have the ability to win … it’s given me greater strength to fight for my causes,” Markowitz said. “I look forward, obviously, to the day I can stand and get out of the wheelchair and embrace everybody that’s been very thoughtful to me and my family.

“It shows you how frail we all are in the big picture,” he said. “But being back shows how much more I can do. I actually feel like I’m standing taller than before.”