NEW YORK — Not all of Leona Helmsley’s fortune went to the dogs.
True, at her death in 2007 the hotel owner and real estate mogul known as “The Queen of Mean” for her dictatorial behavior with employees, bequeathed $12 million to her beloved Maltese canine, Trouble. And she left instructions for her charitable trust fund, now valued at between $4 billion and $8 billion, to benefit dogs. But the courts ruled that the Leona and Harry Helmsley Trust Fund she had established after her husband’s death was not legally bound to fund animals only, and that its grants should be directed solely at the discretion of the trustees she had appointed.
Fortunately for the State of Israel, Mrs. Helmsley chose Sandor (Sandy) Frankel, 69, a New York Jewish attorney who worked closely with her the last 18 years of her life, to be one of the four trustees who now oversee that major trust. Frankel, who is married to an Israeli and has visited Israel frequently since he was a teenager, is proud to say that he has a passion for the Jewish state.
As a result, in the first four years of the trust’s grant making, some $90 million has gone to a range of humanitarian — not political — projects in Israel, from health care and preparedness to scientific research to Birthright Israel.
I met Frankel, a modest, soft-spoken man who describes himself as a “Jewish guy from the Bronx,” last month at the opening of the Jerusalem Press Center, a state-of-the-art facility and restaurant in the Yemin Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem, with a majestic view of the Old City. The center is intended to serve as an attractive alternative to the American Colony Hotel in east Jerusalem, a longtime favorite gathering place for the foreign press based in Israel.
The Helmsley Trust Fund, through the Jerusalem Foundation, was the major benefactor of the new press center, with a $2.8 million grant. As Frankel explained in his remarks that evening, “Our hope is that with the opening of the club’s doors, the press will flock here, and will accurately report” on the country and its people.
He said the trust had been looking to support “a truth machine — some way to let the world see, accurately, the truth about Israel — what it is, what it is not, how remarkable its people are, what are its considerable challenges and how does it not only surmount those challenges but flourish.”
The center is not designed to propagandize for Israel, Frankel asserted, but if it “fulfills its purpose — and it will — we may be graced with reading and hearing from people who actually know what they are talking about.”
A passion for Israel
Frankel noted in his remarks that “none of the trustees, myself included, had the slightest experience in philanthropy,” though they were committed to use the vast fund to “do the most good for mankind.” Each of the four — a business associate and friend of Leona Helmsley, two of her grandchildren and Frankel — “brings his own separate values and passions, and his own individual sense of where the philanthropic dollars can do the most good,” he said. “For me, the answer was obvious: here, Israel.”
(The other four key program areas for the trust are health and medical research, poverty, education and environmental protection.)
Multimillion-dollar grants have gone to every university in Israel, to hospitals and schools and for medical and technological research. Frankel described other contributions as “sad grants, tragic grants,” like the millions of dollars “to fortify underground hospital facilities in Rambam Hospital” so that patients can be treated even during rocket attacks, and for “portable shelters for health clinics and armored vehicles so that doctors can visit patients around Sderot,” the town most vulnerable to rocket attacks from Gaza. Another $2 million went to Beit Halochem, the center for disabled Israeli veterans, for the rehabilitation of terror victims.
The single largest grant, $15 million, is for new options for solar conversion to biofuel and electricity, and is being shared by the Technion and Weizmann Institute in Israel.
During an interview the other day back in New York, at his law office, fittingly, in the Helmsley Building on Park Avenue, Frankel described what it was like to be thrust into the responsibility of deciding how best to distribute enormous sums of money with the intention of having maximum impact on society.
One of the first things he did when the trust was set up five years ago, he said, was to write a note to Bill Gates asking for philanthropic advice. He received a reply from Patty Stonesifer, CEO of the Gates Foundation, who, Frankel said, was remarkably generous with her time and counsel.
The trustees have, for the most part, concentrated on their particular philanthropic passions while coming together to approve grants, which require a majority vote. They have consulted with professional advisers and a range of experts, and meet regularly to discuss their ideas. (Frankel noted that he continues his full-time law practice while serving as a trustee.)
‘A very active trust’
Helmsley, though Jewish, was not known for her involvement with Israel or Jewish causes. Frankel said he often encouraged Leona (born Lena Mindy Rosenthal) to visit Israel, though she never did, in part because her legal problems prevented foreign travel. (She served 19 months in prison after being convicted for income tax evasion in 1989).
Asked to describe her personality, he said she was a “very complicated lady,” a disposition compounded by the enormity of her wealth. While she did not indicate how she wanted the major portion of the trust to be spent, he said he hoped she would be pleased with the program areas the trustees have pursued, including the support for Israel-related projects.
To date about $900 million in grants have been made overall. “We are a very active trust,” Frankel observed, adding that he and his fellow trustees neither seek nor avoid publicity.
“We’re very transparent, and we let our actions speak for themselves.”
Jim O’Sullivan, a senior adviser for the Israel programs of the trust since March, says he serves as “the point person” between the trustees and potential applicants. He explained that the trustees initiate most of the Israel program ideas, after which the staff reaches out to appropriate Israeli institutions.
He became involved in 2008 as a consultant with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, which was working with the trust. Though he had never been to Israel before, O’Sullivan had long been active in seeking funding for biomedical and neuroscience projects. So he knew well Israel’s reputation as a leader in the field, and is enthusiastic about finding synergies between medical needs and Israeli creativity. “Anyone involved in funding world-class science programs needs to deal with Israeli institutions,” said O’Sullivan, who noted the personal warmth of the Israelis he has come to meet. They are always inviting him to Shabbat dinner, he said.
Most striking about the Helmsley Trust, he observed, is that it is only in its fifth year and already making large grants “with a great deal of thought put into them.”
Experts seem to agree. Joel Fleishman, faculty chair for the Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society at Duke University and adviser to a number of charitable foundations, says he has no firsthand knowledge of the Helmsley Trust operation. But judging from his review of its website and of personnel and programs listed, he said the degree of professionalism it has achieved in its five years is “an extraordinary achievement.
“It’s the fastest start I’ve ever seen” of a foundation its size, he said, noting that some take decades to reach its level of organization, grants and quality of advisers.
Another philanthropy expert who asked not to be quoted said he, too, is impressed with the level and quality of the grants to Israeli institutions made by the Helmsley Trust so far. But he said, “It’s both good news and bad news that each of the trustees has his own specific areas of interest.” Good for potential grantees who can make their cases heard, but lacking in a long-term cohesive strategy that may not come about until the original trustees have given way to their successors. “Funds of this size tend to become more corporate and strategic over time,” he observed.
In the meantime, Frankel is committed to championing Israel. Among the several books he has authored or co-authored is a 1978 novel called “The Aleph Solution,” about terrorism aimed at destroying Israel.
“I began writing the day after — and inspired by — the Entebbe raid [July 1976],” he said, noting that he has “found Israel inspirational on many levels,” and continues to do so. As he said in his talk at the opening of the Jerusalem Press Center last month, “The creation of the State of Israel was a profound event in world and Jewish history. … The Helmsley Trust is committed to contributing to the continued development and security of Israel, both for the country’s benefit and for humanity in general.”
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in the Week.)