What We Really Leave Behind When We Die
The name “Ronson” was once associated with shavers and nowadays, thanks to social media, is associated primarily with vapid “personalities” who achieve little more than notoriety. But to me it conjures up someone I knew since our school days together in England – Howard, who died far too early from cancer in 2007.
I was thinking of him recently when I read an article in the Wall Street Journal concerning “air rights.” Air rights, for the uninitiated, is the right to build upwards using “rights” from other nearby buildings. In the ever-hot atmosphere of Manhattan real estate it is a very significant right. Because if you have a church or a synagogue that is, say, “merely” four stories high, you have air rights that extend upwards for many additional floors. Such rights can be sold, with certain limitations, to other people wanting to build either nearby or indeed over and above a present building. And given that nowadays buildings are rising to over 100 stories in Manhattan, that is a lot of valuable and sellable space.
On Fifth Avenue stands the pretty nondescript (to those used to the real thing in Europe) neo-Gothic St. Patrick’s Cathedral. If it used its air rights, it could be built as high as the Chrysler Building. But it could also, in theory, sell its air rights to another developer nearby. Except that the buildings around it are so tall that there’s no way to use the rights. So Catholic St. Patrick’s, together with Episcopalian St. Bartholomew’s and the Reform Jewish Central Synagogue, in an example of ecumenical self-interest, are working with the city to get permission to sell their rights beyond their immediate footprints.
When I read about this maneuvering, my thoughts immediately drifted back to Howard Ronson. But before I tell you why, let me tell you a bit about Howard. At Carmel College, the Anglo-Jewish school we both went to, he struggled with academic work and made little impression until he was big and strong enough to take up rowing. He became a very successful oarsman, leading Carmel crews to victory at several important national regattas. Then he left to join his father in real estate. His parents were very friendly with mine, and Gerald, his father, was a governor of Carmel College. So we kept in contact even though I went off to university and yeshivah and then the rabbinate.
Meanwhile, Howard took to real estate like a duck to water. Whereas in school he would have had difficulty adding, subtracting, and dividing, in property he suddenly mastered converting square meters into square feet, working out in his head the amount you could build and sell on so many thousand square meters, and the relative profit margins of residential and commercial going rents, not to mention currency conversions.
He could rattle off the differences in profit if you used steel and glass of different thicknesses and how much difference it would make to a massive project in comparison to concrete, brick, and wood. He used his knowledge and expertise to help improve conditions and administration in his old alma mater. He loved buildings and, just as importantly, knew how to run them. When I became headmaster of Carmel in 1971 (in no small measure thanks to the support of his parents) Howard helped me with the maintenance, administration, and inside knowledge of the school.
But then he decided to spread his wings and went off to France, where he built up an impressive business. He took up residence in Monte Carlo and, naturally, had a magnificent yacht in the harbor. Ever eager for new exploits, he moved on to New York, where he took Manhattan real estate by storm. He used to regale me with amazing stories of mafia and union bullies trying to muscle in on building projects in Manhattan and coming to meetings with their guns in full view. He took me around his really impressive achievements, and he was the toast of the town.
At the peak of his success in 1982, I visited him in New York and he took me to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Standing outside, he said he was negotiating to buy their air rights and actually build above the cathedral itself. But he was being blocked by the Historical Society, who were influencing the city planning authority against the idea. He said it would be a long-term project, but he was determined to see it through, however long it took.
For various reasons he moved back to Europe and built up yet another real estate empire in Germany after reunification. At the time of his death, he had been working on developing several important projects in China. He never got to build above St. Patrick’s. He didn’t buy their air rights, but anyway he would have had to wait another 30 years before it would become a viable project.
Few people nowadays remember Howard’s great contribution to real estate. More people know of his name because of the Yeshivat Reishit Yerushalayim and the Genesis Center he built, managed and supported for the Marcus family in Beit Shemesh. And in Tel Aviv for the building he financed for YAKAR Tel Aviv, which bears his name. I often get emails from contemporaries, former pupils, and others who saw his name on one of these two projects and ask me about him and them. These will be his legacy more than his buildings. His place in the history of the Jewish people is guaranteed by what he did for their continuity. Although it was precisely because of his commercial success that he had the funds to support and strengthen Judaism.
I am reminded of another Ronson, his cousin with whom he didn’t get on and who is still very much alive – Gerald (not to be confused with Howard’s father). He surpassed his cousin in real estate in Britain. And like Howard, I believe Gerald too will be remembered less for his buildings than for his immense contribution to the Jewish people in another sphere, that of security.
It is largely because of him that the Community Security Trust in Britain exists and has been so successful in monitoring anti-Jewish activity and actively protecting Jewish sites and communities. It has done this without getting involved either in party politics conflicts, turf wars, or in the sort of neo-fascist bullying that ended up discrediting American versions.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his famous poem Ozymandias, reminded us that buildings come and go but that causes and ideas outlive them. So to me the name Ronson illustrates how much good a person can do when he uses his material success to benefit the community. People like them are also the builders of the Jewish people. Its continuity will guarantee their immortality.