Meet Israel’s Santa Claus, the Trustee Tasked With Handing Out Leona Helmsley’s Billions (INTERVIEW)
Renowned New York attorney Sandor (Sandy) Frankel, one of four trustees of the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, was in Israel earlier this month to look at additional philanthropic options and to observe the progress of those endeavors already funded – to the tune of multi-millions.
Frankel, who recently joined the prestigious Park Avenue law firm Otterbourg P.C., met with Israeli politicians and other bigwigs to get a sense from them about which projects in the country need the most attention.
Over the course of the last seven years or so, the Helmsley Trust has donated in the ballpark of $145 million in grants (out of overall assets of over $5 billion) to works in and related to the Jewish state. Among these are: a joint grant to the Technion and the Weizmann Institute for alternative-energy research ($15 million); multi-million-dollar grants to the Weizmann Institute for stem-cell research and a sophisticated MRI for Crohn’s disease diagnosis; a new blood bank for Magen David Adom ($8 million); a grant to Haifa University for a Mediterranean Sea research center ($7 million); funding for an underground facility that converts a parking garage at the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa into a 2,000-bed, bomb-proof facility for war-time ($5 million); the Jerusalem Press Club facilities in Mishkenot Sha’ananim; Birthright trips; and a grant for a robotics project at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev ($6.3 million).
For two years running, it has also funded full-page ads in American newspapers on Israel Independence Day, which feature Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
The list goes on, and grows with each trip Frankel makes to Israel – once a year on average.
Frankel began representing real estate mogul Leona Helmsley in 1990. By that time, the Jewish girl from Brooklyn — who had already made multi-millions both on her own and through a number of marriages – had earned the derogatory nickname “Queen of Mean.”
This, too, was the title of a Piers Randsdell novel based on her life and subsequent made-for-TV movie in 1990.
Frankel spent more than 17 years, until Helmsley’s death in 2007, handling her legal affairs, which were many and varied. For instance, she was convicted of federal income tax evasion and other crimes in 1989. Though she initially received a 16-year sentence, it was later reduced to 19 months in prison and two months under house arrest. During the trial, a former housekeeper of the oft-called “tyrannical tycoon” testified she had heard Helmsley say: “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”
But Frankel’s relationship with the controversial character grew to be more familiar.
“She [Helmsley] gradually began to speak with me about matters that weren’t strictly legal,” he told The Algemeiner in a recent interview. “And when she passed away, she left most of her fortune, around $8 billion, to the Helmsley Charitable Trust.”
Frankel was named by Helmsley as one of five trustees and executors of her vast estate. One of these was her brother, an elderly man who died shortly thereafter, leaving the four others to handle the liquidation of her assets and the decision-making about the charities worth financing.
Though Helmsley was the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Poland – and, as Frankel put it, “very aware that she was a Jew” – she never visited Israel; was not affiliated with a synagogue or other Jewish institutions; and her charitable giving was not focused on Jewish or Zionist causes.
Creating a program for the latter was Frankel’s idea; it is what he “brought to the collective table.”
The other trustees were on board; Frankel became the lead trustee for Israel-related projects; and the rest is history – in the making.
Frankel, the only Jew among the four trustees, explained the impetus for his pushing to cultivate this particular niche.
“There are a multitude of reasons that one becomes a lover of Israel,” he told The Algemeiner. “It’s hard to know even where to start. It’s the homeland of the Jewish people; it’s a bastion of democracy and Western values in an area of the world that lacks both; it’s a modern-day miracle that not only survives, but flourishes in the tsunami of warfare, terrorism, hatred and conflagration of all types. And the development of the security of Israel is important for the development and security of the world.”
Frankel said there is also “cross-pollination” where projects funded by the trust are concerned.
“For example, we have a very substantial program for Crohn’s disease research. As it happens, Crohn’s disease affects many Ashkenazi Jews, and therefore, there’s a prevalence of the disease in Israel. So, there are grants we’ve made in Israel for that, which is partly an Israel program and partly a Crohn’s Disease program. Another example is our very substantial Type 1 Diabetes program and a grant made to one of the institutions in Israel that works on Type 1 Diabetes.”
Asked what he considers the biggest challenge facing the Jewish state, and where the Helmsley Trust can have the biggest impact, Frankel sighed.
“There are so many ways that we can hope to have some impact in Israel that it’s impossible, really, to pick one,” he said.
He concluded by describing the process he underwent – and is still undergoing – to determine the value of the many Israel-related projects that come his way.
“I can tell you that at the beginning, as I was getting my feet wet in this whole area, I thought that working with some of the premier educational institutions in Israel was a good way to get started. But as things progressed, I began to think a lot more about Israel, and ideas starting flowing. I read a lot about Israel. I meet with a lot of Israelis who come to the U.S. and those I see when I travel to Israel. There is no lack of good work that can be done philanthropically in Israel; it’s just a question of using one’s judgment to sort out what are the most valuable, the most impactful and, in general, what are the best directions to go in. We have turned down worthwhile projects, because as large as we are, we’re dealing with finite resources. So ultimately, it’s a question of judgment.”