Not too many Jewish families can boast of having supported Israel for more than 150 years.
David Sanford Gottesman, founder of the New York-based investment advisory firm First Manhattan Co., which he established more than half a century ago, is an exception to the rule.
His mother’s family came to the United States before the Civil War, and one of the menfolk in the family became an emissary for the Jews of Palestine and collected money with which to buy land for them. He duly sent what he had amassed to Sir Moses Montefiore, who in turn sent him a letter of acknowledgment and appreciation.
On his father’s side of the family, his grandfather, Mendel Gottesman, left Hungary in 1890 and arrived in New York at age 28 with less than a dollar in his pocket.
He went to a Hungarian synagogue on the Lower East Side and was given a bag with sewing implements and told to go and sell them and then to come back for more. He was so successful that within six months he had saved $600. After that, he and his wife opened a store and began selling paper for wrapping halla. Not long after a nearby paper factory burned down, and Mendel Gottesman bought it. While scraping out the debris, he and his wife discovered much undamaged newsprint – so they went into the newsprint business, and within a few months became very rich.
They donated money to yeshivot on the Lower East side and were also involved with the building of Yeshiva University.
When Mendel died at the age of 84, he left money to be used to build better homes for the Jews in Mea She’arim’s Batei Ungarim.
His son Benjamin traveled to Jerusalem and decided that the area around Batei Ungarim was too dilapidated, and built the houses in another part of the city.
To permanently commemorate Mendel at YU Benjamin created the Mendel Gottesman Library of Hebraica. He also sat on the YU board. Following Benjamin’s death, David, generally known as Sandy, was made chairman of the YU board and served in that capacity for ten years.
David’s mother, Esther Garfunkel-Gottesman, was a dedicated and fervent supporter of Israel, and the Jewish community of New York and spent her life involved with Hadassah, serving on its National Board for 64 years. She also supported numerous Jewish educational institutions in New York and Israel. Her two sons, Milton who is now deceased and David followed in her footsteps, giving generously to many educational institutions. David Gottesman and his wife Ruth, through the Ruth L. and David S. Gottesman Fund also gave $25 million to YU’s medical school in addition to donations they made to YU fund-raising drives.
They have given with extraordinary generosity to the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo where they have funded nearly half of the NIS 100 million construction of the largest aquarium in the Middle East which is due to be completed within the next four months. Their daughter Alice, liaises with zoo officials on this project.
They also funded the bike path in back of Jerusalem’s First Station. Milton Gottesman was an avid bike rider, and had many years ago tried to persuade then mayor Teddy Kollek to lay out a paved bike path, but Kollek was reluctant because Jerusalem is so hilly. After Milton died, David Gottesman had no problem in convincing current Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat of the need for a bike path. Barkat happens to be an enthusiastic cyclist himself. Gottesman funded the bike path in Milton’s memory and called it Milton’s Way.
He and his wife have funded many libraries in America and Israel. Their Israel representative David Harman, who is heavily involved in education and who is the son of the late Avraham Harman who was Chancellor of the Hebrew University, represents Gottesman in Israel. He drew Gottesman’s attention to the need for libraries in Israel’s school system and as a result, the Gottesmans’ have funded around 250 libraries in Israeli schools. They’ve also funded a large number of educational programs in Israeli schools – but Gottesman, who was an early investor in Berkshire Hathaway, just like the company’s founder Warren Buffett, likes to give away large chunks of his considerable fortune to worthwhile causes. He was interested in doing something big.
When he heard that Yad Hanadiv (The Rothschild Foundation) was looking for a partner to help fund the construction of the new National Library, he thought it was a natural progression from all the small school libraries that he and his wife had funded. He met with National Library chairman David Blumberg and National Library Director Oren Weinberg who flew to New York to share their vision with him, and after the meeting informed them that it was “a done deal.”
Sitting in his elegant suite at the King David hotel in Jerusalem this week, Gottesman, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post said: “The possibilities are immense.
It’s not just for Israelis and Jews – it’s for the whole world.”
Gottesman commented that nearly all affluent Jews have large collections of books which in all probability “will eventually end up in the National Library. It will be a world renowned treasury. It will be a central repository. It won’t be like synagogues which are all over the place. It will be in one central place in Jerusalem.”
He hoped to still be alive to attend the library’s completion in 2019 or its official public opening in 2020. Meanwhile in coming to Israel for the laying of the cornerstone ceremony, he’s given himself a great 90th birthday gift. He turns 90 on April 26.
His daughter Alice is also heavily involved with the library and travels regularly to Basel to liaise with the architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron