November 1, 2001
Chatting with Leo Spiwak, one gets the impression that there is no spirit stronger than that which binds members of The Guardians, the fundraising arm for Jewish Home for the Aging of Greater Los Angeles.
As Guardians president, Spiwak, with past President Brad Luster, will co-chair this year's Above & Beyond Hall of Fame Dinner gala. The dinner will honor devoted Guardians supporters Joyce Eisenberg-Keefer, Harold Foonberg, Paul Goldenberg, Steven Good, Ronald Goodman, Ozzie Goren, Sherman Grancell, Paul Krasnow, Barry Lippman, Perry Silver, Billy Veprin and Allen Ziegler, who died in 1994. Two of the honorees -- Eisenberg-Keefer and Grancell -- have Jewish Home for the Aging campuses named after them.
"It was difficult to select 12 Guardians, but we were extremely happy that they represent who The Guardians really are," said Spiwak, 67. "It's a deserving group of people."
Some say that Spiwak himself is earning a place as an esteemed Guardian.
"He brings a sincere dedication and warmth and caring not only to raise funds but to create a tight bond between the Guardians," said Guardians Director Karen Levin. "He'll have lunches at his home. He fosters camaraderie."
Since he began his yearlong term, Spiwak has helped enact some structural reform within the organization. Among the changes on the executive level were the departure of Executive Director Michael Kaiserman and the installment of Levin in his place.
"I felt that the mission of The Guardians had gotten somewhat fragmented," Spiwak told The Journal. "I saw that one of my mandates was to bring it back to something specific. It was always a networking organization, but while fundraising was always one of its objectives, it was not its prime objective."
Not all of the factors for this fissure were internal. Spiwak noted that the world of nonprofit fundraising has turned into a cottage industry over the last decade and a half, making the playing field much more crowded and expensive.
"Ten years ago, we used to get a whole podium of interesting people," Spiwak said. "Today, you're talking about $50,000 and $100,000 per speaker. As a nonprofit, it's become more difficult to have affordable, interesting events. Even if we have 1,000 people, the cost of your average entertainer makes it very difficult to make the money back, and you can't charge too much for the event."
Bigger stars, who may fetch a fee from $100,000 to $200,000, may still not guarantee a draw sizable enough to recoup expenses. Consequently, Comedy Night, another of the larger annual Guardians events, has seen its attendance shrink from a peak of 800 to about 450 last year. In previous years, Vegas-sized headliners Rodney Dangerfield and David Brenner performed. Last year, the event's budget could only afford the likes of Robert Klein.
The amount of nonprofit solicitors has grown as well.
"There is a tremendous amount of competition for people's time, efforts and donations," Spiwak continued. "A day doesn't go by that I don't get a request from a charity to donate funds.
"It means we have to work harder and be more creative," Spiwak said. "We have to find more interesting events before they get priced out of range."
Case in point: last year's inaugural Above & Beyond gala saluted the 63-year-old organization's past presidents.
"Not only was having all the past presidents a big draw," Spiwak noted, "but it brought 30 inactive presidents back to the fold in a participatory manner."
Spiwak acknowledges the growing role of its young division, Sixth Decade Leadership. The 150-member group, headed by Chairman Randy Banchik, found fundraising success this year with a golf tournament event and a poker night.
"They're really nice young people," Spiwak said. "They're raising families, they're new in business. So, they have a lot of time pressures and a limited amount of money. But they still manage to be more active than the average Guardian. Several of them sit on our board."
Born in Boyle Heights in 1934, Spiwak grew up an only child in Monrovia, then moved to West Los Angeles, where he attended Hamilton High. After majoring in business at UCLA, Spiwak served in the U.S. Army during World War II, during which he was stationed at Ft. Louis, Washington. He returned to Los Angeles in 1958 and entered the auto wrecking business, devoting the next 37 years to manufacturing and distributing truck parts.
In 1960, Spiwak married. he and his wife, Marcia, had two children, Scott and Lisa -- now in their 40s. Five years ago Marcia died, and Spiwak promptly sold his companies and retired. He has since married Dr. Susan Krevoy, a psychologist.
Over the years, tzedakah has never been far from Spiwak's mind. He has actively supported causes such as City of Hope, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the United Jewish Fund.
But it is The Guardians that feels like home. The organization not only informs his philanthropic side, but his social life. The Spiwaks recently returned from a trip to France, where Leo Spiwak cycled through the Bordeaux region with fellow Guardians Norm and Jayne Simon.
"It's a great cause," Spiwak said, "but what makes The Guardians special is the relationships. My wife is being honored, and I'd say probably 25 percent of the people there will be from The Guardians."
"Most of the other things I do," he continued, "you can't see and touch what you're doing. But at the Jewish Home, when you see the residents, you see the impact that we're making."
In a recent installment of his Guardians newsletter column, "The President's Podium," Spiwak challenged the reader, asking if he/she truly wants to make a difference:
"Would you like to? I'll show you the way. Become passionate about something. Put some life in your life. Put some spring in your step. Gain a reason to get out of bed in the morning in addition to going to work."
Not merely words of advice, but the very philosophy that has navigated Spiwak through his 67 years.
The Guardians of the Jewish Home for the Aging will hold their Above & Beyond Hall of Fame Dinner on Nov. 8 at the Beverly Hilton, Beverly Hills. To RSVP, call (310) 479-2468.
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