December 10, 2008
Leo David: From Israel soldier to soldiers’ friend
Leo David likes to think big.|
Shortly after he founded the Western regional branch of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces in 1981, he started planning for the initial dinner gala and scouted for some appropriate entertainment.
He flew to Las Vegas, twisted the arm of Sammy Davis Jr. and for good measure, also enlisted Bill Cosby.
The party on the 20th Century Fox lot was a big success.
For David, the idea of making the lives of Israeli combat soldiers a bit more pleasant wasn't much of a stretch. All he had to do was to think back to his own service as a 22-year-old in the War of Independence.
"I fought in a tank unit, though we didn't have any real tanks in the beginning," he reminisced during an interview in his well-appointed condo in a Westwood high rise. "So we got some trucks, attached some armor plating and called them tanks."
Toward the end of the fighting in 1949, David sustained a severe foot wound.
David came from a relatively affluent family, which had left Germany in late 1933, but most of his comrades, like most Israelis at the time, were quite poor.
"They had no money for recreation or an evening off base, so once a month, I'd take them all out for a kumsitz [the Israeli combination of bull session, sing-along and barbecue]," he recalled.
During his 82 years, David has lived through quite a slice of history, has made a lot of money and has given a lot of it away.
"I've never worried too much about money, because I thought I could always make more," he said.
David was born in Dusseldorf in western Germany, the youngest of three sons of a prosperous shoe factory owner.
Unlike many other German Jews, the father immediately recognized the danger signals when Hitler came to power in 1933. He left with his family later that year for Holland and in 1934 moved to Palestine, where he bought a farm and orange grove.
Young David studied at a religious school, but in 1943 the adventurous 16-year-old joined the Palmach, the elite unit of the nascent underground army.
"It was training all the time, with nothing else to do," David said, so after four months, he switched to Lehi, also known as the Shtern Group, to see some action.
Although David was not particularly interested in politics, the switch meant a move from the far left to the far right of the political spectrum then. Lehi was the most militant and extremist of the Jewish underground forces, battling the British mandatory authorities relentlessly and, in turn, hunted down by the police.
In 1948, when Israel declared its independence, David and his fellow Lehi fighters became part of the country's regular Haganah forces.
With the war over, David studied to become a diamond cutter and, with the family's resources behind him, became the owner of a diamond factory.
However, by 1956, he was ready to move again. Describing himself as "politically on the right," David "didn't like Israel's 'socialist' government," sold his Israel diamond factory and started a new one in New York.
There he met and married his lifelong partner, Ruth. Together they moved to Los Angeles in 1959. He studied home construction and soon became a major builder of homes and apartments.
When the industry took a downturn in 1963, he switched again to manufacturing cassettes and speakers for car radios. From that base he established a chain of Leo's Stereo stores.
In 1978, he put up some money to open a Los Angeles office for the Friends of the IDF and pledged to underwrite all the organization's office and administrative expenses.
"In the beginning, we had 10 board members, all Israelis, but now our region is active from San Francisco to San Diego, and we are training a new generation of leaders," he said.
Asked whether he was now retired, David bristled.
"I currently run 10 different businesses," he said, including developing shopping malls, manufacturing electronic equipment, real estate, making and distributing clothes and, as a true Angeleno, producing TV commercials and movie features and trailers.
All that activity leaves him little time for his hobby, golf, but he makes it a point of visiting Israel once or twice a year.
The trips to Israel give him a chance to inspect some of the facilities supported by Friends of the IDF and to meet with a new generation of Israeli soldiers and airmen.
"We first got involved when the commanding officer of the Ramon Air Force base asked whether we could help support a small sports club where the men could work out in their free time," David recalled.
From there, the program expanded to other bases and to such facilities as libraries and auditoriums for movies and live performances.
Since most Israeli men and women start their military duties right after finishing high school, they need to learn civilian skills after their army discharge. To help them, Friends of IDF subsidize college costs by providing for their living expenses during their studies.
"What we need to understand is that most of the youngsters in the service come from relatively poor homes and that the army provides them only with food and uniforms," David said. "There are no extras or luxuries."
Photo: Leo David with IDF soldiers during Friends of the IDF 60th Anniversary Mission last May. Photos courtesey Leo David