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Jewish Journal

Anonymous donor leaves $1.5 million to Jewish Federation

by Jessica Pauline Ogilvie, Contributing Writer

January 5, 2011 | 1:02 pm

The anonymous woman who left $1.5 million to organizations affiliated with the Jewish Federation wasn’t someone leaders of the organization knew — in fact, she was someone few people knew well at all.

But those who did know her say that the gift, which is to be divided among seven organizations that benefit children in need, makes sense.

“I don’t know much about her childhood,” said Greg Heller, the donor’s wealth planner, “but I can tell you it wasn’t good.”

During her girlhood, his client was orphaned in Japan, Heller said. She made her way alone to the United States, moving in with relatives upon her arrival. But she still struggled — exactly how isn’t clear — and the young woman turned to weaving as an escape.

“She would tell me that when she worked on her weaving, she was able to go into that place in her head that gave her peace,” Heller said. “That was her joy — she loved to do what she did.”

As time went on, the talented weaver turned her passion into a career. Working alone, she built her business from the ground up, becoming a master of the craft and eventually repairing garments for the royal family of England.

Her expertise was recognized in Hollywood as well, said Heller, who counts a number of celebrities among his clientele.

“Any celebrity that I would bring her name up to, knew her or knew of her,” he said.

Throughout her career, she chose to remain mostly in the background, turning down clients that she didn’t like and rarely taking public credit for her work.

She never married or had children of her own, living a somewhat isolated but spiritual life. Through it all, Heller said, she always cared deeply for the welfare of children.

When planning her estate, it was no surprise that she wanted to focus on organizations that offered what she so desperately needed as a child herself — a place to turn for help.

Heller introduced her to Karen Sternfeld, the women’s campaign senior associate director at the Jewish Federation. Heller asked Sternfeld to present his client with a list of organizations to consider for her estate.

“I started asking her questions and found out very quickly that her area of interest was children in need,” said Sternfeld.

After weighing her options, the donor — without telling anyone why — informed her attorney that she would be leaving $1.5 million to seven organizations Sternfeld told her about. 

The scope of the gift came as a surprise to everyone.

“I didn’t know until Greg told me,” said Sternfeld.

Jay Sanderson, the president of the Jewish Federation, said that the most surprising element was the donor’s lack of affiliation with the organization or the Jewish community prior to the gift.

“How can you not be surprised about a donor who comes out of nowhere with such an extraordinary gesture of generosity?” he said. “It’s overwhelming — it’s the highest form of tzedakah.”

For the foundations that received the money, her gift will go a long way toward ensuring that as many kids as possible are reached with their services.

“My goal will be to use the money toward arts enrichment programs,” said Elias Lefferman, president of Vista Del Mar, one of the recipients. “She was an artist in her own right, and I’d hope to maintain that money for children in our residential program, for our school and in our theater.”

Even as the money is distributed, the woman who made it possible will remain something of a mystery. Yet Heller believes that the gift will create a legacy from the gifted artisan’s life.

“She took whatever was damaged and repaired it,” he said, “so that you couldn’t notice where the damage was in the first place.”

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