Call it a shopping trip. Lou and Trudy Kestenbaum came to Israel last month on a Jewish National Fund (JNF) mission to spend money, as well as to follow up on how the money they've already spent in the Jewish state is doing.
Lou Kestenbaum made his fortune in construction and then plastics, and now that he's retired, he spends a lot of his time giving it away. "Now I work for mitzvot," he says.
The Kestenbaums give sizable gifts through an organization called Shelters for Israel, a Los Angeles-based group founded in 1948 by Hungarian Holocaust survivors like themselves. The Shelters organization, with nearly 500 members, may be the most streamlined charitable organization on the planet: It has no office, no overhead and gets all its work done on a volunteer basis while, in the last 15 years alone, earmarking some $10 million for Israel projects.
"We're one of the biggest secrets in L.A.," says Lou Kestenbaum, naming a few of Shelters for Israel's undertakings: a Jordan Valley day-care center for handicapped elderly that the Kestenbaums helped to dedicate on this trip; an elder- care center in Haifa, due to be completed in three months; a community center in the Arava on which construction has just begun, plus kindergartens, libraries, day-care centers -- 35 projects in all.
"We start with seeing what Israel's needs are," Lou Kestenbaum explains. "We're married to Israel."
"And also to each other," his wife adds.
Trudy Kestenbaum is especially active in the JNF Sapphire Women's group, through which the Kestenbaums have also made major gifts, including a recent donation to underwrite the infrastructure for a new town, called Zukkim, in the Arava. They have also made sizable private gifts, donating an ambulance to Magen David Adom and a playground near the Haifa zoo.
Their current trip partly centered on the dedication of a new Jewish National Fund reservoir at Kibbutz Affikim, south of Lake Kinneret, for which the Kestenbaums donated $300,000. The water shortage in Israel has reached critical proportions, Lou points out, and, he adds, it's a problem that is not going to solve itself. "If you give a man a fish, you feed him once," he quotes. "But if you teach him to fish, you feed him forever. A reservoir is not just a hole in the ground with a lot of water in it," he says. "It changes people's lives."
He points out what the nearly 1 million cubic meter reservoir at Affikim will contribute: a commercial fish farm (carp, trout and whitefish) that will produce income for the kibbutz and food for Israelis, water for agriculture and a general "greening" that will improve the quality of life for all the area's inhabitants. Reservoirs can also catch and hold rainwater or usable waste water for recycling, making a double impact by protecting the environment while adding to the water supply.
Israel now has about 100 reservoirs around the country, with JNF aiming at creating 100 more in the next five years. With Israel's need for water obvious and even desperate -- the country, whose annual water deficit equals 25 percent of its total water use, is currently suffering the worst drought in its recorded history, according to JNF -- the couple, "went shopping for another reservoir to raise funds for," Lou Kestenbaum says.
As part of the JNF mission, which included a handful of other Angelenos, the Kestenbaums toured sites in Israel and heard talks by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Daniel Kurtzer, U.S. ambassador to Israel. Lou Kestenbaum, whose comprehensive collection of Israeli stamps is both widely known and extremely valuable, also took time to visit the Israel Philatelic Museum in Tel Aviv, of which he is a founder.
Nothing if not energetic, he is eager to see another brainchild of his come to birth in Los Angeles. Starting with this year's JNF annual banquet, scheduled for Oct. 27, two community figures, not the usual single individual, will be honored each year -- an Ashkenazi and a Persian. "It's a way of bringing the communities together," explains Lou Kestenbaum, whose business connections with Iranian Jews were a steppingstone to conceiving and implementing the idea. He is this year's Ashkenazi honoree; the Persian is Dr. Jamshed Maddahi.
The Kestenbaums, who have two grown children and two grandchildren, have been married for 57 years. "And I'd buy another 57 with this guy," says Trudy Kestenbaum fondly, jerking her thumb at her husband. Apparently, she thinks that her husband, like the state of Israel, is a good investment.