December 11, 2003
Q & A With Simha Lainer
"If you have a piece of fruit," said Simha Lainer, "throw away the skin and eat only the good part inside." Such a wise and optimistic statement could fit right in with the list of "zayde-isms" that Lainer's granddaughter, Lisa, is compiling for the family in honor of his upcoming 100th birthday.
Perhaps Lainer's insight comes from a lifetime of selflessness. The Southern California real estate mogul and world-renowned Jewish philanthropist has dedicated his life to supporting Jewish causes, particularly education. To him, giving is simply second nature (see First Person, page 58).
Slipping from English to Yiddish to Hebrew to Spanish and back again, Lainer's speech patterns reveal the story of his life. As a young man, he moved from the Ukraine to Palestine to South America to Mexico until settling in Los Angeles with his wife and three children in 1951. From establishing funds through the Jewish Community Foundation in Los Angeles to starting the Simha and Sara Lainer Fund for Jewish Education through the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles to supporting Israel, Lainer and his late wife, Sara, were key supporters of the Jewish community.
The Jewish Journal: On Dec. 14, you will be honored at a special fundraiser dinner for New Jewish Community High School at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel to celebrate your 100th birthday. How does it feel to be alive for a whole century?
Simha Lainer: I'm proud that I have the privilege to live 100 years. God gave me the privilege. I had a very interesting 100 years. I was very active in everything. When I make [God] happy, I have more happiness. All my life I tried to be a good member of the Jewish community and I tried to make friends. My son told me that there will be 400 people at my birthday celebration. It's amazing. Thank God for the first 100 years. Now I need to begin the second 100 years.
JJ: Do you think your involvement in Jewish education had anything to do with your longevity?
SL: Of course. When you do something for Jewish life, you do it for the good of the Jewish people. For 3,000 years [the Jews] have lived. Other people have disappeared in that 3,000 years, but we Jews have continued to survive primarily because of Jewish education. We need to continue our existence. Not that many Jewish families understand that Jewish education is critical for the continued existence of the Jewish people.
JJ: Why did you choose to devote most of your philanthropic efforts to Jewish education?
SL: My mother used to say, 'Simha, if you want to receive something, don't wait. Give first.' My wife, Sara, and I lived together for 60 years. We had a happy family and we tried to be examples for our children. We tried to be good parents and to always try to do something for the Jewish community.
JJ: What motivated you to keep giving to others throughout your lifetime?
SL: I learned that tzedakah [charity] needs to begin in the home. Tzedakah is also what makes the Jewish nation continue to exist. It's important to give to other people so that they benefit from it, but it's also important for one's self. Jews need to help other Jews. This is not only an example for Jews, but for outside people who will see that Jewish families support each other.
JJ: What is the importance of Jewish education in creating Jewish identity?
SL: The existence of the Jewish people will be extended as long as the Jewish people study and learn. Jewish education is the reason that the Jewish faith still exists.
JJ: Your sons, Mark, Nahum and Luis, are all committed philanthropists in their own right. How did you manage to raise children who are as passionate about Jewish causes as you are?
SL: If you want to be a good parent, you need to give a good example because the children learn more from the home than from the school.
JJ: What do you feel are the biggest challenges in Jewish education currently?
SL: We don't have sufficient schools. We need to have more Jewish schools. It's very important. There is no limit for education. The definition of education is that I learn from you and you learn from me. Everyone learns from each other. Never stop learning.
JJ: A lot of local schools have libraries, study halls and other physical facilities named in your honor. How do you choose the schools to support?
SL: There's Reform, Conservative, Orthodox. I help all three because I don't know which of the three will bring the
JJ: What are the most important lessons you've learned in your lifetime?
SL: The best thing I learned is to be a good father and a good husband. Jewish children should learn from their parents. I am happy to have three children. We are in the same business. We are partners and we're always together. Families can help one another. You need to learn from everybody. You need to take advantage of what you can learn from other people. Be an optimist and look for the good in others.
For more information about the New Community Jewish High School dinner on Sunday, Dec. 14, in honor of Simha Lainer, call (818) 348-0048.