Leon Weinstin has spent much of his life fighting on behalf of the Jewish people.
In his late 20s, he participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis and somehow managed to escape a near-certain death. Later, he immigrated to the United States, opened a successful clothing manufacturing business and contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to mostly Jewish charities, especially yeshivas.
The 95-year-old Weinstin volunteered his time Feb. 26 to call prospective donors on Super Sunday, the annual mega-fundraiser of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. In just two hours at Federation's headquarters at 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Weinstin, resplendent in a blue blazer, red tie and wool slacks, raised $15,000.
"I believe in tzedekeh. I believe in helping people," said Weinstin, who has participated in 26 Super Sundays. "As long as I'm alive, I'm going to come to Super Sunday."
Seated next to Weinstin, Beverly Hills resident Esther Brenner could hardly contain her excitement whenever she landed a contribution, big or small. The retired Hebrew school teacher seemed to become especially animated when lapsed donors ponied up.
"Hey," she announced to nearby volunteers, a smile crossing her face. "I just got somebody to give $10 who hadn't given since 1990."
An estimated 1,700 volunteers working at three locations obtained pledges for about $4.4 million this Super Sunday, about $200,000 less than last year. Participants included young and old, the religious and non-religious, Israelis, Persians and Russians -- a veritable rainbow of Southland Jews. Given the diversity of and interaction among the volunteers, Super Sunday seemed as much about building community as raising money.
"This gives everybody a chance to come out and make this community a better place," Federation President John Fishel said. "Super Sunday's a unifying event."
It's also an opportunity for politicians to show solidarity with Jewish voters. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and L.A. City Councilman Jack Weiss each dropped by the midtown Federation headquarters and the phone banks in West Hills. L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and L.A. City Councilman Bill Rosendahl both volunteered at headquarters. The third fundraising hub was the Torrance Marriott.
"I want to make some calls. Let's do it!" said Weiss as he made his way to the phones at 6505 early Sunday morning.
The stakes were especially high this Super Sunday, because many of the Federation's 22 beneficiary agencies have seen their government funding shrink. At a time when demand for its services have surged, Jewish Family Service, for example, has been unable to keep pace because of government cutbacks, said Jewish Family Service (JFS) Executive Director Paul Castro in an interview. The JFS Gramercy Place Shelter has lost about $180,000 in federal and state money over the past two years, a huge financial hit for the 57-bed homeless shelter.
Nationally, Super Sundays have proven so successful that, in recent years, many federations have added Super Mondays and Super Tuesdays to attract more volunteers and to increase the likelihood of reaching donors at home. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington even has a Super Week.
Participants caught up with one another at 6505 between calls, noshing on bagels and cream cheese, pastries and ice blended coffee drinks. Clusters of purple, red and white balloons decorated the main call center. Gummy bears and bottled water seemed within arm's reach of most callers.
Anne Blank worked the morning shift. The Beverly Hills psychotherapist said she attended her first Super Sunday to pay homage to her late father, an active philanthropist in Jewish causes who passed away nearly two years ago at age 82. "He'd be thrilled I was here," she said.
At the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills, mothers and fathers came with young children to enjoy the family-friendly amenities, including a daycare center, a bounce house and inflatable slide. Teenagers dropped by with buddies to make calls and gossip.
Twelve-year-old Shani Mesica staffed the phones from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. By early afternoon, she had landed a $75 donation. Although she said the majority of callers reacted positively to her pitch, a couple told her they weren't Jewish and demanded that she place them on a do-not-call list. Still, the seventh-grader at Kadima Hebrew Academy in West Hills said she planned to participate in Super Sunday again next year, even if her school waves its community-service requirement.
"It's nice to help people who can't afford to get flu shots or buy food for themselves," said Mesica, amid the cacophony of voices that filled the gymnasium where volunteers seated at long tables made calls.
A contingent of 20 well-heeled members from El Caballero Country Club in Tarzana were among those staffing the phones at Milken. Many of them pitched fellow club members, who are expected by El Caballero to give 3 percent to 5 percent of their income to charity, said Donald Marks, a club member who personally raised $150,000 from fellow club goers. His pitch?
"I tell them that if Jews don't give to Jews, who's going to give?" said Marks, a 61-year-old industrial real estate developer. "We're not talking about cancer or other catastrophic diseases. We're talking about helping our Jewish brothers."