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Flamboyant billionaire Stewart Rahr wows Israel

by Felice Friedson, The Media Line

February 3, 2014 | 12:01 pm

Stewart Rahr with motor bikes donated to United Hatzalah. Photo by The Media Line/Dudi Saad

Stewart Rahr with motor bikes donated to United Hatzalah. Photo by The Media Line/Dudi Saad

This story orignally appeared on themedialine.org.

What amazes about Israel’s United Hatzalah emergency first response organization is the speed with which its “ambucycles” [motor bikes equipped with the latest life-saving equipment] arrive at the scene of an accident or to a person in need of medical assistance. What amazed Israelis about colorful billionaire philanthropist Stewart Rahr was the speed with which he responded to an array of needs-at-hand: doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars virtually on-the-spot to “do good things.”

While in Israel for only a few short days, Rahr took the first step toward doubling the United Hatzalah fleet of bikes; underwriting one-half million dollars to bring Holocaust survivors to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps in Poland in order to bring closure to their nightmares; while along the way meeting with charities and politicians anxious for a chance to tickle Rahr’s generous fancy. The trip to Poland had been the brainchild of Jonny Daniels, the 28-year old executive director of “From the Depths,” a foundation dedicated to keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust.

Those in attendance described as “electric” the “magic moment” on a rooftop in Jerusalem’s Old City where a dozen new motorbikes were hoisted by crane to provide the backdrop for United Hatzalah’s charity auction. It wasn’t long into the bidding that Rahr – just off the plane from Poland and not having slept in two days -- took over the auctioneer’s prerogative from United Hatzalah founder Eli Beer and threw down a challenge to match pledges. In a fitting analogy to Hatzalah’s remarkable signature 3-minute response time, Rahr’s dynamic rooftop performance saw – in what spectators said felt to be no longer than 180-seconds -- the number of motorbikes he had already donated multiply to a total of fifty new ambucycles.

To Israelis, for whom there is nothing novel about a visitor seeking his or her bona fides from the Jewish state, the man called “Rah-Rah” offered an intriguing and enigmatic counterpoint to those seeking just to take from the ancient backdrop. Flamboyant: yes. Witness the yellow eyeglasses, yellow wristwatch and bright yellow articles of clothing. But Rahr told The Media Line that yellow represents the sun, and after all, we all know that, “The sun will come out tomorrow.” An optimistic ode.

Similar was Rahr’s obsession with the number “13.” But far from being anchored in superstition or Las Vegas-style luck, to Rahr it’s the day of the month (March) on which his father, Joseph, was born -- “the luckiest day of my life.”  He wore number 13 on his Little League jersey and in high school sports: “I’m very proud of it,” Rahr said. “It’s my lucky number.”

To many others, their luckiest day comes when Rahr enters their life. For the Holocaust survivors, it meant paying the way for those who traveled with about half of Israel’s legislators to spend a memorable and moving 16-hours on the ground in Krakow, where the Knesset (Parliament) convened in a historic session far from the Jewish state. To Rahr, it was an opportunity to give back that required little thought. He told The Media Line that when told about plans for the trip by businessman Yummy Schachter of Charity Bids, “I thought it was a wonderful opportunity for me. I hoped that those who suffered terribly, the survivors, will have some sort of closure to their horrible ordeal. And that it will be an awakening for those who are Jewish or not-Jewish about the survival issue. They should never forget what happened to us in our history. I got excited about doing something that would enhance the next generation and the generation afterwards.”

In conversation with The Media Line, Rahr spoke of his drive to “give back,” a trait echoed by those who know the Brooklyn-born do-gooder. He credits a taxi driver in Las Vegas for honing his perspective. “The driver would comment about the owner of each casino/hotel as we drove past,” said Rahr. “When we passed one particular landmark property, he said, ‘Someone should tell that guy that there are no luggage racks on top of a hearse.’ That was a tremendous example of what I live by today: You can’t take it with you. I’m blessed to have these billions of dollars. I just feel that I’m compelled; that I have a responsibility to give back to those less fortunate.”

The billions he’s now worth all began with the $30,000 in pharmacy inventory Rahr had to work with when he brought his father’s failed pharmacy into the world of distribution – according to Rahr himself, selling only to the little guy, “the underdog” – a distinction that remains key to his present-day philosophy of philanthropy. When his company, Kinray, Inc., which began with two employees, was sold to Cardinal Health in 2010 for $1.3 billion, it serviced 4,000 pharmacies.

Prior to his life-changing introduction to the world of distribution, Rahr had earned a degree from New York University and had completed a year of law school. He retains a close relationship with his former wife, with whom Rahr had two children.

Crediting his “closest friend,” Michael Milken, with taking him into sponsorship of medical issues – including $20 million to Milken’s own foundation for prostate cancer research -- Rahr spent a considerable amount of his brief trip to Israel visiting one of the nation’s inspirational treasures: Shalva, an institution for children with disabilities. Before touring its existing facility, Rahr was joined by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat at the construction site of what will be the beacon of hope for Israeli Jewish and Arab families in need of their services and a blueprint for other nations seeking to emulate the best in care giving for children with disabilities. When completed, Shalva will be contained in a $50 million campus comprised of a 200,000 square foot 11-story building surrounded by six acres of parks – all of which will serve thousands of children. Rahr and Mayor Barkat saw a glimpse of the future as they walked down successive flights at the present Shalva facility, soaking in the smiles of the various groups of children they encountered on each level.

“Shalva is the first place a mother comes straight from the hospital if a child has special needs,” explained Shalva founder and chairman Rabbi Kalman Samuels. “All of Shalva’s programs are about supporting the family; enabling the family to raise their special needs child at home and at the same time giving the child what he or she needs to fulfill his potential and inclusion in society.”  While at Shalva, Rahr connected with Samuels’ 37-year old son Yossi, who is blind and deaf after having been vaccinated at age 11-months with a defective batch of DPT vaccine. Director Avi Samuels told The Media Line that at age 8 his brother had a “Helen Keller experience” which enabled him to speak through signing. That was the defining moment when his mother, Malki, said, “We have to give back,” and Shalva was created. The conversation between Rahr and Yossi covered a gamut of issues, from smart phones to automobiles, despite Yossi’s challenges.

Rahr friend Michael Levine told The Media Line from New York that he would expect no less than Rahr’s keen interest in a facility like Shalva. Levine, a commercial painting contractor, tells the story of how he met Stewart by chance three years ago while having a lunch he won as the highest bidder in an auction to dine with Donald Trump and his children. Levine was sharing the story of son Matthew’s battle with a rare kidney disease called FSGS when from several tables over a voice shouted out, “I want to help you save your son’s life. I want to help save these children’s lives.” About ten minutes later according to Levine, Rahr again shouted out, exhorting, ‘Hey Michael, You’re talking so loud. If you talk a little lower, I’ll overnight $100,000 to the Nephcure Foundation.” He did so the next morning.

Levine says, “That we met that day three years ago changed my life. Stewart has become our largest donor in the world, close to half a million dollars.” Levine sees Rahr as the “ultimate angel, the ultimate gift from God, the ultimate friend. I call him the ‘Yellow- Caped Crusader.’ He delivers dreams and miracles every day.”

Donald Trump believes the media doesn’t understand Rahr, his friend for several years. Trump told The Media Line that Rahr has greater business acumen than media gives him credit for; and is a serious business person. “You don’t accomplish what Stewart has by luck.” Trump told how Rahr attended a charity dinner where the real estate tycoon was being honored and “just stood up and gave a million dollars. That’s the way he is,” said Trump.

Also on the Rahr docket was a visit to Leket, the largest farm dedicated to feeding Israel’s poor, and a visit where Rahr would meet and hit it off with Israel’s celebrity-in-chief, President Shimon Peres. Following his meeting with the octogenarian politician, Rahr admitted that, “Normally, I’m always talking; but in his presence, I listened so I could learn. He talked about technology and how that changed the world…It gives me such hope that he’s like a rock star. I know many rock stars, but he’s in his own class.”

Rahr seemingly has no more a shortage of friends than he does of dollars. But he turns serious when asked whether if others would mimic his penchant for giving it would result in a better world. “I can’t speak for others,” he told The Media Line, but then recites a list of Hollywood headliners he considers to be pals, pointing out that the list includes only those known for their own charitable work: “Alicia Keyes, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, LL Cool J, Tobey MacGuire…I’m only attracted to those that I meet in the social environment. Those who don’t give, I don’t meet. I go out of my way NOT to meet them; they’re not my cup of tea,” he says emphatically. “In the small remaining journey of life that I have left, I want to choose who I want to be with and to hang around.” Several Hollywood producers are considering having Rahr host a reality television program based on charitable giving.

“We met three or four years ago when Stewart was thinking of selling his company, which he eventually did, and wanted to concentrate on his philanthropy,” Michael Milken told The Media Line from Los Angeles. “Stewart and I speak five or six times a week and have many conversations on the leveraging of philanthropy: how you teach people to fish rather than give them fish. You get people to stand on their own two feet.”  Milken said Rahr, through his challenges to others via matching grants “is not only introducing people to philanthropy but leveraging his philanthropy like he did with the United Hatzalah ambucycles in Israel. He has an unbelievable heart and passion for anything he does.”

Stewart Rahr the extroverted philanthropic humanitarian loves fun and games, but even his personal amusement is predicated upon helping others. One typical Rahr-ism is Rah-Rah Celeb-RAH-ty Trivia, a game he plays each month with his “immediate circle friends,” about 720-strong.

Rahr said, “I meet people I know who are in the celebrity limelight – entertainers, politicians -- and take pictures with them and send the photos to the list along with five or six questions. The first one to answer correctly receives a $5,000 donation to his or her favorite charity.” In the past six months, Rahr has donated about $1.5 million to more than 117 charities.  Levine, for example, told The Media Line that, “Personally, I have played the Stuart Rahr celebrity challenge winning $75,000 on behalf my pet charities.” 

The latest edition of the Rahr charity game was won by New York attorney Benjamin Brafman who correctly identified photos of Rahr with President Peres and Mayor Barkat. Brafman’s charity, Torah Live, a non-profit that teaches business ethics, received $5,000.

Rahr reflected on his trip to Israel and is already preparing to return regularly despite the 20-plus years between this trip and his last. “It’s a constant turmoil here in Israel with what is going on, but you get the feeling they have an attitude of survival. As you know, I’m all about victory for the underdog. 

When asked who in Israel will be next to benefit from the Yellow-Caped Crusader, Rahr texted, “Shalva. Of course.”

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