November 19, 2008
Beverly Hills Peninsula Hotel gets Israeli flair
It's not to become a marquee idol, but rather, at age 50, to play goalie for one of the city's amateur hockey teams.
That is, if he can break loose from his day (and frequently night) job as the new managing director of the Peninsula Hotel Beverly Hills, which is within shouting distance of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, owned by fellow Israeli army veteran Beny Alagem.
With 200 guest rooms, the Peninsula -- one of an international group of five luxury hotels owned by Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels, Ltd. -- is certainly not the largest hotel in the city, but it hosts more than its share of celebrities and A-list events.
"We are the only hotel in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills with a rating of five diamonds from Mobil and five stars from AAA," said Nissenbaum, who came to the hotel nine months ago.
Like any other top executive in the hotel business -- Nissenbaum prefers the term hospitality business -- one of his key jobs is to sell the uniqueness of his enterprise to the community.
So his public relations consultant recently invited a reporter to drop in and meet both the managing director and his father; the latter was in town for a visit from Israel.
Joseph Nissenbaum is 80 years old, a survivor of the Holocaust and three Israeli wars, whose life and experiences have marked the outlook and careers of Offer and his two siblings.
"I think one aspect is that we were more driven and we matured earlier than most children," the younger Nissenbaum observed.
Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Foundation videotaped Joseph Nissenbaum's story some years ago in Israel, and one purpose of this visit was to take a look at the four-hour interview.
To condense his long and dramatic story, Joseph was born in the East German city of Leipzig, and when he was 10 years old, his life was upended by Kristallnacht.
His father, a native of Poland, was arrested and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, and the following month young Joseph was spirited out of the country via the Kindertransport to find shelter in a Belgian orphanage.
There he lived in relative safety, even after the German conquest, until 1943. But as the Nazi vise tightened, Joseph first worked in a factory and then lived underground with the help of the Belgian resistance movement.
Liberated in late 1944, the 17-year-old Joseph made it to Palestine, worked in a kibbutz, and in 1947 joined the underground Haganah. Fighting as a rifleman in the War of Independence, under the command of a young officer named Ariel Sharon, Joseph was shot in the leg.
The medic who bandaged his wound felt sorry for the family-less young soldier, invited Joseph to his home and introduced him to his sister, Judith. As in all good stories, Joseph and Judith were married shortly afterwards.
In 1956, Joseph was called up again, fought as a sharpshooter in the Sinai campaign, and picked up his rifle once more for the Six-Day War.
By that time, in 1967, Offer was 10 years old and he remembers vividly digging trenches and taping up windows in anticipation of the Arab onslaught.
Finally out of uniform, Joseph started to work for El Al Airlines, became a controller and was transferred to Toronto.
"The Holocaust shaped my character," Joseph said. "I'm not completely sane; there's a sense of guilt in surviving when so many others died. I find solace in being alone."
In Canada, Offer picked up his accent-free English and passion for hockey, but knew nothing about his father's experiences under Nazi rule. However, when his sister, Orna, now a television and movie producer, started questioning her father about his past, the story gradually came out and had a deep impact on young Offer.
"Being the son of a survivor, seeing your father's struggles, affects you emotionally," Offer said. "I once had to go to Germany on business, but to this day I will not buy anything German."
In 1978, after studying hospitality management at an American college, it was Offer's turn to join the Israeli army for three years with an elite intelligence unit.
After discharge, he left for New York to start his career. On arrival, a U.S. immigration official with an odd sense of humor made young Nissenbaum an offer he couldn't refuse and added an "F" to the given name, "Ofer."
In his first American hotel job, he worked for two years under the tyrannical Leona Helmsley, the "Queen of Mean," notorious for terrorizing her employees. From that experience, Nissenbaum drew the lesson that "management by fear and intimidation doesn't work."
Nissenbaum, now a boss himself at the Peninsula, is a strong believer in a cooperative, counter-Helmsley management style.
"I think of myself more as a mentor than a boss," he said. "I meet monthly with 25 different employees, from the managers to the dishwasher, to see how we can improve operations. Every employee has a special insight and I believe if you treat your staff right, they will treat the guests right."
Last month, he personally barbecued all the steaks at an outing for his 420 employees.
In New York, Nissenbaum was active -- and recognized by -- the American Jewish Committee, Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces and American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
He intends to become equally involved in the Los Angeles community once he's settled in and has organized his workaholic working hours. Nissenbaum, his wife and their three children, ranging in age from 3 to 12, live in the Benedict Canyon area and are members of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills.
Asked about the effect of the floundering economy on his business, Nissenbaum responded that while no one was immune to the downturn, the impact on the Peninsula has been minimal so far.
"Most of our guests are of high net worth," he said. "They may be a little more careful about ordering a $1,000 bottle of wine, but they're not going to fly coach or stay at a motel."