May 18, 2006
Of the 50 wealthiest Angelinos, 27 are Jewish.
Each year, The Los Angeles Business Journal uses legwork and a little guesswork to discern who's worth the most in Los Angeles. Once the list comes out, as it did this week, I like to run it through the old "Who's a Jew?" detector.
I'm well aware that the only people who habitually do such things are the heads of Jewish charities and anti-Semites. The former do it to garner fundraising leads, the latter do it to "prove" a worldwide conspiracy. I do it because I have something I want to tell these people -- my Sermon on the Count.
My count a few years back put the number at 25. This year there are two more, including Jamie McCourt (Jew), vice chairman of the L.A. Dodgers and listed with husband Frank McCourt (not a Jew). So it goes, this slightly unseemly business of sussing out religious affiliation on a list that reveals just net worth, business interests and a bit about philanthropic activities.
It's, of course, on that last subject that I'd have the most to say. Adding up the numbers provided by the Business Journal, I get a combined net worth of $61.8 billion.
Three things struck me about this year's list. The first is: wow. Jews make up barely 2 percent of the Los Angeles' population, but more than 50 percent of city's richest of the rich. There have been precious few times in history when Jews have been blessed with so much wealth, along with so much freedom. In a city of openness and opportunity, these men and women have made the most of their chances.
Despite their common membership in a rarified group, these folks are a diverse lot.
Most are L.A. -- or even American -- transplants, with roots in Canada (eBay's Jeffrey Skoll); Israel (Alec and Tom Gores, Haim Saban) and elsewhere. Their backgrounds range from Holocaust survivor (Leslie and Louis Gonda) to able scions of family fortunes (Anthony Pritzker). Their political affiliations run the spectrum, from Hollywood liberal (DreamWork's Jeffrey Katzenberg), to George W. Bush stalwart (Ameriquest's Roland Arnall, now ambassador to Netherlands). Their religious practices range from observant to none of your business.
You might think with great wealth has come great assimilation, as previous generations of Jews often had to choose between asserting their religious identity and social acceptance. But another striking fact of this list is how many of these people are deeply involved in Jewish communal life and causes. Westfield's Peter Lowy is chair of the University of Judaism. The Milkens, Michael and Lowell, are pillars of Jewish philanthropy. Biomedical innovator Alfred E. Mann gave $100 million to Technion-Israeli Institute of Technology last year. As for Spielberg, there's a little something called the Shoah Foundation. By my estimate, most have given to Jewish causes.
And this is not to sniff at their non-Jewish philanthropy. Eli Broad (No. 4 on the list) has been at the forefront of efforts to improve education and art in Los Angeles. DreamWorks' David Geffen donated $200 million to UCLA's School of Medicine in 2002, the largest contribution ever to a U.S. medical school. For a man worth $4.2 billion, that's almost real money.
At the same time, the larger picture is that L.A. County trails behind other places in terms of charitable giving. As reported in the Business Journal, a 2003 Chronicle of Philanthropy study of IRS tax returns concluded that L.A. County residents with incomes greater than $50,000 gave only 7.3 percent of their income, or about $4,000, to charity. New Yorkers gave 10.9 percent and Detroit residents, the national leaders, gave 12.1 percent. In California, San Francisco residents gave 9.3 percent, people in Long Beach 8.4 percent, and residents of the city of Los Angeles 6.9 percent.
I wonder if the Jewish billionaires on the list skew the averages in L.A.'s favor. I hope so.
The last thought to strike me as I reviewed this year's list was how incomplete it is. The Business Journal stops at 50. But there's serious wealth from 50 to 100, from 100 to 10,000, and loads more down the line. In short, there are many challenges this community faces, but lack of resources is not one of them.
Jewish professionals often complain to me that there just doesn't seem to be enough money. But there is -- and then some.
There is enough money, I suspect, to develop a social service program to help every one of the 7 percent of L.A. Jews who live beneath the poverty line.
There is enough money to build and sustain a network of first-rate Jewish camps and give every child a chance to attend one -- and there are few better ways to instill Jewish values than camp.
There is enough money to pay Jewish communal workers a wage that enables them to participate fully in Jewish life.
There is enough money to provide significant scholarships for every child in need who wants to attend a Jewish day school and to improve the quality of public schools.
There is enough money to sustain a network of state-of-the-art communal centers -- either Jewish community centers or synagogues -- inviting, welcoming and affordable to the entire community.
Any one of these would revolutionize the face of Jewish Los Angeles for the better, and most could be accomplished just by upping our average giving to the standard set by ... Detroit.
If only our vision were equal to our assets.