Jewish Journal

The Jewish banker with the really big heart

by Brad A. Greenberg

February 26, 2009 | 1:36 am

In his speech last night to a joint session of Congress, President Obama singled out a Jewish banker not getting a bad rap for the financial crisis. While Herb and Marion Sandler got rich by selling a troubled savings and loan to Wachovia and Bernard Madoff stayed rich by out and out stealing from beacons of American Jewry, Leonard Abess is being haled a hero.

Abess’ story, which I learned of last week while searching for info on Beverly Hills-based City National Bank, couldn’t being getting attention at a better time. Since the global economy collapsed in September, Jews are getting much more than their fare share of scapegoating. Then Madoff heaped on an extra helping for anti-Semites, confirming all the worst stereotypes about greedy Jewish moneylenders and making Jews wistful for Shylock.

“Guys, the naked truth is that there’s something wrong with you. You are extrmely evil and hateful and should have no right calling anyone “antisemite”. And so what if someone hates you? It’s like hating cholera or aids. You guys are the disease. Everything you touch turns into sh—,” a commenter identified as Marcellus wrote in one of my original posts about Madoff—and there were plenty of comments with far more venom.

But when Abess sold his City National Bank of Florida, he did a real mitzvah and gave $60 million in bonuses back to his employees. Here’s what Obama had to say and a little extra reporting from JTA:

“I have also learned that hope is found in unlikely places; that inspiration often comes not from those with the most power or celebrity, but from the dreams and aspirations of Americans who are anything but ordinary,“ Obama said in the first of a number of references to the upper reaches of the Capitol, where a president’s chosen “heroes” sit with the first lady.

“I think of Leonard Abess, a bank president from Miami who reportedly cashed out of his company, took a $60 million bonus and gave it out to all 399 people who worked for him, plus another 72 who used to work for him,“ Obama said, as Abess barely contained his emotions. “He didn’t tell anyone, but when the local newspaper found out, he simply said, ‘I knew some of these people since I was 7 years old. It didn’t feel right getting the money myself.‘“

According to the biography of Abess posted by City National Bank, Abess is a board member of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and the Anti-Defamation League.

“Leonard Abess, who gave millions to employees, is a Miami Jewish federation leader,“ William Daroff, the United Jewish Communities’ Washington director, Twittered with pride.

“Leonard and his family have been very generous supporters of the fed for as long as I can remember,” Jacob Solomon, the executive vice president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, told JTA.

“They really bring to life what we mean when we say the Jews should be ‘ohr la-goyim,‘ “ a light unto the nations.

It’s natural for Jews to kvell about such generosity. And that’s what I thought William Daroff was doing, until I realized that “twittered” was capitalized. I follow Daroff’s tweets, but I guess I missed that one; funny to see it mentioned in a JTA article.

Anyway, the pride in Abess’ action is well placed.

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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