When Sami Rohr was a young real estate developer living in Bogotá, Colombia, in the 1950s, fundraisers from abroad often came to collect money from the local Jewish community. While Rohr donated to all of them, and encouraged his employees to do the same, emissaries from the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement impressed him more than others.
“Lubavitcher shluchim [emissaries] were different,” Rohr recalled in a 2006 speech to a Lubavitch gathering in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. “The Lubavitchers wanted to know whether they were married, whether they had children, where the children went to school. They wanted to put tefillin on them. They did not come only for the money.”
As a result, Rohr said, “Whenever a Lubavitcher came, I used to give him a bigger contribution.”
Rohr, a noted philanthropist who died of heart failure August 5 at age 86 in Miami, practiced the same approach in his giving as the Lubavitch fundraisers practiced in their collecting. According to friends and associates, he viewed his philanthropy as an investment in the Jewish people and was as involved with charitable efforts as he was with his business enterprises.
Over the course of his life, Rohr donated at least $250 million to Jewish causes, according to newswire reports, and was a major supporter of Chabad-Lubavitch, particularly of its efforts in the Former Soviet Union. Although his name was on the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, a $100,000 award for emerging writers and one of the largest literary prizes in the world, he was a man whom many describe as modest and self-effacing.
“[The Rohrs] didn’t build buildings so much as they invested in what they thought of as religious and cultural institutions,” said Samuel Heilman, sociology professor at Queens College of the City University of New York and co-author of “The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson.” “They understood and continue to understand the value of giving money to activities rather than buildings and physical things. They don’t have the edifice complex.”