Billionaire Philanthropist Laurence Tisch Dies at 80

By Nacha Cattan

Published November 21, 2003, issue of November 21, 2003.
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Laurence Tisch, the hotelier, corporate empire builder and champion of Jewish and general philanthropy, died of complications from cancer November 15 at the eponymous Tisch Hospital of the New York University Medical Center. He was 80.

A self-made billionaire, Tisch built a sprawling business conglomerate with his brother Preston that included hotels, movie theaters, insurance, tobacco, oil tankers and, at one point, the CBS television network.

His philanthropic commitments were topped by his alma mater, New York University, whose board of trustees he chaired for 20 years, and the United Jewish Appeal of New York. He served as president of New York UJA during the 1970s and helped launch its merger with the local Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. The process was completed with the help of his wife Wilma, who led the local federation during the 1980s. The Tisch family has continued to donate between $1 million and $5 million a year to the federation’s various campaigns, sources said.

His sons Andrew, James and Thomas have all served as leaders and officers in the UJA-Federation system. James is currently president of United Jewish Communities and chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, while Andrew heads New York’s Jewish Communal Fund.

Tisch was known in the Jewish philanthropic world as a fierce champion of the federated system of giving. He took a skeptical view of the growing trend among his fellow so-called mega-donors toward creating their own charitable organizations rather than letting communal bodies set priorities, as he favored.

“He set the standard for giving in the New York Jewish community,” said John Ruskay, executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York. “He had a steadfast commitment to the federated community, giving at a time when some of his peers and others were increasingly focusing on far narrower interests.”

“He and his family were always concerned about the broadest notion of Jewish community,” said Ruskay, who interrupted his trip to the General Assembly of North American Federations in Jerusalem to fly home for Tisch’s funeral Monday. He returned to Jerusalem the following day.

Tisch was an early member of the so-called “study group,” a group of about a dozen of America’s wealthiest Jewish philanthropists who gathered several times a year to discuss the future of the community and the best uses of philanthropy. But because of his disapproval of those who operated outside the federated philanthropic framework, he was a reluctant participant in the group, said New York attorney Kenneth Bialkin, a friend of Tisch’s and a former national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League.

“He was always very disdainful about those meetings,” Bialkin told the Forward. “I don’t think he felt comfortable in a separate group of people who are very rich who think they knew better than the normal organs of activity in the Jewish community.”

Tisch was far more comfortable in another high-powered setting, the famous weekly “power breakfast” at his family’s Loews Regency Hotel in Manhattan. Tisch was said to enjoy convening the informal round-tables, which included leaders such as former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, former New York mayor Ed Koch and others, to discuss community affairs.

Tisch’s communal leadership was not without controversy. He was criticized regularly by a handful of Jewish communal activists who objected to his family’s tobacco holdings. He also was caught in the middle of accusations from both sides of the political spectrum that CBS’s coverage of Israel was biased during his leadership of the network, which he took over in 1986 and sold in 1995.

In 1990 Tisch and other community leaders criticized his own network’s “60 Minutes” newsmagazine for a report on the so-called Temple Mount massacre in Jerusalem that fall. The report was critical of Israel’s killing of rioting Palestinians. But an Israeli investigation later proved that the “60 Minutes” report was accurate and several Jewish communal leaders issued apologies to the show’s executive producer, Don Hewitt.

Other pundits have accused Tisch of pressuring the network to cover Israel more favorably, although those complaints were repeatedly dismissed as unfounded both by Tisch and by CBS News journalists, including Hewitt.

Brought to CBS as a “white knight” to save the network from an expected hostile takeover by conservative Senator Jesse Helms, Tisch was later blamed for the network’s ratings decline, which many observers attributed to his cost-cutting measures.

Tisch’s contributions, however, far outnumbered his slip-ups, most observers agreed. At his funeral Monday at the Central Synagogue in Manhattan, Kissinger and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised Tisch’s civic commitment to New York and his support of Israel.

He was the second president of New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council and was a trustee emeritus of the Jewish Communal Fund. His involvement in NYU was legendary, and coincided in a massive boost in the university’s wealth and prestige, credited in large measure to his leadership and fundraising.

In addition his family made major donations to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Tisch Family Zoo in Jerusalem, the Jerusalem Foundation, the Israel Museum, the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

As president of the community relations council, Tisch dedicated himself to building liaisons between the citywide Jewish leadership and local communities, especially in the outer boroughs, said his staff executive at the time, Malcolm Hoenlein. “He helped build bridges to grassroots,” said Hoenlein, who is now executive vice-chairman of the Presidents Conference.

Hoenlein said Tisch was close friends with former Israeli prime ministers Barak and Rabin and was a centrist with dovish leanings who sustained a healthy dose of “disillusionment” along the way.

Tisch is survived by his wife Wilma, his brother Preston and four sons, Andrew, Thomas, James and Daniel. Friends and associates pointed to the prominent role played by all of them as characteristic of Tisch’s leadership.

“It was not so much his personal as his family commitments, exemplified by his wife and sons,” said Jay Kriegel, a former senior vice president at CBS and a friend of Tisch.

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