Richard Morgenstern just wants to be left alone.
But when you are the multimillionaire owner of one of the most important documents in American Jewish history — George Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, R.I. — avoiding the limelight is not easy. Especially when that document disappeared from public view 10 years ago and you are the only man in the world with the power to bring it back.
In a series of articles and opinion columns this year, the Forward has highlighted the importance of the letter not just to the American Jewish community, but also to the American nation. “It’s the most eloquent statement, perhaps in our history, of religious tolerance,” Washington biographer Ron Chernow told this paper.
In recent years, the National Museum of American Jewish History and the Library of Congress, among others, have tried to persuade Morgenstern to return the letter to public display so that Americans can see the original document in which their first president lauded his government, “which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
The Forward believes that the Library of Congress is still negotiating with Morgenstern over the letter, a suspicion that only intensified when the Forward requested clarification from the library.
“As a matter of policy, the Library of Congress does not discuss negotiations we may or may not be having regarding acquisitions,” Audrey Fischer, a Library of Congress spokeswoman, said in a November 30 email. “These matters are confidential until such time as all parties agree to publicly announce a gift, donation or purchase.”
She added, “Hope this clarifies the matter,” as if to underline the fact that it did not.
Morgenstern, meanwhile, continues to maintain as low a profile as possible. Reached by phone at one of his homes, in Boca Raton, Fla., Morgenstern said he did not wish to comment.
Very little has been written about Richard Morgenstern. But how can a man who controls the fate of such an important document, and whose family foundation, the Morris Morgenstern Foundation, donates about $500,000 each year to mostly Jewish causes, remain such an enigma?
Here’s what we know about him:
Richard Morgenstern owns a 12,000-square-foot, eight-bedroom home in the leafy Beverly Glen neighborhood of Los Angeles. He is a real estate investor and a congregant at Temple Sinai on Wilshire Boulevard. (The Morris Morgenstern Foundation donated $35,000 to the synagogue in 2007.)
A few years ago, Morgenstern bought a 5,000-square-foot condominium at the palatial Boca Raton Resort & Club. The resort, which is owned and operated by Waldorf Astoria, boasts elegant public spaces, a marina, a golf course, a croquet lawn and a private beach.
Officially, since Morris Morgenstern died, in 1969, his namesake foundation has been run by his son, Frank. But in practice, those who have had dealings with the Morgenstern family say, day-to-day decisions are made by Richard, Frank’s eldest son.
According to legal papers filed during the mid 1980s, Richard Morgenstern is “an experienced and successful investor” with a net worth of more than $2 million.
The papers, which relate to the running of Frank’s trust, note that Frank, then 69, suffered from hypertension, urological problems and insomnia, and needed help managing his financial duties. “He believes that his wife and children are the optimum choice as his eventual successor Trustees,” the papers said.
They go on to describe Richard as a talented businessman, then operating several hotels and motels, including the Sheraton Americas Hotel in Hialeah Gardens, Fla., with a staff of 250. Richard’s younger sister, Carol, is described as the founder of an event-planning company, Exceptional Events, and as the author of several books. Their kid brother, Alan, then 32, was described as a real estate broker.
The three children were trained in investing by their father as he was trained by his own father, the court papers say. They add that the Morgensterns “are a closely-knit family and have the interest of each other at heart.”
Richard Morgenstern and his wife, Tammy, raised their three children, Michael, David and Sari, in Los Angeles. In 2007, Richard transferred his California driver’s license to Florida, where his father, now in his 90s, still resides.
According to the Florida Secretary of State’s office, Richard has voted in Florida in the general elections of 2008 and 2010 and in a municipal election this past March.
Though he still spends part of the year in Los Angeles, he has not voted in California since 2004. His 2006 silver Mercedes-Benz is registered to his Florida address.
In its most recent tax filings for 2010, the California-based Morris Morgenstern Foundation listed assets totaling $9 million, including “historical documents” valued at $300,000.
Those documents almost certainly include George Washington’s letter to the Jews of Newport. If that is the case, the valuation, carried out by Washington-based Second Story Books in 2007, may be on the conservative side. David Redden, a Sotheby’s vice chairman, recently estimated that the letter could fetch between $5 million and $10 million at auction.
In order to maintain its tax-free status, the Morris Morgenstern Foundation must give 5% of its assets to charity each year.
The foundation is a regular contributor to the Anti-Defamation League, which received about $50,000 over the past five years, and to the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, which received more than $100,000 during the same period.
“We don’t comment on our donors,” said Marla Egers, executive vice president of the federation. The ADL also declined to comment.
The foundation gives regularly to the University of Pennsylvania, where Richard, who attended the Wharton and engineering schools, graduated in 1968. During the past two years, the foundation has also donated $20,000 to Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish rehabilitation center for people suffering from substance abuse and addictions.
Nina Haller, Beit T’Shuvah’s director of development, said: “I’m sure the family had a personal interaction. Somebody knew somebody and saw the transformation.”
By far, the largest recipients of the foundation’s largesse are the Jewish Communal Fund and Agudath Israel of America, which have received a combined $1.6 million during the past five years.
Perhaps in keeping with Morgenstern’s desire for secrecy, JCF is a donor-advised fund that funnels donations through the organization without declaring the money’s final destination. Since 2007, the foundation has given $785,000 to JCF.
Ellen Israelson, vice president of marketing and donor relations, said the multibillion-dollar fund “gives an additional layer of privacy and confidentiality” to families.
Donor-advised funds have tax advantages, too. Instead of giving money to recipients straight away, donor-advised funds can withhold contributions for decades or longer. Critics such as Ray D. Madoff, a professor at Boston College Law School, claim that such funds allow families to take annual tax write-offs while creating, as Madoff recently noted in The New York Times, “a legacy for future generations.”
There is no evidence that the Morgenstern foundation’s contributions are not dispersed in full each year.
The ultra-Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel of America has received $850,000 from the Morgenstern foundation during the past five years, also for a donor-advised fund.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel, said in an email that Agudath retains a small portion of the money as a fee, while “the vast majority of the donated funds are (and here have been) remitted to the philanthropist’s intended end-receivers.”
Because JCF and Agudath funds are donor advised, Morgenstern has essentially become a mostly anonymous donor. No one, apart from his family, can say where his money has gone.
It is unclear why the Morgensterns, who belong to Conservative congregations (Frank Morgenstern and his wife, Deborah, are members of Kol Anshei Shalom, a Conservative synagogue, in Boca Raton), would choose a strictly Orthodox umbrella group such as Agudath to disburse almost one-third of their annual charitable contributions.
Like so many aspects of the Morgenstern family, their philanthropy and their motivations remain unclear.
Similarly unclear are the reasons why Morgenstern has resolutely refused to allow other institutions to display the letter during the past decade.
Even Moishe Smith, a man who has done more than most to try to persuade Morgenstern to give up the letter, says he does not understand the family’s reservations.
The Washington letter disappeared from view in 2002 when the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, where the letter was on loan, closed its Rhode Island Avenue exhibition hall and relocated to a much smaller space. The majority of the museum’s holdings, including paintings, Judaica and the Washington letter, were put into storage.
Smith, president of B’nai B’rith International from 2006 to 2009, said he tried several times to persuade Morgenstern to allow the letter to be loaned to another institution where it could be put on display.
Smith said that before he took over as international president, Morgenstern turned down a temporary loan request from the Library of Congress because he was concerned about the document moving about too much.
When Smith was in office, he tried to persuade Morgenstern to lend the letter for the opening of two new Jewish museums: the $10 million Ambassador John L. Loeb Visitors Center, in Newport, and Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History. Morgenstern turned down both requests.
“I said, ‘This is the right thing to do. Let’s put it on display.’” Smith said. But Morgenstern declined.
“I had two, maybe three, face-to-face, heart-to-heart meetings with him,” Smith said, “and even after those two or three meetings, I couldn’t give you any particular clue or reason why he doesn’t want that letter on display.”
Smith added, “We would be more than thrilled for the public to be able to have the opportunity to view the letter.”
B’nai B’rith International is chained to the letter by an agreement it made with Morris Morgenstern 50 years ago to accept the document on long-term loan.
As the Forward chronicled earlier this year, Morris Morgenstern, a self-made New York financier, bought George Washington’s Letter to the Jews of Newport in 1949.
Unlike his 5-foot, 11-inch tall grandson, the elfin Morgenstern used the letter to attract attention.
The son of Austrian immigrants, Morgenstern grew up poor on Manhattan’s Lower East Side before making his fortune in real estate. After he bought the letter, he enlisted the help of up-and-coming Jewish marketing maestro Howard Rubenstein, and between the two of them they came up with an idea to promote the letter.
Morgenstern made copies of the original and had them framed. He turned them into the Morris Morgenstern Foundation Award and presented them to deserving people, such as 1961 awardee Dr. John K. Lattimer, a urologist at New York Presbyterian Hospital.
Morgenstern used the letter to garner attention in the press and to gain audiences with dignitaries, including former presidents Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman and future presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
But the letter was more than just a public relations tool for Morgenstern. He believed in its power to teach and to inspire.
At a New York school in 1960, he told a class that Washington’s immortal phrase — that America’s government would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” — was not even his favorite section of the letter.
Instead, The New York Times reported, Morgenstern preferred Washington’s quotation in the letter of a passage from Micah, that “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Even the famous “to bigotry no sanction” phrase was not Washington’s. It was lifted, almost word for word, from a letter written by Touro Synagogue warden Moses Seixas, who welcomed Washington to Newport in August 1790.
At the time, the Seixas family was one of the last of the great Sephardic Jewish families living in Newport. The town’s once thriving industry, which had benefited so many Jews, suffered under a lengthy British occupation during the Revolutionary War.
Just 15 years after Washington’s visit, the last members of the congregation closed down the synagogue. They passed the deeds to the land, and gave the building’s keys to New York’s Sephardic Congregation Shearith Israel.
Until recently, it has been a mystery how the letter traveled to the Morgenstern family from the Seixas family. According to minutes of a Touro Synagogue board meeting, in 1950, Morris Morgenstern located the letter aboard the Freedom Train, a traveling exhibition that toured America after World War II.
Freedom Train documents stored at the National Archives reveal that the owner of the letter in the late 1940s was Howard Milkman Sr.
Milkman’s son, the Rev. Howard Milkman Jr., confirmed that his father, a furniture salesman who died in 2003, sold the letter to Morgenstern.
“I think Dad wanted to make sure it was in good hands,” Milkman said.
When the younger Milkman went through his father’s private papers after his dad’s death, he discovered correspondence between Morgenstern and his father. But Milkman said the documents are gone now, since he threw everything away.
He said the letter, which was sold when he was a boy, was rarely spoken about at home. His father never broached the subject with him. “I kind of overheard it,” Milkman said of the sale. “It was family lore.”
Instead, the one aspect of his Jewish heritage upon which the elder Milkman dwelled was his family’s historic ties to Shearith Israel.
Milkman Sr. converted to Christianity in 1944, after he married Anita Quay. But he instilled in his son the belief that their ancestors, who included members of the Gomez and the Phillips families, part of the Sephardic elite, played an important role in Shearith Israel’s history.
Milkman Jr. said that his father visited Shearith Israel’s sanctuary with him shortly before he died. “My dad got very teary when he walked into that room,” he said.
A family tree, published in Malcolm Stern’s “First American Jewish Families,” shows that Milkman Jr. is a direct descendant — the great- great-great-grandson — of Moses Seixas.
So it seems more than likely that the letter stayed in the Seixas family for more than 150 years before the elder Howard Milkman sold it.
A letter at the National Archives, dated May 12, 1947, shows that until just before he sold it, Milkman wanted the Washington letter to be shared with the public.
“I happily, lend… the original George Washington letter for the duration of the Freedom Train exhibition,” Milkman wrote to the organizers of the exhibition.
Morris Morgenstern showed that he, too, wanted to share the letter with the public.
Now, it’s Richard Morgenstern’s turn.
Additional reporting by Nathan Guttman.
This story "Private Owner of Washington's Letter" was written by Paul Berger.