In her hometown of New York she was known as the “queen of mean,” notoriously mistreating her employees, tenants and even family members. But in Israel, the name Leona Helmsley is increasingly synonymous with generous donations to programs funded by the trust set up from the late hotelier’s bequest.
With more than $140 million already provided in the past four years to causes in Israel, mostly for health care and medical research, the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust is quietly emerging as a key player in the field of Israel-related philanthropy. Its role, if only posthumously, is giving the hotel queen a seat at the table of Israel’s mega-donors. There, the foundation is being courted by universities, hospitals and civic organizations.
At first glance, the juxtaposition is surprising. A tough billionaire businesswoman who famously chose to leave a chunk of her fortune to her Maltese dog, Trouble, Helmsley was never actively involved in the Jewish community. Now she is becoming a pro-Israel hero.
“Whatever their opinions might be of Mrs. Helmsley, good, bad or indifferent, will become irrelevant and what will be relevant are the things that the trust is doing for mankind and particularly in Israel,” said Sandor “Sandy” Frankel, one of the Helmsley Trust’s key trustees.
Frankel, in fact, is the key to understanding the Helmsley Trust’s interest in Israel. Helmsley’s lawyer while she was alive, Frankel is today using his position as one of the trust’s four trustees to steer its interests toward Israel, long one of his own personal passions.
“I’ve had a lifelong emotional connection to the country, and given the opportunity to do good in an area of importance, it was an easy enough choice,” Frankel told the Forward in a January 6 interview. The unique setup of the Helmsley Trust allows Frankel to follow his passion and make Israel a key beneficiary of its grants.
With net assets of more than $5 billion, the Helmsley Trust has already distributed more than $1 billion. Leona Helmsley bequeathed all her estate to the trust, except for the $12 million that went to her now deceased dog. (A court later reduced the sum to $2 million.) And in recent years executors of the estate have been selling off all her assets — hotels, buildings and even the landmark Empire State Building — and channeling all proceeds to the trust.
But while many others set strict goals for their family charitable trusts, Helmsley made no stipulation regarding use of her money. This was left entirely to the discretion of four trustees: Frankel; John Codey, a former Helmsley business associate, and two of Helmsley’s grandchildren, David and Walter Panzirer.
Ranked as the 14th-largest grant-making foundation in America, the Helmsley Trust focuses its giving on providing major gifts in three key fields: Sixty percent of the trust’s annual giving goes to health programs targeting Crohn’s disease research, diabetes treatment, rural health care and medical research. A quarter is dedicated to education and help for children in need, and the rest goes to local programs in New York and Israel and to local environmental programs around the world.
Frankel’s personal passion for Israel was never shared by Helmsley. The New York lawyer recalled talking to the billionaire businesswoman about Israel at times and offering to take her on a visit with his wife, who was born there, but Helmsley showed no interest.
A majority of the trust’s grants to Israel are focused on medical and scientific research and on health care. The trust’s guiding principle is to use its enormous size to give fewer but more significant grants rather than making many small gifts. One example is its $15 million grant given jointly to the Technion and the Weizmann Institute for the development of alternative energy resources. Another is a $5 million grant to Haifa’s Rambam hospital for building an underground emergency room to be used in case the city comes under a missile attack. Significant grants have also been made to organizations helping wounded veterans of the Israel Defense Forces.
“There are so many worthwhile activities in Israel to support that it is picking among a goldmine of possible riches there,” Frankel said.