Author: Seplow, Stephen
Date published: May 15, 2012
With about $50 million in deposits and 135,000 customers, Bankers Trust was Philadelphia's 10thlargest bank in the fall of 1930, a year after the Great Depression started. That's when anxious depositors began withdrawing money - and they didn't stop until it escalated into a full-scale run that amounted to $17 million worth of withdrawals by Friday, Dec. 19.
The bank, owned by Albert M. Greenfield, was out of available cash.
Many of the city's other leading bankers - all Protestants - met over the weekend to decide if they wanted to bail out the rough-edged, aggressive Russian Jewish immigrant.
"When all was said and done," Dan Rottenberg, who is working on a biography of Greenfield, concluded in an essay, "they simply did not trust Greenfield, did not like him, were not comfortable dealing with him."
So they turned him down. And Bankers Trust's doors never again opened for business.
A similar fate felled smaller neighborhood banks that served firstgeneration Eastern European Jews. Banks like Blitzstein's at Fourth and Lombard Streets were part of the fabric of the heavily Jewish South Philadelphia neighborhood, which was home to small businesses like Shupak's pickles and Joseph Polak's confectionary, as well as scores of pushcarts and sweatshops.
Greenfield, of course, went on to extraordinary wealth and prominence, controlling or owning the nation's largest real estate concern; a huge retail empire that included Lit Brothers, Bonwit Teller and Snelleriburg & Co.; a mortgage company; and six Center City hotels. "Hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians lived, worked or did business in buildings he owned, managed, leased, bought or sold," Rottenberg wrote in the essay that appeared in Jewish Life in Phüadelphia 1830-1940, edited by the late Murray Friedman.
And they got their news from him for a time as well: Greenfield owned the Jewish Exponent for a period in the early 1940s, until he sold it to the Allied Jewish Appeal, a forerunner to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, for a nominal fee in 1944.
Greenfield was one of the city's Jewish power players who spanned the period before and after World War ?, a time when, Friedman writes in his book, Jewish Life in Philadelphia 1940-2000, Jews went from outsiders to insiders. He personified the metamorphosis, going on to head the Chamber of Commerce and the City Planning Commission in the 1950s, and becoming the financial adviser to Cardinal Dennis Joseph Dougherty, who headed the Philadelphia Archdiocese from 1918 to 1951. He was also a delegate to five Democratic National Conventions.
Other big names of the era included Walter Annenberg, who amassed his fortune as publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Daily Racing Form, both of which he inherited from his father, and from TV Guide, which he founded in 1953; and Joseph and Samuel FeIs, who built the FeIs Naptha Soap Company into a multimiUion-dollar enterprise.
Even without these corporate giants, Jews, particularly those from Germany, were well-integrated into the city before the migration from Eastern Europe. According to Friedman, 15 percent of Jews around 1900 were bankers, brokers or wholesale merchants, 35 percent were retailers and 5 percent professionals. But an economic panic in 1907 and 1908 put an end to a lot of those jobs.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, Jews still had to contend with a seemingly impregnable glass ceiling. They occupied almost no managerial offices in major industrial organizations, banks or insurance firms. They were not invited to join the clubs where business was done and they did not get asked on to prestigious boards.
But perhaps most glaring was the obstacle Robert Segal found when he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1960: Most large firms were not interested in him.
Except, of course, for Wolf Block. "Prior to 1960, Jewish kids from Harvard or Perm could hardly go elsewhere," said Segal, who became one of the city's most prominent real estate lawyers. Many large firms had no Jews, some had a token or two and a very few "mixed" firms, such as Dilworth Paxson, had more. There were other Jewish firms - Fox Rothschild, for instance - but Wolf Block was the Jewish firm.
And its business was built on Jewish clients, some of whom became mainstays in the segments of Philadelphia's economy that were wide open for Jews: real estate, textiles, retail and more.
Wolf Block was dissolved in 2009, but Jewish graduates from Harvard, Perm and dozens of other law schools are now practicing in and leading law firms everywhere in the city.
And all kinds of other local Jewish businessmen have found remarkable success over the years, including Sidney Kimmel with Jones New York, the women's clothing firm; Raymond Perelman by buying and selling businesses; Ronald Rubin by developing buildings and shopping centers.
And one defining characteristic has run through Philadelphia businesses great and small: Many of them became serious philanthropists, contributing to Jewish institutions as well as the civic and cultural life of the city.
At 80, Ron Rubin, real estate developer extraordinaire, is still trim, agile and very active. He works out for 90 minutes three times a week and plays golf regularly. Without being specific, he says there have been health challenges, but, he emphasizes, "I'm good." He doesn't appear to have slowed down.
Now, dressed in a shirt open at the collar and a blue golf sweater, he is virtually hidden behind several unsteady piles of paper that he is trying to offload from his desk to an industrialsize garbage bin. He doesn't seem to be having much success.
Which is rare. Because, over the years, Rubin has been fabulously successful buying and developing some of the city's grand est buildings, including the Bellevue-Stratford at Broad and Walnut Streets, Mellon Bank Center at 18th and Market Streets, the PSFS Building at 12th and Market Streets (which he helped convert into the Loews Hotel), the old Strawbridge and Clothier Building at Eighth and Market Streets, which has been renovated for office space, the nearby Gallery and a lot more.
Indeed, Rubin has long controlled more Center City space than anyone, first as CEO of the Rubin Organization, which his father founded, and more recently as CEO of the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, which bought out the Rubin Organization in 1997. PREIT owns around 40 malls, including those in Cherry Hill and Plymouth Meeting, in 13 states. (Rubin will be stepping down from PREIT as of June 7.)
But the building we're in now - the Bellevue - is the one for which he broke one of the real estate commandments by which he thrives, one that his father handed down to him: "Don't fall in love with the bricks."
These bricks were special, though. The Bellevue, the duchess of Broad Street, was slated for destruction after Legionnaire's Disease there killed 34 and infected 221 American Legion conventioneers in 1976. Frank Rizzo, the mayor then, wanted to tear it down and replace it with a parking lot. Rubin bought it - and saved it - after some challenging years.
The purchase was quite an event for the Rubins, father and son. Richard Rubin, who came here from Ukraine when he was a child, got his first job delivering shoes from a high-end shoe store to guests at the Bellevue. He had to use the service entrance. "So it was quite a thrill" to buy it, says Rubin fils. There is a photograph in his third-floor office of his father kissing him after the Bellevue deal was signed.
Rubin is also the man most responsible for launching the Center City District, which started in 1991 and has helped make Center City immeasurably cleaner, safer and more inviting.
That was no cheap trick. After lobbying City Council and Mayor Wilson Goode to approve the idea, he had to persuade the major property owners to pay the fees and extra taxes for the security and sanitation the CCD would provide. But, he says, he had a lot of credibility: as the largest property owner, he was all in.
Rubin has long been an active leader in the local Jewish community. He was formerly on the board of the United Jewish Appeal and is now co-chair of the National Museum of American Jewish History. Asked if Judaism plays into his business practices, he drops his voice a little.
"I'm certainly a practicing Jew," he says, one who has been on the board of his synagogue, which he attends mostly on the holidays.
"I don't want to say I'm holier than thou. I believe in the basics. My business career - my life - is all based on relationships, and ultimately all relationships, if they have any meaning, are based on trust. I try to impart that culture in my business. Building relationships is everything. I don't know whether that's a Jewish ethic. But it certainly has driven my life."
Into the Mainstream
Ross Born was, well, born to make and sell candy - lots of it.
It wasn't part of his original plan. He was in law school at Hofstra University when his father and uncle - who had taken over the Just Born candy company from Ross's grandfather (and company founder) Sam and Sam's two brothers-in-law - told Born they were thinking of selling.
But, they said, they would take it off the market if Ross and his cousin, David Shaffer, wanted to get in the business. They did, but only after finishing their educations, in 1978. It took another 14 years before Born and Shaffer became co-presidents. "We kind of fell into it and made a decision from the first day that we'd do what we can to make this work," says Born, who is active in numerous Jewish organizations, and whose wife, Wendy, is president of the Jewish Federation of Lehigh Valley. "We have great respect for one another and have never had arguments. And this is our 34th year."
Bom's zayda Sam emigrated from Russia in 1905 because "he wasn't going to fight the czar's wars," says Born. He was making candy in New York by 1908 and opened a small candy-making operation in Brooklyn in 1923, calling it Just Born because everything was manufactured daily. The operation moved to Bethlehem, Pa., in 1932, where it remains headquartered and where most of its 500 employees work.
The company has grown steadily, with its most popular brands being Mike and Ike, a chewy candy in numerous flavors; Hot Tamales, a cinnamon-flavored chewy candy; and Peeps, a marshmallow candy, more than 5 million of which are produced each day.
In 2003, Just Born bought Goldenberg's, producers of Philly's own Peanut Chews. And that, Born says, put the company on a rocky road for a while.
Just Born's first problem was trying to reposition Peanut Chews from a brand sold regionally in the Mid-Atlantic states to one sold nationally. As part of that effort, they took the name "Goldenberg" off the wrapper and tried to sell the candy as just "Peanut Chews." In this, Born says, "we screwed up" twice. They never created a national market and they managed to lose the Philadelphia base, where people knew the candy they grew up with as Goldenberg's.
Now, they've come full circle. The Goldenberg name has returned to the label and Just Born is concentrating on the original market. "Thank goodness, people have fond memories," Born says. "We're doing what Philadelphia wanted and the plant is humming." (In fact, Goldenberg's is the only company brand made in Philadelphia, not Bethlehem.)
Born, 58, who Is married with two daughters and two grandchildren, says he and Shaffer act as "the heart and soul" of the firm. By that, he means, they set the "values," while a talented management team makes things work.
"The 'how' is just as important as the 'what' - not just making money or getting the goods out. But how do we do it that's right - that takes care of customers, consumers and the people here. We make an effort to show that we care about our employees. If we attain certain goals everyone gets a piece." He says the company also helps employees financially to continue their educations. "Some have gotten business degrees," he says proudly.
Setting the Pace
Ross Berkowitz has made a career of creating opportunities for local Jews.
Over the past nine years, he has overseen the dramatic expansion of a young professionals group, started an annual citywide "learningfest," launched a social entrepreneur fellowship and folded all these programs into the nonprofit Tribe 12.
Housed on the second floor of the Gershman Y, Tribe 12's offices are unprepossessing: a few aging couches, some cafeteria tables, a couple of bridge tables and a bunch of half-empty Coke bottles in the large front room, with three small offices in the rear - a spartan setting for an organization with big aims: "to get people to care about Judaism and be involved in the Jewish community and choose to remain involved. I want to bring my passion for Judaism and Israel to others," says Berkowitz, Tribe 12's 39-year-old founder and executive director.
He credits Annabel Lindy, a longtime activist in Jewish affairs who died in 2010, as the spark behind his work.
Hoping to connect Jews in their 20s and 30s, Lindy funded the creation of the Collaborative in 1997. She hired Berkowitz, with a background in HiIIeI, the Jewish Agency for Israel and other Jewish organizations, to run it in 2003.
Berkowitz says he was eager to work with people in their 20s and 30s because those "are transition years. If Judaism doesn't come into play when you're deciding on spouses and where to live, it won't be there in the future."
As the years passed, however, Berkowitz found himself more removed from the social scene as a young father. He turned most of the Collaborative programming duties over to other staff members and focused on new projects, like LimmudPhilly, which marked its fourth annual "Panoramic Jewish Learningfest" this spring.
He didn't stop there, creating Tribe 12 in fall 2010 as an overarching cooperative for independent programs serving the needs of the Jewish community. Just to be sure the city would never run out of those, Tribe 12 unveiled a "Social Entrepreneur Fellowship" with financial support from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and curriculum from PresenTense.
About a dozen budding entrepreneurs try to bring their socially minded ventures to fruition. They attend workshops over a fivemonth period to learn the nuts and bolts of putting together a business. Each fellow is assigned a coach and a mentor to help make introductions and open doors.
The 2011 projects included Michal Waldfogel's Deep Breath Baking, which combines yoga with making challah; Randy Schulz's American Israel Business Lab, which assists Israeli entrepreneurs as they set up shop in the United States; and Jared Jackson's Jews in All Hues, which encourages people of dual heritage to accept and embrace their Jewish identity.
One of this year's fellows is Elisa Heisman. She has an idea she calls "Shul Solutions," that would help synagogues figure out "how to be relevant all the time," not just during the holidays and life cycle events. She says the fellowship has taught her how to refine her ideas and identify - and, hopefully, solve - problems she's likely to encounter.
"It's been terrific," she says, adding that she's preparing a trial run of one her seminars at a local synagogue. "The entire group has good ventures and we motivate each other."
-Additional reporting for this profile was provided by Deborah Hirsch
Late 1910s: Strawberry Mansion becomes the second-largest Jewish immigrant district in the city.
1920: A consortium of businessmen opens the Locust Club at 1612-1618 Locust St. (closed 1999)
1935: Four Jewish players make the Eagles: Max Padlow, Izzy Weinstock, Harry Shaub and Irv Kupcinet.
1940: Philadelphia's neighborhoods have a combined Jewish population of 245,000.
1948: The State of Israel is born. Philadelphians ship 100,000 cases of food to the new nation.
1956: Mikveh Israel Cemetery is designated as a National Historic Shrine.