International businessman and philanthropist Sami Rohr, whose warm heart, vision and financial success enabled him to fund Jewish community centers around the globe and laid the groundwork for a rebirth of Judaism across the former Soviet Union, passed away Sunday in Miami from heart failure. He was 86.
Comfortable in the cultural halls of Eastern and Western Europe, Latin America and the United States, Rohr cut a giant intellectual figure. He was proficient in Torah learning as he was in business and literature, able to recite by heart rabbinic exegeses along with poetry in six languages.
Emerging from war-torn Europe to build a real estate empire in his adopted home of Bogota, Colombia, Rohr went on to make pioneering investments in Eastern Europe.
Yet, despite his extraordinary accomplishments and distinguished lineage, he remained humble and unassuming, and was regarded by rich and poor alike as remarkably approachable. Taking care to devote more than a tenth of his substantial earnings to charity, he taught his children to always worry about the material welfare and emotional wellbeing of others.
“Before my Bar Mitzvah my father sat me down and told me that G‑d entrusts people with material success in order for them to help others, and the only way wealthy Jewish families have been able to hold on to their wealth is by observing the Torah’s instruction to tithe from their income,” he said in a 2006 interview. “Before my son George’s Bar Mitzvah I told him the same; my grandchildren were also told the same, and I pray that all my descendants will always observe this.”
Rohr was an early contributor to the State of Israel and contributed to many Jewish causes throughout his lifetime. He drew close to the work of Chabad-Lubavitch in the 1970s, and in the ensuing decades his
philanthropy and guidance seeded and helped support Jewish revival activities in hundreds of communities across the globe, from Miami to Moscow, and from Mumbai to Basel, the Swiss city to which he escaped the Nazi onslaught of World War II.
So pervasive and widespread is his family’s giving, that few areas of Jewish renaissance today do not boast at least some aspect of the Rohrs’ charitable support behind them. (The Jewish website Chabad.org was dedicated by his daughter Lillian and her husband Moshe Tabacinic.)
“He dedicated his life to make sure Judaism flourished in the future,” said Rabbi Sholom B. Lipskar, the Rohrs' rabbi and spiritual leader of The Shul, the trendsetting Bal Harbour, Fla., Lubavitch-affiliated synagogue and community center that Rohr helped found and whose growth he nurtured as a member and hands-on advisor. “He spoke little and did much, infusing even his criticisms with kindness and love, and always with an eye to making things better.”
Mr. Rohr addresses the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries in 2006
Upheaval and Refuge
Born in 1926, Rohr spent his childhood in Berlin, and was a product of the selfless and uncompromising ideals of his parents, Oskar and Perla Rohr. A scion of a distinguished family, his father was a successful real estate investor who devoted himself to Jewish communal matters in pre-war Berlin. His mother’s activism in Zionist organizations also left an indelible impression upon Rohr during his formative years.
For the early years of his schooling, Rohr attended the prestigious Adath Israel Gymnasium, an institution run according to the Torah im derech eretz approach of the legendary Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch that integrated excellence in general studies with rigorous Judaic curricula.
Throughout the upheavals of early 1930s Germany, Rohr remained focused on his studies, mastering languages, delving into the Talmud, and enjoying classic Yiddish, German, and French literature. Not sufficing with his advanced curriculum at the Gymnasium, Rohr’s parents supplemented his education with a private tutor, a rabbi who would intensify his Judaic studies.
As the political situation worsened, Rohr’s rabbinic tutor, who sported a full-length beard, was forced to stop coming to the boy’s home because of random beatings of Jews enroute; the adolescent, instead, went by foot each night to his teacher’s home.
Without alarming his only child, whom he hoped to shelter from the escalating hate, Oskar Rohr, sensing all too well the changing political winds, quietly sold off part of his extensive real estate holdings in Berlin and sent the proceeds out of the country. He also arranged for Belgian visas for his family.
Kristallnacht arrived on Nov. 9, 1938, and news of the arrests, beatings, burning and plundering reached the studious 12-year-old. Thirteen days after the fires left countless synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses destroyed, members of the Rohr family made their way to Belgium.
Characteristically, Oskar and Perla Rohr immediately enrolled him in an advanced school in Antwerp and hired a rabbi to tutor him in additional Jewish subjects; they would do so again after moving to Lyon in unoccupied France following the Nazi invasion of Belgium.
In 1943, time finally ran out for the Jews in Lyon, and this time the Rohr family headed to Switzerland. Trains were too dangerous, as the French police frequently arrested and handed Jews over to the Germans. So Oskar Rohr arranged for the driver of a newspaper delivery truck to take his family to the border. The three hid for hours on the truck, lying flat underneath stacks of newspapers until professional refugee smugglers accompanied them for the two-hour walk through the forests into Switzerland.
Immediately upon arrival in the country, Oskar and Perla Rohr were taken to a refugee camp for adults in Morgin, while their son was taken to a youth home in Langenbrook near Basel.
Upon hearing that Jewish youth were being held in the Langenbrook kinderheim, members of the Swiss Jewish community traveled there and returned home with refugee children and teenagers who were promptly “adopted” by local families.
The teenage Rohr was welcomed with open arms into the home of Shlomo Zalman and Recha Feldinger.
“To our parents he was like [their own] child,” Gavriel Feldinger, who was seven years old when Rohr arrived in Switzerland, said at the April dedication of the Feldinger Chabad Jewish Center, a project funded by Rohr and the last community center opening the philanthropist attended abroad.
The occasion marked Rohr’s first visit back to Basel in 67 years, and the first synagogue to open in the city since 1929.
“When he came to Basel as a refugee," related Feldinger, “my father asked, ‘How old are you?’ He responded, ’17. My father said, ‘My oldest is 14, so now you are my oldest child-- everybody else move down one seat,’ and sat him at the table right next to him.”
Sami (center) and Charlotte (right) Rohr meet privately with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory. (Photo: JEM / The Living Archive)
A Lesson in Time Management
So supportive were the Feldingers of the young refugee boy that during the two-and-a-half years that Rohr lived at their home, they took every vacation in Morgin so that he could visit his parents.
Since the Feldingers sent their children to a trade school and Rohr wanted to enroll in a Gymnasium to complete his Swiss matriculation, they brought the matter to the community’s rabbi, Rabbi Dow Schochet, a towering Torah scholar blessed with extraordinary leadership skills. Sensing the boy’s intellectual capabilities, Schochet allowed Rohr to enroll in the prestigious Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftlisches Gymnasium, but conditioned his agreement upon Rohr’s firm pledge to simultaneously adhere to a rigorous daily Torah learning program that the rabbi would prescribe for him.
The teenager thus pursued two full-time courses of study simultaneously.
Later in life Rohr related how the rabbi once asked him why he missed his customary 6:30 a.m. lesson in Psalms on the Sabbath.
“I finally have one day in the week when I can sleep,” replied the young Rohr.
“You [finally] have a day in the week [when] you can study Psalms, and you sleep?” the rabbi lovingly rebuked.
The lesson complemented Rohr’s childhood upbringing and natural discipline. Until his last day, he rose very early and slept little, citing the many tasks ahead compared to the relatively short time in which to accomplish them. Leaders of organizations benefitting from his many grants tell stories about voicemail messages from Rohr left at 2 a.m., inquiring about some nuance relayed in a proposal or report.
“Every aspect of his life had meaning and a sense of purpose,” said Lipskar. “He often repeated how important order was to life and to serving G‑d.”
After World War II, Rohr was reunited with his parents and lived in Paris. But his grandfather and almost all of his aunts and uncles perished in the Holocaust, losses which cemented Rohr’s resolve and commitment to the preservation of the Jewish people, particularly through the celebration of Jewish practice and scholarship.
In 1950, as the Korean War began, Oskar Rohr feared that the conflict might escalate into another world war and sent his son to strike out on his own in Bogota, where Rohr’s aunt had made her home after fleeing Europe.
Though originally intended to be a short stint, Rohr’s sojourn in Bogota spanned a quarter century, during which he almost singlehandedly built the entire west section of the city while transforming the local Jewish community forever.
“The only contact I had with Chasidim then were the many rabbis from all the institutions who came from abroad to collect funds in Bogota,” Rohr recalled in a speech at the grand banquet of the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries in 2006.
“While the level of observance of [Judaism] was still rather low, the Jews of Bogota always were excellent people. [Unity] in the community was great.
“The community always maintained their poor with great dignity,” he continued proudly. “When Israel needed emergency funds, the Jewish community in Colombia was the biggest contributor per capita in the world, even higher than the famously generous Jews of South Africa.”
In Santiago, Chile, in 1952, Rohr met Charlotte Kastner, a native of Czechoslovakia and daughter of a Belzer Chasidic community leader, both of whose parents were murdered at Auschwitz. They married in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a year later. The decade that followed saw them become parents to a son, George, and two daughters, Evelyn and Lillian.
In an environment and during a time when Jewish observance was on the decline, the Rohrs’ No. 1 priority was to educate their children, both in the rigorous academic sense and in the deep care and responsibility the family felt toward the entirety of the Jewish people. Like Rohr’s father before him, they instructed their children to give generously and to always view the first 10 percent of their income as belonging to communal endeavors.
Rohr spent eight years leading the effort to build the magnificent Adat Israel synagogue in Bogota, and through their significant contributions to the United Jewish Appeal became well known to a panoply of leaders of the merging Israeli state. Rohr was a particularly active participant in the efforts of Minister Pinchas Sapir, who was a central force in the work to industrialize the barren country.
“Imagine a private house in 1960s South America where you can see that there’s a sukkah in the yard, with people enjoying the food and the l’chaims and singing,” said Daniele Gorlin Lassner, a close friend who met Charlotte Rohr in 1963 at a butcher shop in Bogota. “People of all kinds who were not Jewish [were] looking in, yet [they] always celebrated [their] yiddishkeit with great pride.”
Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski, Gabriel Feldinger, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, philanthropist Sami Rohr, and interim Israeli Ambassador Shalom Cohen cut the ceremonial ribbon outside the new Feldinger Chabad Jewish Center in Basel, Switzerland. (Photo: Meir Dahan)
An encounter in the mid-1970s with the German-born Rabbi Ephraim Wolff, who at the time oversaw much of Chabad-Lubavitch’s Israel operations, opened Rohr’s eyes to the world of Chabad-Lubavitch and its leader, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.
“Among the rabbis who visited Bogota, there came also Lubavitcher [rabbis],” Rohr told the crowd at the 2006 banquet. G d “had been very good with me. I had a large business. In my enterprise I had several young Jewish lawyers, architects, engineers, and whenever a rabbi came, I informed him in which of the offices he could find a Jew.
“Each one of them gave reluctantly the $18, but it was they, the young professionals, who alerted me to the fact that Lubavitcher [emissaries] were different,” he went on. “The Lubavitchers wanted to know if they were married. Did they have children? They wanted to put [the prayer boxes known as] tefillin on them. They did not come only for the money.
“And whenever a Lubavitcher came, I used to give him a bigger contribution than usual, and slowly each time, I became more interested in Lubavitch.”
Rohr, who as a businessman continued to maintain a daily regimen of Jewish study, began exploring the letters of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the 18th-century founder of Chabad-Lubavitch. He became deeply impressed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s immense care for the individual, as well as by his foresight and leadership in inspiring thousands of young people to dedicate their lives to the care of others in the remotest regions of the world.
“The Rebbe’s efforts were the biggest miracle in the Jewish landscape over the last century,” he said in 2006. “Nothing else as big as what the Rebbe organized has emerged.”
When Bogota’s Rabbi Alfredo Goldschmidt and Rohr sought additional help to reach out to and educate the local Jewish community, Rohr suggested that the community request that Lubavitch send an emissary couple to Bogota. Through Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky – today the vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch – Rohr asked for and received the Rebbe’s agreement to send emissaries to the community. Soon thereafter, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rivka Rosenfeld arrived in town.
“This is very sad for all of us,” Rosenfeld said of Rohr’s passing. “He was the biggest charitable leader of today’s generation. But it wasn’t just how much he gave; it was the way in which he gave, and the way he made sure it was used well.”
The Rosenfelds quickly endeared themselves to the entire community and Rohr, profoundly moved by the dedication, enthusiasm and enormous success of the young energetic couple, promptly sought out another one to serve Barranquilla, a smaller community on Colombia's Caribbean coast.
“When we first got here, he paid every penny of our budget,” related Rosenfeld. “He’d give to you and then thank you for giving him the opportunity to give.”
Rohr’s generosity increased dramatically after he and his wife moved to Miami in the late 1970s. His visionary outlook and experiences in Colombia enabled Rohr to identify a potential recipe for the revival of Jewish communal life in other parts of the world. Shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain, he began investing in Eastern Europe as his son, NCH Capital founder and co-managing partner George Rohr, began investing in the former Soviet Union’s embryonic markets. Concurrently, they began investing philanthropically in the Jewish community to counter the 70-year deep-freeze of Jewish life that had been brought about by the Communist regime.
While in Riga, Latvia, Rohr contacted the Rebbe’s office in New York to inquire whether he could merit to sponsor a full-time emissary couple there. Other countries and cities soon followed.
Factoring in the contributions of his children who often doubled as his philanthropic partners, in the final decades of his life Rohr presided over a breathtakingly vast and varied philanthropic domain that catalyzed a Jewish renaissance in communities around the world, primarily through the network of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries.
Among other philanthropic fronts, Rohr undertook a Yiddish literature preservation project through the National Yiddish Book Center. To honor Rohr's lifelong passion for Jewish literature, on the occasion of his 80th birthday his children launched the prestigious Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature under the auspices of the Jewish Book Council in New York. Rohr generously supported the Talmudic University in Miami, and provided crucial funding that has enabled the Israel-based publishers of the Talmudic Encyclopedia to dramatically accelerate their ambitious publication schedule.
Sami Rohr receives the highest honor, sandek, at the 2009 circumcision of his great-grandson Avraham Zvi Sragowicz, at The Shul of Bal Harbour, Surfside, Fla.
The family, despite its largesse, was always uncomfortable with its name in the limelight. Both Sami and Charlotte Rohr – who passed away at the age of 78 in 2007 – lived fairly simply.
A perpetual optimist, Rohr helped those he dealt with see the bright side of things. In those instances where he couldn’t give people all of what they wanted, he always made sure they left his office happy, infusing them with the same optimism by which he lived his own life.
When faced with adversity, he was known to say: “I survived Hitler. I survived Stalin’s era. I’ll survive this, too.”
In an interview with Lubavitch International back in 2006, Rohr reflected on his studies of Jewish communal trends past and present, asserting that despite modern challenges of assimilation, “never before in history were there as many Jews learning Torah as there are today.”
He took particular pride in the revival of Jewish life in Germany, a trend in which he played no small part, seeing it as the most enduring repudiation of Hitler’s evil plans.
“When I see today that, for example, in an old synagogue in Dresden Jews under the leadership of Rabbi Schneir Havlin, the Lubavitcher [emissary] there, are again davening, my heart starts beating a little quicker,” he said.
Looking to the future, he stated that his vision “is a nation of Jewishly well-educated Jews, who keep the [commandments] and are also economically self-sufficient.”
To help realize that vision, he developed an approach to charity that sought to maximize the return on every dollar spent. Hundreds of institutions across the globe ascribe much of their success not only to the Rohr family’s direct funding, but also to their wise counsel and well-structured challenge grants to help meet financial goals.
But because he shunned the public limelight, beyond those who absolutely needed to know, no one else knew much about his family’s philanthropy. The true scope of Rohr’s charity is still not fully known, and perhaps may never be.
“When the history of Judaism in the 20th and 21st centuries will be written,” said Kotlarsky, who spent countless hours with Rohr discussing global Jewish needs, “Sami and Charlotte Rohr and their family will be recognized as pivotal forces behind a Jewish renaissance in many countries, cities and townlets throughout the world. Their unending generosity and dedication to their people have enabled countless individuals, families and communities to re-identify with their faith and strengthen their Jewish observance.”
Sami Rohr (2nd from left), poses with (from left) daughters Evelyn Katz and Lilian Tabacinic, and son George, at The Shul, in Surfside, FL.
Sami Rohr is survived by son George of New York; daughters Evelyn Katz and Lillian Tabacinic of Bal Harbour, Fla.; grandchildren and great grandchildren, as well as millions of Jews across the globe whose lives he cared for and touched. His interment took place Tuesday morning at the Mount of Olives cemetery in Jerusalem, where he was laid to rest next to his parents and his beloved wife Charlotte. The family now returns to Miami for the traditional seven-day mourning period known as shiva.
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Video: Basel's New Synagogue - Sami Rohr and the Feldinger Chabad House