Aronson: Davidson foundation could be as big as Jim Joseph and primarily Jewish

The Jewish community shold be wating with bated breath over what will happen to the estate of Bill Davidson, the former billionaire owner of the Detroit Pistions — and mega-philanthropist — who died in March.

I spoke yesterday with Bob Aronson, the mega-fundraiser who is the CEO of the Birthright Israel Foundation, the head of Michael Steinhardt’s private foundation, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit — and Davidson’s personal adviser on Jewish philanthropy.

Given his hefty work schedule (Aronson could personally solve our unemployment problem if he would just settle on one job for himself), Aronson has been a tough guy for me to get a hold of for the past several months.

But he was quick to return a call asking specifically about Davidson.

For the past 10 years, Aronson met with Davidson for about three minutes a week to go over his Jewish projects — and those three minutes yielded a $15 million gift to JTS for a school to train Jewish professionals, a $20 million gift to the Weitzman Institute to improve science training in Israel’s public schools and a $75 million gift to Hadassah hospital in Israel to build a new 14-story tower.

Despite the grandeur of those gifts, Davidson was extremely humble, very self effacing. "He shied away from publicity and recognition. He was a private family man,” Aronson said. “And when it came to his philanthropy, Bill was fond of saying no one ever solicited him. He came up with his own ideas and he would decide on the people who would make that happen.”

A good example: Davidson became concerned that Israel’s high schools were falling behind when it came to the sciences, and he wanted to build a school to better train teacehrs. He got on the horn, called Haim Harari, the president of the Weitzman Institute of Science at the time, and said, “I want to give you $20 million to make that happen."

"Harari probably fell off his chair,” Aronson recalled. “But that is the way Bill worked. When he was asked to make a gift to Hadassah, they came to see him and they were asking for $5 million to $10 million. He called me and said, ‘Get them back into town,’ and gave them $75 million.”

Aronson said he became involved with Davidson, through David Hermalin, the former ambassador to Norway and a major contributor to ORT and Israel Bonds who died of a brain tumor in 2000.

Here’s Aronson version of his first meeting with Davidson: “I went into his office. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I had 35 requests [for Davidson] on my desk, so I made a chart of requests — $1 million, 5 million, $10 million — I took all the requests and prepared a chart. He said, ‘thank you very much. That is not what I want you to do’ and put it in the garbage,” Aronson said.  “His real issue was how do we improve the training and the longevity of Jewish professionals in Jewish education and in other disciplines like communal work. How do we train the trainers?"

Davidson’s legacy will continue going forward through his foundation, which stands to be beefed up by a major bequest from his estate. And the Jewish community stands to benefit tremendously.

According to Aronson, the foundation should eventually be “equal to” the $800 million Jim Joseph Foundation.

“It will echo Bill’s concerns," Aronson said. "It will be Jewish primarily, but Bill also cared about health care, the University of Michigan and projects in Israel — academic primarily. He also had a love for antiquities and the archaeology of Israel.”

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