President’s shoutout to Jewish giver takes us into the Abess


In case you missed it, the President gave a shoutout to a Jewish philanthropist last night during his address to the Joint Session of Congress, when he said he was inspired by Leonard Abess, who recently gave his $60 million bonus to his employees.

From our president:

I know that it is easy to lose sight of this truth – to become cynical and doubtful; consumed with the petty and the trivial.

But in my life, I have also learned that hope is found in unlikely places; that inspiration often comes not from those with the most power or celebrity, but from the dreams and aspirations of Americans who are anything but ordinary.

I think about Leonard Abess, the bank president from Miami who reportedly cashed out of his company, took a $60 million bonus, and gave it out to all 399 people who worked for him, plus another 72 who used to work for him.  He didn’t tell anyone, but when the local newspaper found out, he simply said, ”I knew some of these people since I was 7 years old.  I didn’t feel right getting the money myself."

I’m not going to comment about the irony of the president saying he does not get his inspiration “from those with the most power,” when the first anecdote he gives is about a gazillionaire.

But Abess does seem something of a philanthropically heroic figure, according to this story by the Miami Herald that ran a couple of weeks ago.

I spoke briefly with Jacob Solomon, the executive vice president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation about Abess, who is a Miami native and a huge benefactor there.

Here’s what he had to say:

“Leonard and his family have been very generous supporters of the fed for as long as I can remember. His father Leonard, Sr., was one of the pillars of this Jewish community, and Leonard, Jr., has both carried on and I think advanced the leading role the Abess family has played in Jewish philanthropy but also in civic activism and leadership.”

Abess, who is a member of the federation’s Summit Division, meaning that he gives to the federation more than $100,000 per year, is also the past chairman of the Mt. Sinai Medical Center. In 2006, he and his wife Jayne gave $5 million to the University of Miami to promote environmental studies, according to the Miami Herald. The Abesses are also deeply involved with the United Way, the Anti-Defamation League, and Temple Israel. The sanctuary in the historic Reform temple is named for Leonard Abess’s mother, Bertha.

“They really bring to life what we mean when we say the Jews should be ohr la-goyim [a light unto the nations]. That doesn’t apply more perfectly than it does with Leonard and Jayne. They take Jewish values and bring them to life,” Solomon said. Even Abess’s move to give his $60 million bonus to his employees was not a shocker, Solomon said.

“It is not out of character,” he said. “Sometimes people do one great thing, and their reputation is built on that. For Leonard and Jayne it was totally in character.”

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