As S. Lee Kohrman looks back on 24 years of leading the David and Inez Myers Foundation, he reflected on a small, moment of personal connection – in Istanbul, Turkey.
“I was visiting the Jewish community there,” he said. “They have a system in their senior homes where they don’t use paid employees. People in the Jewish community volunteer. So all the housekeeping and all of the support services in these senior homes … were maintained by the Jewish community, Jewish women.”
Kohrman said he was touched.
“I was very much moved by the devotion of the community,” he said.
He said he posed a question to the volunteers.
“At the end of the day, I asked them if they had a modest sum of money – I can’t remember what it was – what would they do with it?” he recalled. “And they said, well there was an area where they would create a garden so that the senior people could sit out in the garden. I said that sounds like a great idea.”
When he returned to Cleveland, he spoke about his conversation to Inez Myers about his observations in Istanbul.
“I said to her, ‘Inez, these people are going to build a garden, what do you think about that?’ Well she was delighted by it.”
Prior to planting the garden, Inez Myers died.
“So I asked them if they would put a plaque in the garden noting that it was in memory of Mrs. Inez Myers.”
A number of years later he returned to Istanbul.
“And there was this magnificent little Japanese-style garden, which had before just been an old trash dump,” he said. “And (it) was dedicated to Mrs. Myers, and a number of elderly people were sitting out in this garden, and it just moved me tremendously that we had created this wonderful memorial to Inez at the same time serving these people in a wonderful fashion. And certainly David … had been very much interested in the care of the elderly.”
The Myers Foundation has contributed $150 million to organizations in Cleveland, Israel and beyond in the 24 years Kohrman has been at its helm.
Kohrman, 92, has passed the baton of volunteer leadership.
And while he said the priorities and values of David Myers have largely shaped the direction of the foundation’s allocations, Kohrman has also played a crucial and creative role in funding decisions, specifically with an eye toward Israel.
Passing the baton
On June 1, after 24 years at the helm, Kohrman retired from the presidency of the Myers Foundation, passing the baton to Leslie Dunn. Kohrman said he felt the timing was right.
“I’d served for 24 years and no one’s immortal,” Kohrman said. “I understand. It was time to turn it over to someone else to do it. Dave (Myers) left when he was 96. I left when I was 92. And I’ve got a great successor, so it worked out well.”
Connection through community
David and Inez Myers established the David and Inez Myers Foundation in 1954 at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland. A Cleveland native, David Myers first worked as a barrel maker, went into the asphalt business and finally went into investments.
“David came from a generation that was under threat,” Kohrman said. “Or perceived, and it became real obviously in the Shoah. Jews were insecure in the early 1900s and during the time that David lived, he believed Jews would be most secure in America in an America that was open and not constrained. He believed in strengthening America. … He was a very forward-thinking guy.”
Kohrman first connected with David Myers when the two served on the Mt. Sinai Hospital board. They also connected through Federation work.
Myers asked Kohrman to become his lawyer and later to serve as one of nine trustees on the board of the Myers Foundation. Five trustees at the supporting foundation of the Federation are designees of the Federation; four are donor members, initially designated by David and Inez Myers.
In 1996, when Myers was 96, Kohrman became president.
“By the time I became president, the agenda had been set by David during his lifetime,” Kohrman told the CJN in a June 4 interview. “It was pretty much to maintain his charitable giving, his philanthropy that he had started during his lifetime. He created the foundation to be the conduit for his many facets of philanthropy. We continued that.”
An eye toward Israel
Kohrman, as the volunteer at the helm, also helped shape the direction of allocations, with an eye toward Israel.
He said Myers believed that “Jews in America were likely to prosper – I don’t mean just financially but socially and have all the opportunities that everyone else had – if there’s a free, generous, progressive society. So, while he was a conservative in his business matters, I think he’d be described as a progressive in social matters.”
Myers believed in supporting education and arts in Cleveland, in Jewish life in Cleveland through the Jewish Federation and its partner agencies, and in supporting Jewish continuity in America and throughout the world.
“He had some interest in Israel, not as great as mine,” Kohrman said. “There was also a minor interest of his, which we’ve continued, which was support of basic research in the life sciences.”
Through his position at the helm of the Myers Foundation, Kohrman saw a way to both support Israel and research in the life sciences by directing money toward universities in Israel.
“We’ve currently for up to the last decade we’ve been making grants on the order of about $8 million a year. We’re not a large foundation, a modest sized foundation,” Kohrman said, estimating that the foundation now has assets totaling about $200 million and has made $150 million in allocations in his 24 years as its president.
The Myers Foundation has two grant cycles per year, June and December.
“I make the recommendations,” Kohrman said. “I do the study work over the year. I bring to the board recommendations at each grant cycle. I explain why I’m making the recommendations. Sometimes they’re discussed. Sometimes they’re accepted based on what I say.”
Kohrman said he could not recall an instance when a recommendation he made was rejected.
“I don’t think it’s of great value to bring things of great contest,” he said. “We’re not a debating society. We’re trying to do some good. If it’s not fairly evident, fairly persuasive on its face, I wouldn’t bring it forward.”
Myers Foundation grant priorities
Kohrman said the Myers Foundation allocates about $1.5 million a year to each of its five priority areas.
It is a key supporter of jHUB, created by the Federation and the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland, which reaches out to interfaith families with Jewish programming, an investment Kohrman called “worthwhile.”
Similarly, the Myers Foundation supports Jewish camping for children of families who would otherwise not be able to attend camps, often single-parent families with no organizational ties to Jewish communal life.
“We’ve tried to capture those kids,” Kohrman said, and “bring them more strongly toward Jewish life. That’s been very successful for us.”
In terms of Jewish continuity nationally, the Myers Foundation has invested heavily in BBYO.
“They’ve had a resurgence over the last 10 or 15 years, and we’ve participated strongly in that, a great investment to us,” Kohrman said.
Abroad, the Myers Foundation allocates to the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
In Israel, he said that investment in Israel’s universities to study life sciences has been “gratifying.”
In addition, he said the Myers Foundation’s investment at the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute in Jerusalem has allowed the foundation to influence Israel’s policy decisions. The institute conducts applied social research. A $15 million gift in 2004 was the largest made by the foundation at that time.
“By having a strong apolitical research center, such as the Brookdale, I believe we have been able to, as I say, influence policy making for the good,” Kohrman said. “To the extent that we can interject through Brookdale Institute facts and data and solid research, then I consider that to be a force for good.”
The Myers Foundation’s largest investment in Israel is at the institute, he said, along with the investment in universities.
Kohrman first became aware of the institute when the Federation was making overseas connections and the institute was acting as an adviser to the Federation.
“Later on, we were looking to try to create an impact in Israel, rather than just be a passive donor to Israel,” said Kohrman, and decided to invest in the institute. “There was a chance for us to make a real impact in Israel far beyond the size of our foundation, indirectly, but nonetheless recognizable.”
Kohrman served as the chair of the institute for several years, and three trustees of the Myers Foundation are currently on Brookdale Institute’s committee.
“So we still have a great deal to say in how it’s run and where it goes,” Kohrman said.
Disappointments along the way
Kohrman said there have been disappointments in his tenure.
He did not mention the closing of Myers University, formerly called Dyke College, and David Myers’ alma mater.
In 1995, the Myers Foundation made a $2 million naming gift to what was then Dyke College in Cleveland, which became Myers University. Under Kohrman’s leadership, the Myers Foundation made a $200,000 gift to the university, which closed in 2007.
Instead he spoke of a disappointment in shaping Israeli policy in a key area: affordable housing.
“We thought we could make a difference in what I think is one of the great threats in Israel’s society ... the lack of affordable housing in Israel. I thought that was – and is – a great threat to the solidarity of the community. … We invested a considerable amount of money in engineers and lawyers, accountants and city planners and every other conceivable field of professionals to try to put together a package of expertise and persuasivity that would change the direction of affordable housing in Israel, and it was a crashing failure. There is still no program for affordable housing in Israel.”
Kohrman's connection to Israel
Kohrman said he used to travel to Israel four times a year, partly as part of his work with the Federation, where he received the 2018 Charles Eisenman Award, the Federation’s highest honor. He has scaled back those visits in recent years to once or twice a year and estimates he has been to Israel close to 100 times.
He said he enjoys “being in the comfort of a Jewish society” in Israel. “And I take great pride.”
He first went to Israel in 1950 after graduating from Harvard College in Cambridge, Mass. He spent five months on a kibbutz.
“I’d been a strong Zionist,” he said, adding that his father, a Zionist and a socialist, influenced his views on Zionism. He spent five months at a kibbutz called Ginosar.
“I was young. The country was young,” he said, adding that he decided to return to the United States to go to law school. “We used to go out at night, catch fish, ship them to Tel Aviv in the morning. That’s forever in my memory. Working in the banana fields. Meeting people who had served in various Israel armed forces. In 1950, the war was just over in 1948. I got there 12, 14 months after the war was over, the war of independence.”
He said he enjoyed working and talking with people who fought in that war, and that he met people who had come from Europe.
“That was a great experience. It meant a lot to me.”
A modest grant
As a man who appreciates family and family connection, Kohrman spoke of a gift to Council Gardens in Cleveland Heights that stands out in his mind.
“They came to us and they wanted to remodel a little library room that they had there,” Kohrman said. “It was for Jewish seniors and people who were of modest means and needed support in their housing budget. … We paid the grant to them. And I visited them a couple months later, and for the first time they installed laptop computers in this library and so these people who lived there had for the first time been able to use laptops to contact their children who lived away from Cleveland. And their ability to do that really just changed their lives. And it was a modest grant on our part, but it just changed everything there.”
Publisher’s Note: Under the direction of S. Lee Kohrman, the David and Inez Myers Foundation provided the CJN with financial assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic. This tribute section was conceived in 2019.