Daniel Blaser is a JCF Fundholder, trustee, and real estate professional. He works as Senior Vice President at Extell Development Company, a nationally acclaimed developer of residential, office, retail and hospitality properties including Central Park Tower, soon to be the tallest residential building in the world. Prior to joining Extell in 2015, he worked at Paul Hastings LLP as a real estate attorney for nearly a decade. In July, Dan completed his participation in the New York cohort of the Wexner Heritage Program, a two-year Jewish study experience with a focus on leadership. We spoke with him recently about the charitable causes that are important to him, his engagement with Jewish communal organizations, and why using JCF has helped him give smarter.
Jewish Communal Fund: What values drive your involvement in charitable giving?
DanBlaser: For me, it all comes down to the Jewish precept that “kol Yisrael areivum zeh bazeh”—as Jews we have the responsibility to care for one another. All of my grandparents emphasized and instilled in me this communal responsibility for as long as I can remember. My great-grandmother was raised in Vilna, where her father was the president of the Jewish community at the turn of the 20th century. Her daughter—my grandmother—and my father’s father each had harrowing escapes from Europe during the war, rebuilt their lives in America and were fortunate to be able to contribute to their communities both with their time and financial resources. One of my most cherished possessions is my great-grandfather’s Lithuanian passport, filled with visas for countries all over the world, which enabled my grandmother and her immediate family to leave Warsaw and ultimately resettle in New York City. Unfortunately, she lost almost all of her other relatives in the Shoah and my grandfather lost his mother and sister. On my mother’s side, my grandmother was a social worker with Jewish Child &Family Services in Chicago and she taught me the importance of living life with Jewish values in mind, which has had an impact on more than just my philanthropy. I also must add that I think growing up in the small but vibrant Jewish community in Nashville, Tennessee, shaped me as well.
JCF: Who inspired your love of giving to others?
DB: As you heard from my last answer, my family. And as I’ve grown more involved personally as I’ve gotten older, I enjoy it more and more. I particularly enjoy philanthropic endeavors with a global focus. For many years I’ve been involved with global Jewish peoplehood work through my involvement with UJA-Federation and JDC. I’ve been fortunate to travel around the world to visit Jewish communities and see firsthand the impact of American philanthropy. It’s very rewarding to me to see the impact of my giving and connecting with these communities and meeting Jews from around the world has made me want to give more and get more involved. I’ve been to Budapest several times, for example and now have a number of friends there. There is a lot of innovation in the Hungarian Jewish community in spite of the very challenging political climate for Jews and our dollars go a long way to fund programs there. And as anti-Semitism has become more rampant in France, I’ve visited Paris several times both to provide solidarity and to develop an approach for UJA-Federation’s grant-making there.
JCF: Can you share with us some charitable causes that are meaningful to you?
DB: UJA-Federation for me is the most important and where I spend most of my time and give my largest individual gift. It’s such an important organization in that it supports projects locally, in Israel, and throughout the world and it responds to crises without skipping a beat. I’m on the board and the former Chair of the Global Jewish Peoplehood committee and the Young Lawyers division. Federations are very important although not “sexy” in this age of specialized giving—if you look at Pittsburgh following the terrible tragedy there, their Federation is serving as the nexus for the communal response.
I’m also a big fan of Moishe House. Moishe House provides meaningful, welcoming Jewish communities through its over 100 houses in over twenty-five countries to Jews in their 20s. They provide an accessible entry point to Judaism for people who might not walk into the doors of a synagogue or JCC. Their work in Europe is incredible and really engaging and energizing the next generation of Jewish Europeans.
JDC is another Jewish charity I’m proud to support. The work they’re doing in community building and resilience in the face of anti-Semitism across Europe is remarkable and, sadly, becoming relevant to our lives here in the U.S. JDC also has terrific programs in Israel focused on economic empowerment in disadvantaged communities, including Ethiopians, Israeli Arabs and the Ultra-Orthodox, to help improve their lives.
Another favorite cause is the Immigrant Defense Project, where my sister is a senior staff attorney. IDP works to protect the rights of immigrants in the US, and in this day and age, it’s an important organization to support. Especially for me, as the grandchild of immigrants (and a proud older brother).
Lastly, I’ve been involved with Sanctuary for Families, the largest domestic violence organization in New York for many years. While an attorney at Paul Hastings, I oversaw over 130 immigration cases for victims of domestic violence and their families.
To tie it all together, I’m interested in charities focused on helping global Jewish communities. Immigration is another thread that is appealing to me. I support all my educational institutions as well because I am thankful for my education and the opportunities that have been afforded me as a result.
JCF: As a young leader in the community, can you reflect on what issues are important to Jewish millennials?
DB: It’s hard to generalize, but I see young people gravitating to projects that are individualized, specific and cutting-edge. Take Moishe House, for example. They’ve been a disruptive force in community building and this is very attractive for a younger generation interested in innovation. But if you look at a lot of these organizations, almost all were seeded by UJA-Federation and other large, established philanthropies.
JCF: How did you hear about JCF?
DB: I heard about JCF in the early 2000s. For my birthday that year, my grandmother started and seeded a JCF fund for me. We both thought it would be a nice way of enabling me to give back and continuing her legacy of philanthropic involvement. I was still in law school, and I really liked the idea of it. As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve added to my fund. JCF makes charitable giving very easy. It’s easy to donate appreciated stock, which is how I do most of my giving. It’s much easier than giving shares to many different charities. It’s also easy to track my grants, and the people who work at JCF are great! My favorite thing about JCF is that it throws off all this income that supports the Jewish community. Last year, JCF contributed over $2 million to UJA-Federation plus an additional $840,000 from its endowment, the Special Gifts Fund. How can you beat giving back and supporting your community at the same time?!
JCF: Any advice for those first getting started with philanthropy?
DB: First, spend time identifying the charitable causes that interest you. I find that being strategic about where to give has enhanced my giving. I focus most on organizations that bring people together and are global-minded.
The next step is to dive in. I find that it’s more rewarding when you are able to see the impact of your time and dollars. For younger people, start small and get in the habit of giving—even small gifts make an impact. As you become more successful, you will have more to give and you’ll already be engaged in organizations and in the mode of giving. Rolling up your sleeves and really getting involved makes philanthropy more enriching.