International businessman and philanthropist Sami Rohr, whose communal heart, visionary mind and financial acumen funded 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.
Emerging from war-torn Europe to build a real estate empire in his adopted home of Bogota, Colombia, Rohr became famous in South America for completely transforming Bogota’s west side. Rohr went on to make visionary investments throughout Europe and particularly in the nascent markets of the post-communist former Soviet Union.
Rohr was an early contributor to the State of Israel and donated to many Jewish causes throughout his lifetime. He drew close to the work of Chabad-Lubavitch in the 1970s. In the ensuing decades his philanthropy and guidance seeded and helped support Jewish revival activities in more than a thousand communities across the globe, from Harvard University to Moscow, and from Mumbai to Basel, the Swiss city to where 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 Rohr charitable support behind them.
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. Yet, despite his extraordinary accomplishments, he remained humble and unassuming, and was regarded by rich and poor alike as approachable and respectful.
As brilliant as were his business investments, his charitable strategy equally inspired. Hundreds of institutions across the globe ascribe much of their success not only to the Rohr family’s direct dispersions, but also to his wise counsel and strategic challenge grants.
His personal schedule remained full till the very end, sleeping little and squeezing as much time as he could out of each day. Grantee organization leaders tell stories about voicemail messages from Sami Rohr left at 2 a.m. in their offices asking questions about some obscure statistic or anecdote relayed in a proposal or report.
Yet, despite his rigor and high standards, Rohr was careful never to hurt the feelings of others and, instead, took care to uplift his conversants. 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.
He regularly deflected expressions of gratitude from his beneficiaries, saying that the thanks go to them for their dedication to the Jewish people and for allowing him the merit to partner with them.
Rohr shunned the public limelight, preferring to live a quiet life. Outside of those who absolutely needed to, no one else knew much about his family’s philanthropy almost his entire life. Indeed, the true scope of his 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 Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky of Lubavitch World Headquarters, who spent hundreds of 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 is survived by daughters Evelyn Katz and Lillian Tabacinic of Bal Harbour, Fla.; son George of New York; grandchildren and great grandchildren, as well as millions of Jews across the globe whose lives he cared for and touched. His interment will take place Tuesday morning at the Har Hazeisim cemetery in Jerusalem, next to his wife Charlotte. The family will return to Miami for shivah.