Tygerpen | Phone banks teach wise guys how to find the big money

I’m in awe of those Jewish federation volunteers who, for a couple of bagels and cream cheese, spend one day a year known as Super Sunday phoning prospective donors and asking them to pledge financial gifts. That the name “Super Sunday” was stolen from American football usage doesn’t surprise me at all, since I learned years ago the need for a certain amount of dishonesty to raise money for worthy Jewish causes.

My lesson began the years I was visiting my Aunt Trixie, Uncle Stan and cousins Larry and Stacy who, to my perpetual envy, had lived since the mid-1940s in a small desert town with almost no rain (unlike Portland) called Las Vegas. And for me they had the prize: a swimming pool.

Uncle Stan was in furniture, a business that ebbed and flowed with the volatile Las Vegas economy. He did well, however, and it was rumored Aunt Trixie herniated a disk because of the progressive weight of her diamonds. Larry and Stacy had a parakeet they taught how to smoke. While I was there, the bird died: not from lung cancer, but from being eaten by the dog.

Although the Jewish community was relatively small, my Uncle Stan seemed to know everyone, and he liked having people over for a barbecue and swim. One time he introduced me to Morris Lansburgh and his daughter Ellen, who originally were from Miami. A few years later, Morris became co-owner of the Flamingo Hotel, purchased for $10.5 million. The middleman who received $200,000 for that deal was at the time another new name to me — Meyer Lansky. In 1972, Morris Lansburgh pleaded guilty to skimming casino profits and served time in the pen.

Gradually I learned the Jewish community was thriving because of good men like Lansburgh. The first big fund-raising vehicle in Las Vegas was the United Jewish Appeal, and its leaders were all major owners of the famous casinos and hotels. They included, among others, Moe Sedway, a lieutenant for mobster Lansky and frontman for Bugsy Siegel; Gus Greenbaum, bootlegger, purported killer and junkie; and Ed Levinson, a Sands and Fremont hotel co-owner caught on FBI tape discussing Lansky’s share of the skim.

Besides UJA leadership, some of the men were active supporters of their synagogue and Jewish community, such as Davie (“The Jew”) Berman, a founder of the national syndicate and a Lansky associate; Willie (“Ice Pick”) Alderman, known for offing people with an ice pick through the ear; and Moe Dalitz, at one time called the toughest mobster in Vegas, who now presided over the skim of millions of dollars for Lansky and others.

When these gentlemen called for UJA pledges — I’m sure they preferred to do this personally rather than rely on volunteers, what with the extra costs of bagels and cream cheese — people responded generously. The men undoubtedly sent a number of reminder letters that pledges were due, but even those letters were limited. It’s been speculated, in fact, that Bugsy Siegel, who was killed by four bullets while sitting in the home of his girlfriend in Beverly Hills, was punished not for his excessive expenses opening the Flamingo Hotel, but because he’d already received four “UJA Pledge Courtesy Reminder for 1947” letters.

Jewish federations, JCCs or synagogues trying to raise money need to follow the successful Las Vegas model. They should contact the Jewish Vocational Service to advertise for former violent ex-offenders/convicts, who can be trained to man (or woman) a call center to solicit pledges or funds. Jews will respond generously to such approaches because, being on a “Do Not Call” list, they already expect to receive phone solicitations.

Our local federation took in $814,000 this past January on Super Sunday. But that’s chicken feed compared with what the Las Vegas model can bring in. And with the ex-cons’ call center, federation doesn’t need a famous “draw” name — a Dianne Feinstein, a Barbara Boxer, a Sheldon Adelson or a Meyer Lansky, who, incidentally, never served time but died of lung cancer.

Which, as I know from my Las Vegas eyewitness experience, is a lot better than being eaten by a dog.

Trudi York Gardner
lives in Benicia and can be reached at [email protected] or via her blog, www.tygerpen.wordpress.com.