Philanthropist Taube wants Polish Jewry remembered for life, not death

When the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews opened its doors to the public last week after years of delays and tens of millions of dollars in spending, it was in no small part thanks to the work of Tad Taube.

A successful Bay Area businessman and philanthropist, Taube has been directing the considerable resources of the Taube Philanthropies (based in Belmont) and the Koret Foundation (based in San Francisco), both of which he helms, to support efforts to revive Jewish life in Poland.

Between them, the organizations have given some $16 million to the museum, which also is supported by the Polish government and other donors. Taube has spent millions more on Jewish educational and cultural efforts in Poland, a country Taube fled as a child as invading armies approached.

Taube (pronounced “Toby”) is also a major donor in the United States, where he supports a dizzying array of causes, including conservative and libertarian groups, Republican political campaigns, schools, an opera and the Jewish Renewal movement.

Rather than harbor resentment toward Poland, Taube has become one of the country’s most irrepressible boosters, and not just through his philanthropy. Since 2007, he has served as Poland’s honorary consul in the Bay Area. Taube also has publicly criticized the Jewish fixation on Poland’s Holocaust era, exemplified by programs like March of the Living, that ignores the hundreds of years of Polish Jewish history that preceded it.

“I think it is essential that we not lose our connection with the country that was the historical center of Jewish life and culture for a millennium,” Taube said in an interview. “Our Judeo-Christian culture came from that 1,000-year period of Jewish history in Poland.”

Born in Krakow and raised in Torun and Warsaw, Taube fled Poland in 1939 when he was a boy, just months before the country was invaded by the Nazis and the Soviets. The following year, the family relocated from New York to Los Angeles, where Taube’s father believed he would have better success in business.

As a child, Taube starred in wartime propaganda films produced by Hollywood studios, playing Polish and Russian children. He was educated in Los Angeles public schools before going on to earn two degrees from Stanford University and serve in the Air Force ROTC. After a brief technology career in what was then the burgeoning high-tech hub of Silicon Valley, Taube got into real estate.

One of his clients was Joseph Koret, the founder of an apparel company with his wife, Stephanie. In the 1970s, the company was in trouble and Koret asked Taube to take it over and effect a turnaround. The company eventually was sold to Levi Strauss & Co. The Koret Foundation was established in 1979 and today has assets of more than $400 million.

Taube began visiting Poland for business in the 1970s and was struck by the deprivations wrought by communism — empty restaurants, the lack of commerce, shabby hotels. After the fall of communism, everything changed.

“The socialist state was dead,” Taube said. “The democratic and capitalistic state that evolved after the freedom that was gained in Poland in 1989 developed possibly one of the strongest economies in all of Europe, not tinged by all the problems of Greece and Spain.”

Taube’s love of free enterprise led him to a diverse business career, including a stint at the electronics company Ampex and an attempt to create an alternative to the NFL, the United States Football League, that foundered in the 1980s. Taube was the owner of the short-lived Oakland Invaders franchise.

“It was not a success financially, but it was an adventure,” Taube said.

As a philanthropist, Taube’s interests are similarly omnivorous. There’s the Taube Tennis Center — including the Taube Family Tennis Stadium and the adjacent Taube South Courts — at Stanford University; the Taube Discussion Series on Teaching American Values at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington; the Taube-Koret Campus for Jewish Life in Palo Alto; and various named initiatives at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, the conservative think tank where Taube sits on the board of overseers.

Taube’s philanthropies — the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture and the Taube Family Foundation — support a bewildering array of civic and charitable institutions: the San Francisco Opera; Museo Italo Americano, a Bay Area museum celebrating the heritage of Italian Americans; the Jewish Renewal movement; the Nueva School, a private school in Hillsborough; an at-risk youth program, Touchdowns for Kids; and the Cesar Chavez Academy in East Palo Alto.

He also supports a number of conservative and libertarian causes, including the Cato Institute, the Ayn Rand Institute, the David Horowitz Freedom Center and the Claremont Institute. In 2012, Taube’s political donations went exclusively to Republicans, including the campaigns of Mitt Romney and Eric Cantor, the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Taube also supported the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, but pulled funding over its decision to screen a film in 2009 about Rachel Corrie, an American activist killed in 2003 by an Israeli bulldozer while protesting Palestinian home demolitions. Shana Penn, executive director of the Taube Foundation, resigned as festival president in protest.

“I don’t want to be pigeonholed as someone who is operating in Poland because I like everything about Poland,” Taube said. “What I like in Poland is that they reclaimed their freedom and rebuilt their economy with a model I think works. I also like the support that the government is giving to the museum and other Jewish institutions.”

After the fall of communism, Taube began to support the resurgence of Jewish life in Poland. At the time, the field had a single dominant player, the cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder, who was beginning to build a sprawling philanthropic empire across the countries of the former Eastern Bloc. Taube began working with Lauder on various projects.

In addition to the museum, Taube supports Jewish community centers across Poland, organizations devoted to scholarship and heritage preservation, education and religious life, artistic endeavors and cultural exchange.

“It was one of those situations that you turn up one card and there’s 100 more behind it,” Taube said. “In other words, it was like trying to move the Sahara Desert east by one mile, a teaspoon of sand at a time. The amount of work was so great, probably even 10 organizations could not do it. But we could start, and we did. And now we have the results of a decade of sustained effort and commitment.”

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.