Bay Area philanthropist Tad Taube is most proud of his role in the Jewish rebirth of Poland. (Photo/Norm Levin)
Bay Area philanthropist Tad Taube is most proud of his role in the Jewish rebirth of Poland. (Photo/Norm Levin)

Tad Taube, proud philanthropist and builder of Jewish life in Poland

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Part of Trailblazers, a series of profiles of Jewish men and women who build and sustain our Jewish community, supported by a generous donation from Carol and Norman Traeger.

“Your papers, please!”

In a gruff voice, 88-year-old Tad Taube repeats the Gestapo command he heard as a youngster. “They’d board the train at every stop,” he recalls, demanding to see the documents bearing his ethnic identity. “I was 8 at the time, It was very frightening.”

It was 1939. Taube’s parents had already fled Poland and were living in New York, and young Tad, who’d been staying with his grandmother in Warsaw, was traveling through Germany with a close family friend, headed for Paris. He would remain in France for another two months before boarding a cruise ship for America. “The Queen Mary sounds very romantic, but our quarters were not,” he says with a smile.

Taube recounts the experience as he sits in his Belmont office — a room crammed with photos of family, and of himself with foreign dignitaries and political figures from the president on down. There are medals and proclamations bearing his name and loads of sports memorabilia, from footballs to basketballs to bobbleheads. A tennis buff who still plays doubles “twice a week, rain or shine” at Stanford University’s Taube Family Tennis Center, he goes to the gym regularly and works out with a trainer. He was a founder of the short-lived USFL in the 1980s and principal owner of the spring-summer football league’s Oakland Invaders franchise.

A proud patriot who served as an officer in the Air Force, he has a large American flag — and a Polish one — near his desk. (He was named Poland’s honorary consul to the Bay Area in 2007.)

Despite the emotional scars of his early years, Taube forged ahead — perhaps beginning with his role in the 1942 MGM short “The Greenie,” about a Polish boy in America. He went on to graduate from Stanford and make a fortune in business and real estate, and then became a philanthropist of major proportions.

He and his wife, Dianne, signed Warren Buffett’s and Bill and Melinda Gates’ Giving Pledge in 2013. It was an easy decision, he says, as he was already giving away a majority of his wealth. He established Taube Philanthropies as “the umbrella for all my philanthropic work,” including the Taube Family Foundation and Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture. He also gives generously through a Stanford University donor-advised fund.

“About 15 years ago I shifted the emphasis of my work from making money to giving money away,” says the Woodside resident, estimating that he puts in about 60 hours a week. “I not only want to deal with the philanthropic challenges that are before me today, but I also have to deal with philanthropic challenges that are ahead of me. It’s a geometric progression — and has me pretty much committed to a non-retirement status.”

He clearly relishes the job, and his efforts draw praise.

“If you look around this office, I’ve probably been recognized about 100 times” for various “perceived accomplishments,” he says matter-of-factly. “The achievements are cumulative.”

What is he most proud of?

“I have been responsible, to a large extent, for the Jewish rebirth of Poland,” says the man behind the Jewish Heritage Initiative in Poland, which since its inception in 2003 has disbursed more than 450 grants totaling more than $30 million to over 100 cultural and communal programs and organizations, according to the Taube Philanthropies website.

Tad Taube in a crowd of thousands at the closing night of concert of the 2007 Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, of which he is a major funder
Tad Taube (center) in a crowd of thousands at the closing night of concert of the 2007 Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, of which he is a major funder

The Taube Jewish Heritage Tours, a program of the Warsaw-based Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland, is “a thriving and growing enterprise,” Taube says. “We have a lot of people who have taken advantage of our [nonprofit] program.”

When Taube and TFJLC executive director Shana Penn visited Poland about 16 years ago, he says, “Jewish life was a desert.” Now, “I feel like it’s bloomed.”

Warsaw’s Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Krakow’s annual Jewish Culture Festival, JCCs in the two cities and universities are among the many beneficiaries of his largesse.

Taube received Poland’s highest honor for a foreign civilian award, the Commander’s Cross of the Star of the Order of Merit, in 2016. He marvels: “Here I am, I’m a Jew and we’ve got the Polish government recognizing me as one of its great citizens.”

He was especially touched by the honorary doctorate given him last year by Jagiellonian University in Krakow for his work rebuilding Jewish life and culture in the republic. “The ceremony took place in exactly the same room where my father got his honorary doctorate degree in law” 90 years ago, Taube says. His framed diploma hangs by his father’s in a conference room filled with more awards. There’s even an ancient excavated stone in a plaque from Hebrew Union College acknowledging Taube’s $15 million gift to refurbish the Jerusalem campus.

The invitations to events keep coming — “it’s endless,” Taube says, not complaining. (His cocktail party attire? Jeans and a blazer. “I’m a very casual guy.”)

And a very busy guy, with new projects in the works.

One “major Jewish program on the drawing board” is an outgrowth of the Koret Teen Trips to Israel, established during Taube’s long tenure as board president of the S.F.-based Koret Foundation (he is now president emeritus). The subsidized trips served as “a blueprint,” he says, for Birthright’s free trips for ages 18 to 32.

About 15 years ago I shifted the emphasis of my work from making money to giving money away.

Birthright “is an inoculation, but it’s not forever,” he warns. “We’re working on a booster.”

Dubbed “Rebirth,” it’s designed for millennials as a way to “remind people that they are Jewish … It will create a very diverse experience that will include some trips, camps, various forms of Jewish life.”

He is also deeply devoted to improving health care. “We’re doing a lot of work in pediatric diseases, including pediatric cancer,” with a “major initiative” at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford. In addition, a panoply of research and treatment initiatives will look at concussions (from youth sports through the NFL), addiction (including social media) and youth mental health.

Another area of concern: “We’re doing a very significant citizenship program in collaboration with the Federalist Society,” says Taube, describing it as “an education program for young people.” The Federalist Society is a self-described “group of conservatives and libertarians” interested in the state of the legal system, law schools and the legal profession in this country.

Also underway: He’s writing about his life.

The story goes that his parents decided to stay in the United States while on a business trip (his father “was in the export business — ham and bacon,” he says with a grin). “I state [in the book] that the reason that they chose not to go back was because they were able to view Europe from afar” and realized the impending doom for Jews.

But recently, he’s been reading his mother’s extensive letter collection — and he now realizes that his father “had been in the process of being persecuted by the government,” and that his parents had prepared all along for their escape.

“I was getting out as the Germans were coming in,” he says. “I am a Holocaust survivor.”

Anita Friedman, executive director of S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services and a longtime friend of Taube’s who serves as a director on the TFJLC board, believes that “the experience of being uprooted and losing many family members shapes his worldview and his commitment” to help others.

Taube’s “core values haven’t changed in over 40 years,” she says.“He combines a brilliant business sense with a humanitarian heart in a labor of love on behalf of the community.”

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.