Interview with Daniel E. & Joyce G. Straus by Professor Joseph Weiler, September 18, 2008
Washington Square Village: a NYU graduate student residence hall in which Daniel & Joyce Straus lived for a period of time early in their marriage, while Daniel attended NYU School of Law.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: I want to explain to you how I conceive of this. I want, on the homepage of the Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law & Justice website, there to be a link entitled "Meet Joyce and Dan Straus." My life experience has shown me that when people write about themselves, they feel very self-conscious. So, an interview is an extremely good way to learn about you, because I'm asking you the questions, talking to you, prompting and prodding you. This is the way people will learn about you, and your parents, and get the whole story.
DANIEL STRAUS: Very good.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Maybe where we can start is indeed, you're dedicating this gift, establishing the Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law & Justice, to your parents. So, tell me a little bit about your parents. Start with your mother. Just as if you were talking to a grandchild who comes to you and says, "I want to know about my great-grandmother”.
DANIEL STRAUS: My mother’s name was Gwendolyn – originally the Yiddish name Gnendel, which her family translated to Gwendolyn, and they called her Gwen. She grew up in an orthodox Jewish home in Williamsburg. She lived, for many years, in the Grand Army Plaza area of Brooklyn and continued to live in Brooklyn for much of her life. In the 1980’s she moved to Manhattan. She was the third of four children in her family. Actually, her oldest brother was a graduate of NYU School of Law as well - this brother was my father's best friend in law school. That's how my mother met my father. Isn't that interesting?
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Let me get this straight. Your mother's eldest brother went to N.Y.U. School of Law, and his best friend was your father – they were classmates? And he said to your father, "You should meet my younger sister" - they met, and they fell in love? That's really interesting.
DANIEL STRAUS: That's correct. I owe a lot to this law school!
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: When was that - when did they go to law school?
DANIEL STRAUS: My father graduated with his LL.B. in 1937. Then in 1943 he got the LL.M. from the law school.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Back to your mother – where did she go to school?
DANIEL STRAUS: My mother went to a regular New York City public school. Then she went to Brooklyn College where she went on to get two Master's degrees. One was in German Literature. She had been studying German literature – but after the Holocaust, she put it down and never picked it up again; never spoke the language, just put it away forever. Her other Master’s degree was in Education.
JOYCE STRAUS: She was a specialist reading teacher.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Tell us just a word or two about your mother’s parents.
DANIEL STRAUS: My mother’s parents were born in Poland, in different towns. They came here in the early 20th century, to Brooklyn. Her father was in a number of different businesses: he owned some real estate, some manufacturing factories.
JOYCE STRAUS: I think he was in the hat business, some well-known hat factory.
DANIEL STRAUS: My grandmother was the traditional stay-at-home mother.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: So, your mother’s parents were first-generation immigrants, who moved here from Poland? And your mother was the first-generation American? Did your mother ever tell you if that created any conflict in the house? The kind of classical conflict between children of immigrants, where the parents don't speak the language perfectly, and sometimes resent the new culture their children are exposed to?
JOYCE STRAUS: That's my experience.
DANIEL STRAUS: You know, for my family, there was more silence on that subject than anything else. I think that for almost everyone of that period, if you ask them about it, the seminal event of their lives was the Depression of 1929. What they lost, what their life was like - this was rather the perspective that shaped everything that followed.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Did she grow up, your mother, in a wealthy family?
DANIEL STRAUS: Yes, a very wealthy family, but they lost quite a bit in the Depression.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: But then her parents invested in the education of their children. So, then she met your father.
DANIEL STRAUS: That's correct. Actually, my parents met when my father was already out of law school, when he was practicing law. It was actually years after the war, where my father had been a chaplain in the army.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Is there any nice story about their courtship? I've got a funny story about my parents. My mother told me that my father invited her for a boat ride on the lake when he wanted to propose to her. But when they went in, he discovered that he couldn't row. So, my mother had to row them back. This was the day he was going to propose to her. Do you have any family story about their courtship?
DANIEL STRAUS: You know, I'll tell you, Joseph, what was unusual for me was my parents were older than most other parents, because my father was 44 when I was born. My mother was 40, which was quite unusual in those days. In fact, I'm the second of four.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: My father was 44 when I was born. Exactly the same age. We have a different relationship with our kids than our parents had with us, don't we?
DANIEL STRAUS: Precisely.
JOYCE STRAUS: Absolutely.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: So, tell me about your father. What was his background? He was born where?
DANIEL STRAUS: My father was born in Uman, in the Ukraine.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: A Bruskva?
DANIEL STRAUS: He wasn't a Bruskva, but he was born there. The family owned some grocery stores. He was born in 1912. My father was the baby, one of four. He was substantially younger than the rest of his siblings. His father – my grandfather - left for the United States almost immediately after he was born. My father, his mother and siblings, initially stayed behind, and then followed him to the U.S. 10 years later. But initially, my father, his mother and siblings lived in Uman for five years. Then, in one pogrom, they burned the grocery stores down. So, it was time to leave. They had planned to leave – my grandfather was sending for them from the U.S.. Like many in those days, a family member would get out and send money back until there was enough for the whole family to get across the border. My father’s family didn't have it so easy, unfortunately. So, from 1918 until 1920 or so, they tried several times … a few failed attempts. All kinds of stories about being hidden in piles of hay and sleeping out in barns, just to make their way to the border, to get to - I think they went to Romania. They finally made it here. They left from the port of Hamburg in Germany and sailed here. We have the papers.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: So, they traveled from Uman to Romania, from Romania to Germany, and then from Germany to the United States? What year did they arrive here?
DANIEL STRAUS: They arrived in 1922. So, that was 10 years my father didn't see his father.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: With the First World War in between?
JOYCE STRAUS: That's right.
DANIEL STRAUS: That's right. Exactly.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: How interesting. Did your father ever talk about it?
DANIEL STRAUS: My father... It was such a traumatic experience. He was... The poverty - he said he never wanted to discuss the poverty, you know, working all day for a slice of bread or a piece of potato. He would tell me little bits, not full stories. It was too painful.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Interesting. Now he comes as a 10-year-old to the United States and he discovered that his father was doing what?
DANIEL STRAUS: Well, my grandfather owned a grocery store in Brooklyn for a while, from maybe 1922 to 1929, then they lost it in the Depression. I don't know the location, but I know my father’s family lived in Brownsville initially and then they lived in Bensonhurst. So, my father went to public school; elementary school, high school. He always told me how he was always very sensitive because he didn't speak the language. So, the kids might have been a little difficult with him. My father was a very gentle soul. So, it was somewhat of a difficult period of time for him: he was an immigrant, very poor, trying to figure out the language, and making his way through high school. Then I believe what happened was, somehow he was offered a scholarship to Yeshiva University and he took it.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: So, he went to Yeshiva University - traveling uptown?
DANIEL STRAUS: From Brooklyn. Can you imagine? Then my father became more observant than his family, which was more traditional, more European. He was a Hebrew teacher for a period of time after graduating Yeshiva, and then he went to this law school, NYU School of Law, and graduated in 1937.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: That is an important part of NYU School of Law’s history. Although we now celebrate the fact that NYU School of Law is a Top Five law school, if it had always been a Top Five law school, your father probably wouldn't have been there, because historically the top schools practiced discrimination. NYU – the University and the School of Law - was the place that did not practice discrimination. It really played a very important role in the history of New York City and the history of Jewish immigration to this city.
DANIEL STRAUS: Absolutely. Right.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: It's something one should be proud of, that history. So, then your father finished law school and he served in the army in the Second World War as a chaplain?
DANIEL STRAUS: Yes, as a chaplain. He was stationed in Ogden and Cheyenne and places like that. Then he met my mother - they got married in 1948 and they lived in Brooklyn.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: By that time, what was he doing?
DANIEL STRAUS: My father was a lawyer on Court Street in Brooklyn, which was a fabulous place for lawyers, with the Brooklyn courthouse. He was the community lawyer: he lived in Borough Park and he did what needed to be done. He actually practiced by himself, but had what I think would be called associations with other lawyers - so, my uncle and my father and several others would refer cases to each other, and they would handle the cases from the beginning until the end.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: That was his professional life? That's how you remember him?
DANIEL STRAUS: Absolutely. As a lawyer, right. However, there were a number of things my father did. One: In those days he was politically active in Brooklyn, where the Democratic party was a strong machine. First, he ran for councilman in 1952 and lost; that was before I was born. Then in 1968 he, and several others, broke with the party and ran as reformed Democrats. My father ran for New York State Assemblyman, and lost. It was good that he lost, because right around that time he was already going into business.
Through his practice of law he had a number of clients who asked him to put together partnerships and contracts and so forth to buy what were very early versions of nursing homes - because there really weren't nursing homes at that time. There weren't old people in those days really – the Medicare/Medicaid Act was in 1965. There were some scandals in this industry in those days, and these people, also, when it came time to pay my father, they didn't pay him. They would give him a piece of the partnership. He eventually decided that if he was the bear this risk, he might as well own the buildings himself. So, he started buying nursing homes.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: So, he founded the business, which you and your brother later worked in? And he was already in his 50s?
DANIEL STRAUS: That's right, exactly.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: That's remarkable. So, you speak always, and you always have spoken of your father, with great affection and you donated a named Chair to NYU School of Law which it's my honor to occupy. When you came forward with this generous donation to the Institute, you immediately said it should be named after your father and mother. Yet, at the same time, you say your father was older, he was more distant. Try to bring him to life a little bit for us. Because I have a sense that this is about more than filial duty - that actually, you're seeking for a way to honor your father.
DANIEL STRAUS: Absolutely. My father was a very ethical, clear-minded, forward-thinking individual, who was able to cut through problems very, very quickly. Actually, I'll tell you, after I was in our business a number of years, we were honored - I was given an award: Entrepreneur of the Year. So, I got up and I said, "You know, I'm happy to take this award. But I'll tell you, my father's the real entrepreneur. Because it's easy to take something, however small, and make it bigger, than to make something from nothing." So, to me, the real entrepreneurship was the making of something from nothing, the beginning of the business that we started. And the forward-thinking to understand how to grow the business.
First, I studied. My father passed away in 1978 when I was a senior at Columbia. My brother, who is also a lawyer, became involved with the business, and I would talk to him about the business throughout the time I was in law school and during the years I practiced law. And so, I was very, very involved in understanding how my father put these transactions together that ultimately allowed him to acquire buildings and facilities and all kinds of things, from nothing really. And to see how he did it in the most ethical way. For instance, he saw that the healthcare market in New York was riddled with scandal. He was right. There were the Bergman scandals of the early 70's. But my father stayed out of New York - to this day, we don't operate in New York. It's more a legacy than anything else, but it was my father who established the principle that he didn't want to be in that association.
So, the point is that there was a lot that my father stood for, whether it was ethical behavior, whether it was the ability to really cut through a transaction and create something out of nothing. As you point out, he was in his 50's - he had to take some risks that were not so simple, with four children, schools, camps, everything. He was able to do that, which was fascinating to me. He truly, to me, is an heroic figure. At the same time, he, unfortunately, passed away at a relatively young age. I always felt he didn't get the ability to accomplish what he set out to accomplish.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: And your mother?
DANIEL STRAUS: My mother was my father’s advisor. She was very supportive on all these ethical issues and business matters. It's not so simple to say, "We will draw the line here. We won't do the wrong thing, even if it's a shortcut to get somewhere." So, it was very difficult - my mother was a schoolteacher, she worked full days while raising us. However, both of them stood for the same things.
My father was involved even in the community - he was the President of the day school, he was the President of the synagogue. He was, in his own way, a philanthropist within his means. He always saw the power of education and the power of ideas in his philanthropy. So, when he gave, or when he spoke, he spoke about the need for education. Because that was really what would change the world. And so, to me, to be able to give to establish this Institute – in a sense, all of this comes together for me. And frankly, Joseph, to tell you the truth, you epitomize everything that my father would have wanted.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: It's so nice of you to say that.
DANIEL STRAUS: I don't say that lightly. I say that to my children. You do what our faith wants us to do, which is to go into the world and change it for the better.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Joyce, let's talk about you now. Tell me a little about your background..
JOYCE STRAUS: Different background. Different legacy. Different history. I'm a first-generation American; my parents are both immigrants, from Hungary – or actually, Transylvania. When my parents grew up, it was technically Romania, because of the way Hungary was divided after World War I. My parents came here after the Holocaust. They are survivors. My father passed away about a year-and-a-half ago. They came after the horrors, with nothing.
My mother was from an affluent family; her father was also a leader in his community. My mother is from the city of Satmar. It was called Satu Mare in Romania, but in Hungary it was called Satmar. They were very orthodox, but not part of that sect of Hasidim. My mother’s father – my grandfather - was a successful businessman and really, a very well-respected leader in the community. He was very philanthropic.
My father is from a city that is now called Oradea, in Transylvania. A much bigger city. It was called Nagyvarad in Hungarian, and it was nick-named the “Paris of the East”. It's a very beautiful city, situated on the banks of the river Danube. We've visited Oradea and Satu Mare with our children. Oradea must have been a beautiful city in its heyday - in the teens, 20's and early 30's, before the Holocaust and, of course, before Communism - because it has beautiful art nouveau architecture. It reminds me of Vienna, actually.
My father's family was the “intelligentsia”. They were leaders in education – my great-grandfather was a famous, well-known educator – and they were also professionals. His family was unusual. Two aunts that survived were in Vienna in medical school in the 30's and then they escaped to London. So, my father thankfully had those relatives after the war.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Was their Holocaust story one of hiding? Or were they sent to the camps and survived?
JOYCE STRAUS: No, sent to the camps. My mother was in Auschwitz. She was deported to Auschwitz with her family and extended family. She was one of nine children. So, all except her oldest brother were deported together.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: That's a terrible story, the Hungarian Jews.
JOYCE STRAUS: The only survivors from my mother's family were herself, obviously, one sister and her older brother, who became a Rabbi in South Africa - Rabbi Engel, the Chief Rabbi of the Country Communities of South Africa. At the end of his life he lived in Johannesburg, and he was one of the directors of the Jewish Board of Deputies in Johannesburg.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: I know about Rabbi Engel.
JOYCE STRAUS: My father's story, by the way, was different. His entire family was deported to Auschwitz. He had been in forced labor - the Hungarian army had sent all the Jewish men above 18. In 1941 he was already in forced labor on the Russian Front, in very terrible, terrible labor camp conditions. Then eventually, during the last year of the war, when they were deporting all the Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, he, and all the other Jewish men he was with in the labor camp were sent to Mauthausen and other concentration camps. He was liberated from a concentration camp at the end of the war.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Did your parents, at a certain age, sit down with you and talk to you about this experience?
JOYCE STRAUS: Always.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Always?
JOYCE STRAUS: Always.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: So, you grew up in the sort of shadow --
JOYCE STRAUS: Yes.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: -- because some people responded to the Holocaust experience by clamming up, and never spoke to their children about it --
JOYCE STRAUS: Very different story. My parents were very open, but not in a morbid way at all. They were very upbeat people. They were really very, I think, relatively well-adjusted, considering... And they were very happy.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Where did they live? Where did you grow up?
JOYCE STRAUS: I grew up in Queens, Forest Hills.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: So, they came here and they had to start a new life?
JOYCE STRAUS: They came with nothing. My father had an uncle that was a journalist for a Hungarian newspaper and was here when the war broke out working as a journalist. This uncle’s family was deported to Auschwitz, however, and so this uncle didn't get back to Hungary and instead stayed in the U.S. So, he was here, but poor. I had another uncle who was here, who was also very poor. My parents came with nothing - literally the story is, off-the-boat with $5.
My parents had already met in Romania, within months of being liberated from the camps. They were married in my father's home town in 1947. They surreptitiously escaped; were captured, thrown into jail; continued to escape, crossing borders; and arrived in the American zone in Salzburg, Austria, where they lived in D.P. camp for two years. Then, in 1949, it was their turn and they were brought over here by the Joint Distribution and H.I.A.S., sponsored by my father's uncle. They had the choice to go to either Israel or other places, and they came to America.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: What did they do when they came here?
JOYCE STRAUS: My father worked in various jobs. He was a college graduate, with the equivalent of an undergraduate business degree. But he had no real skill, and language was a problem. He eventually worked for a jewelry manufacturer and then went out on his own. He was the business end of a fine jewelry partnership.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: How many were you, in your family?
JOYCE STRAUS: Just me and my older brother.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Tell us about growing up in Queens. Do you have fond memories?
JOYCE STRAUS: I have very fond memories. It's a very sad story I just told you, about my parents’ lives. But my childhood was very, very happy. My parents really were very happy. I went to Jewish day school, starting first grade, all the way through 12th grade. So did my brother, which was a hardship for my parents. But we went. My neighborhood was filled with survivor's children. It was a very large Jewish community. I went to high school in Manhattan, but it was a Jewish school. Then I went to Barnard College. Then I went to Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, and I got my Master's degree in physical therapy.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: When did the two of you meet?
JOYCE STRAUS: Should I tell? We met as counselors in a very wonderful Zionist sleep-away camp in 1975. He was already at Columbia. I was going to go into my senior year of high school. Then eventually I came to Barnard. At the time Columbia was an all-male college. Barnard was the women's school, and we were in college together for two years. We dated for several years before we got married. We met very young. But we met in this wonderful summer camp. We got married in 1980.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Did he woo you appropriately?
JOYCE STRAUS: Absolutely.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Shower you with --
DANIEL STRAUS: Actually, whatever I could.
JOYCE STRAUS: Whatever we could. Whatever he could. But we got married in 1980. He was in law school, I was finishing college. We lived down here in N.Y.U. Law School subsidized housing in 3 Washington Square Village, for a little over a year, in a studio, and eventually moved to the Upper West Side. Daniel was still in law school and I commuted from here up to the medical center on 168th Street actually, and then from the West Side, all the way Uptown.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Let's hear a little bit more about Dan - we, sort of, broke off your story.
DANIEL STRAUS: I was born in '56. I'm the second of four; I have an older brother. I was born in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn and grew up there until I went to college.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: You went to college. Then you went to law school here at NYU. You met Joyce, you got married. And let's pick up your life then.
DANIEL STRAUS: After law school, I practiced law for three years at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. I worked in the corporate area there for a number of years. At the time my brother was working alone with the remnants of what my father had left. It was really very, very difficult. There were three nursing homes and the industry was under fire, for all kinds of reasons.
Then at the end of '84, I joined with my brother, and we formed a company, basically to manage three facilities. And over the course of 12 years, through many different transactions, piece by piece, we put together a business that ultimately was 175 facilities with 18,000 employees. It was publicly traded, a New York Stock Exchange company. The company was Multicare. We went public in 1993.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Do you regret that your father didn't live to see that?
DANIEL STRAUS: Tremendously, tremendously. I remember when we signed the contract to sell the business in June of 1997, it was in the newspaper. It was in the front section of the business of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. It was a big deal at the time. The newspaper article referenced that it was such a tremendous success, this sale. We took this little business and we built it up. But they referenced it as, "the Jewel of the Nursing Home Industry," and I was so proud.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: From what you said before, there's something of the legacy of your father in doing that.
DANIEL STRAUS: That's right.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Were you involved at all, Joyce?
JOYCE STRAUS: No. I wasn't involved in the business. I worked with the pediatric population for 18 years with disabled children, but not really with the business.
DANIEL STRAUS: She was supportive, there were long nights, travel, road trips.
JOYCE STRAUS: When he was selling and going public, at that time he traveled. But, you know, the nights at Paul, Weiss, I think some of those were longer nights.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: It's still a big deal. People appreciate that I think. You were working with your brother? You've always had a good relationship with him?
DANIEL STRAUS: Wonderful relationship. My brother and I worked together. We were partners.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: That's unbiblical.
DANIEL STRAUS: It is, but we've managed to be the exception. We did. It was really terrific. Immediately after we sold – the closing was in October of 1997 – and over the past 11 years, I have been investing in and operating healthcare service businesses. I've built another eldercare, assisted living business, called Care-One, starting in 1999. Another business of mine is a Medicare managed care company for seniors and we are one of the largest plans in the U.S.
(DEAN RICHARD REVESZ stops by to greet Dan and Joyce Straus, and the group discuss the model of the building at 22 Washington Square which will house the Straus Institute - the layout of the entrance hall and the art for the building, with which Joyce Straus has research knowledge and experience).
DEAN REVESZ: So, I have to go and teach. I just wanted to thank you. What you are doing here is just amazing. I think it's going to be the most innovative event in legal education across the world. It's in wonderful hands, and I know that we'll look back on this years from now and think that this is one of the most significant things that all of us were involved in. I'm really excited, and very grateful to you.
DANIEL STRAUS: We share your excitement. Thank you.
DEAN REVESZ: I don't want to stand in the way of a good interview. So, I'll let you continue. It's good to see you.
JOYCE STRAUS: It's nice to see you again.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: He's a very fine dean. He really is, and he's totally supportive of these things.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Tell us about your children.
JOYCE STRAUS: Our oldest is Elizabeth, she’s 24. She got married over a year ago – to a Daniel Strauss, with two “S”s. She graduated from NYU undergraduate School of Arts and Sciences. Our son, Joseph, is at Columbia College, he’s a junior. He’s 21. He’s named after Daniel’s father. Our youngest, Julia, is a senior in high school and has been admitted to Columbia College as well. Our son-in-law Daniel is a graduate of the Stern School of Business here at NYU and has been working at a large diversified fund here in New York, since finishing a two-year financial analyst program at an investment bank.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: So, I want to talk a little bit about when you first started thinking about philanthropy. I'm really interested in that first moment. You are a generous, magnificent philanthropist - how does it come the point that you say to yourself, "I'm going to share my wealth. I'm not just going to sit on it. It's not only about my children and my family."
DANIEL STRAUS: There were really two impulses. It was early, but one was the impulse of gratitude – to recognize where I came from, how I got what I got, and to appreciate it. I think, in order to be able to give, you have to be able to step outside and have perspective.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: That is so interesting, because in a profound way, you and your brother are self-made people, your father was a self-made person. If your children join your business, they will be coming into a magnificent business that you have created, and do good things, I'm sure. But I could imagine that someone in your position could say, "Gratitude? I'm a self-made person. Everything I have is made with my own hands." Yet the first thing you say to me is, "My impulse is gratitude." That's so interesting. So, it's to who? Your parents, your school, your family, the community, the country?
DANIEL STRAUS: All of the above. Not in that order necessarily, but all of the above. A recognition that there is no self-made. I mean, there's opportunity given, and in a sense opportunity made the most of, but we've all been given breaks along the way and I feel the obligation to show gratitude.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: What was the second impulse?
DANIEL STRAUS: The second impulse, once you have financial wealth and one’s needs met, is to have an ability to make choices in life about things that are important. I think that we all believe that the things we do are seen by our children and hopefully we create the right example. And so, those were really my two impulses: gratitude for what I had, and a desire to demonstrate to the next generation something I believed in and thought was important.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Do you remember, what was the first major gift you made?
DANIEL STRAUS: Our first gift was the family's gift to Rabbi Riskin, in Efrat, to build a Rabbinical school, I believe in 1987. The impetus was our recognition that, for a lot of reasons, orthodoxy was devoid of leaders, both in Israel and the United States. So, that was our first gift - really, before we had any real wealth. This school still exists and we have made add-on gifts; we recently dedicated the dormitories in Efrat. There have been over 300 Rabbis, from all over the world who were ordained in this school.
JOYCE STRAUS: The academy has a very strong emphasis on pastoral skills and an obligation of community service. So one cannot be ordained and not go out into the world and spend a couple of years serving the community.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: That's something amazing to be proud of.
DANIEL STRAUS: I am very proud of it, absolutely. It came about when Rabbi Riskin came to speak to us. My late mother, my brother, ourselves - we were all members of his congregation and all very close with him. It was also where we met Rabbi Saul Berman.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: So, tell me a little bit more about other major gifts.
DANIEL STRAUS: Then the second gift was in our Englewood community to the elementary school, the Moriah day school. We dedicated the signature gift to build the substantial addition to the school – it was our family’s gift to my parents, Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus. Then I served throughout as an involved parent, on the Executive Committee for many years, Chairman of the Board, President, so forth. My mother was very involved in an institution in Israel, AMIT, which supports education.
JOYCE STRAUS: It's one of the largest modern Zionist educational networks.
DANIEL STRAUS: We dedicated a school in Kfar Batya in my mother's honor while she was still alive. My mother was involved with AMIT, back when it was identified with American Mizrachi women and for her whole life. And today, Joyce is very involved in AMIT. We are chairing the Negev Initiative and campaign to raise money for their 20 schools in that region. My daughter has hosted and put together fundraisers for them as well. So, we have multiple generations involved.
JOYCE STRAUS: So these gifts were all education-related.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Yes, education-related and at the center of the Jewish world. But you've also given outside this, to N.Y.U., to Columbia. Tell me about that.
DANIEL STRAUS: Well, we dedicated a Chair at Columbia College in the late 1990’s. It’s the Joseph Straus Professor, and it’s an expression of gratitude for the fact that, in some important way, the college was a formative experience in who we are and what we did. Before that, John Sexton had approached us. At first we gave a sizeable scholarship here in the mid 1990’s, and then we endowed the professorship at the Law School.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Which I have the honor to occupy.
DANIEL STRAUS: Yes. So, Columbia, N.Y.U., and we've been very involved in the giving to many of the hospitals throughout New Jersey. That's largely an extension of my business.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: So, tell me a bit about your future goals. You have this incredible talent for turning coal into gold - you've created one huge business, now you're creating another huge business, etc. But I've seen your house, I've heard you speak - you're not a very materialistic person, you don't ride in Rolls-Royces, or walk around in Gucci suits or whatever. When I spoke to your daughter, there is not the feeling of somebody who grew up in great wealth. So, how do you see your life unfolding in the future, in terms of what you want to accomplish beyond the business?
DANIEL STRAUS: I hope to be able, over the next few years, to transition away from being as active as I've been in the business - to institutionalize what we have, so it's less reliant on me, as an individual, and more of an institution, from a business point of view. So that I can explore other interests. One of the handicaps of being so involved in day-to-day in business is the inability to really personally give hours in community service. I would love to do that.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: You, Joyce, how do you see the future unfolding? Because it's really a very nice story, your story - daughter of survivors, sort of from rags to riches. Also a very classical Jewish story. People who made good, and are doing good for their community and their children.
JOYCE STRAUS: Since I stopped working a few years ago, I have been very involved in a lot of community service projects and volunteering - very grass roots. I'm a National Board Member of AMIT, and I'd say it takes up a good part of my time. But social justice and community service really resonate with me. I've done all kinds of work in Israel, such as organizing and going on many missions, for example during the Intifada, during the height of the war, when very few people were there. I organized bringing a large group of women, and we worked for different organizations, different soup kitchens, that sort of thing. So, I hope to do more significant work of this kind.
DANIEL STRAUS: This Institute, it is a significant gift for us.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: The Straus Institute. It will be really something.
DANIEL STRAUS: I can't wait.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Yes. One has to have the spirit of a gardener with this sort of thing. A gift to build a building is an instantly gratifying thing - because there's a big building there. But with our Institute, it's going to be more like a risk, where we will see, 10 or 15 years later, the results. So, 10 years after Straus opens, we will have on the wall all the Straus Fellows, all leading legal scholars from around the world - as is the case with our first group. There will be a body of scholarship that emerges. I have only good feelings about it.
DANIEL STRAUS: I do as well.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: You saw the reaction of people hearing about the Institute – people writing from top academic institutions saying, "Even by N.Y.U. standards, this is unbelievable." Everybody is saying this is such an incredible thing. In a way, it's the ultimate ivory tower. You're telling people, "Come. Spend a year here. Think." It's not an immediate action or resolution kind of thing. But it's fundamental deep thinking about serious social issues. It's something that most institutions could just not justify. Yet it's magnificent. It really will be.
DANIEL STRAUS: It will be, absolutely. It speaks to a belief in the power of ideas.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: As you know, one of the first Straus Fellows is also going to be a Fellow of our other center, the Tikvah Center for Law & Jewish Civilization - Moshe Idel. So that, consistent with our conversations, every year there will be somebody of that caliber in Jewish thinking who is part of the Straus Institute, independently.
DANIEL STRAUS: That is wonderful.
PROFESSOR JOSEPH WEILER: Thank you very much, Dan and Joyce.
End of interview