NEWS-Kollel surfers

The Atlanta Scholars Kollel rabbis transform in the Beach Beards for a single song, to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B,” praising Bernie Marcus and celebrating their educational efforts.

By Michael Jacobs | mjacobs@atljewishtimes.com

Famously sunny Bernie Marcus, the man who helped build Home Depot and who gave Atlanta the Georgia Aquarium in gratitude, has at least one issue where his optimism runs out: the future of the Jewish people.

“On this issue I’m a downer,” Marcus said early during a discussion in the aquarium’s ballroom Sunday, May 31. His conversation with longtime friend Mike Leven, the aquarium’s CEO, was the centerpiece of the Atlanta Scholars Kollel’s annual Tribute to Jewish Learning.

Photo by Harold Alan Photographers - The friendship between Mike Leven and Bernie Marcus is on display during the kollel event.

Photo by Harold Alan Photographers – The friendship between Mike Leven and Bernie Marcus is on display during the kollel event.

Marcus said that when he and Leven moved to Atlanta, the first task was to find a synagogue. But joining a synagogue was not a priority for the next generation and is an afterthought for their grandchildren’s generation.

“The assimilation numbers are shocking,” Marcus said.

He talked about another Jewish event in the same ballroom, the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces gala May 19. He said the pro-Palestinian disturbance inside the ballroom was not a concern, but he was upset by a girl outside the aquarium who held a sign that read, “I’m Jewish, and I don’t support Israel.”

“I don’t remember anything like that in my lifetime,” said Marcus, who complained that too few people are taking action against such attitudes. He said Jews, despite making up about 1.25 percent of the U.S. population, are responsible for 15 percent to 20 percent of the philanthropic giving. But instead of using those numbers to exert some positive influence, Jews are contributing to universities full of anti-Israel faculty, staff and students.

“We are supporting the people who are our enemies,” Marcus said.

He included the left-leaning lobbying group J Street on the enemies list, calling it “totally anti-Israel.”

NEWS-Kollel four

Photo by Michael Jacobs – Billi and Bernie Marcus are joined onstage by Rabbis David Silverman and Doniel Pransky.

Marcus did not claim that any criticism of Israeli policies or actions is anti-Israel. He said he opposes many Israeli policies, just as he opposes many government elements in the United States — the latter list includes the Internal Revenue Service, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the burdensome regulations that have kept Home Depot from opening a store in a lower-income area of New York City for 12 years, and the current occupant of the White House.

But the important thing to remember regarding Israel, Marcus said, is that even the crooks, bureaucrats and other negative influences are fellow Jews.

“Why Jews are anti-Israel is just beyond me,” he said. “I don’t get it.”

A few other tidbits from the Leven-Marcus conversation:

  • Both said that anyone you come in contact with can be an influence, and it’s important not to become dependent on a single person to guide you.
  • Marcus said he learns something every day, which reminds him how dumb he was the day before.
  • Marcus picked Leven to be the aquarium’s CEO the first time because the position called for someone who was a leader and a listener.
  • The aquarium is Atlanta’s biggest tourist attraction, drawing more than 2 million visitors a year and more than 22 million since it opened less than 10 years ago, and the money raised from ticket sales supports research and conservation efforts worldwide.
  • Leven said Marcus not only supported his decision to leave the aquarium in 2009 to become president of Las Vegas Sands under Sheldon Adelson, but also negotiated his deal. Marcus knew he would have to work harder at the aquarium without Leven, but he thought Leven could aid Israel and the United States by helping Adelson make lots of money for donations. Under Leven, the casino company’s stock price rose more than 50-fold in five years.