By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – World-renowned businessman and philanthropist David Theodore Chase died on Wednesday, June 1 at his home in West Hartford. He was 88.
But the riveting and inspiring story of the world renowned businessman and philanthropist lives on.
Chase was born in 1927 in Kielce, Poland to Leon and Helen Ciesla z”l. In 1939, as the Nazis invaded Poland, the 12-year-old and his family were forced from their home in the southern city of Sosnowiec into the local Jewish ghetto. Four years later, the family was deported along with thousands of fellow Jews to Auschwitz, where 60 members of the Chase family were murdered, including David’s mother and sister. David was transferred to Mauthausen concentration camp. He escaped during a death march from the camp, and was liberated on May 5, 1945 by General Patton’s Third Army.
And that’s just the beginning of David Chase’s journey from survivor to world-renowned businessman and philanthropist.
Chase arrived in the U.S. in June 1946 and settled in Hartford. Two years later, he had graduated from Weaver High School and entered the work world, waxing used cars at a dealership and selling housewares and appliances door to door. He transferred from Hillyer College to the UConn pre-law program, where he met his future wife, Rhoda Cohen.
Within 10 years, Chase was the largest single stockholder in South End Bank in Hartford and its board chairman, and had launched Chase Enterprises, Inc. with Rhoda. The company engages primarily in real estate development and has invested in a wide range of businesses, from banks and insurance companies to radio and television and telecommunications.
Since the early days of their marriage and their business, the Chases were generous contributors to community, both local and international, a practice they passed on to their children, Cheryl and Arnold. The inventory of the family’s charitable donations and volunteerism is dizzying in its scope and reach, spanning across countries and areas of interest.
“Philanthropy is a passion,” Cheryl told the Ledger in 2009. “When my father came to the U.S., he was an orphan and was helped by placement services; Jewish Family Services of Greater Hartford is the successor agency to the one that helped him. He was given an allowance, but that little bit of help and dignity that groups gave out to people like my father went such a long way. My father was always involved in fundraising and contributing to organizations like the Rabbinical College of America and the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, the Connecticut Opera, and area hospitals – always a combination of arts, religion, and medicine.”
The Chases were among the original founders of the Rabbinical College of America, one of the largest Chabad Lubavitch yeshivas in the world, located in Morristown, N.J. While serving as its chairman in the early ‘70s, David was introduced to Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, with whom he developed a close relationship.
“David saw the Rebbe as the ultimate leader of Jewish life in the world,” Rabbi Yosef Gopin of Chabad House of Greater Hartford once told the Ledger. “He saw the perpetuity of Judaism in Chabad house, and saw the joy and the pride with which Chabad presents Judaism.”
Gopin was sent to Hartford by the Rebbe in 1976 to establish a Chabad house, and became fast friends with David Chase, who helped the organization grow from a small house on Farmington Avenue to vibrant facilities in West Hartford, Simsbury, and Glastonbury. In 2009, Chase helped broker the purchase of a building on Bloomfield Avenue for the Chabad Chevra student center at the University of Hartford.
“Mr. Chase had a passion for our work; he saw in it a way to guarantee the future of the Jewish people and he wanted to secure and to perpetuate Judaism in our community and in the world,” says Gopin. “He was a man who had no limits, a man who had tremendous trust in people, a positive man: whenever we had challenges, he was always very encouraging and inspiring. He did not just give us financial help but he had a very positive vision and he wanted to see Chabad grow and be better, reach out to more people and more universities.”
Chase often visited the Chabad House of Greater Hartford, taking part in the regular rabbis’ meetings or a study session, and reciting Yizkor on every holiday.
Despite extraordinary business success in the U.S., Chase always dreamed of returning to his native Poland. In the early ‘90s, encouraged by Pope John Paul II to help the country transition from communism, he established Chase International in Warsaw, creating 100 jobs and investing $20 million, mostly in a joint venture with the country’s telephone company to build a fiber-optic cable television system. Chase International introduced Polish households to MTV and CNN and installed a fiber-optic phone system, opened a chain of Wendy’s fast-food restaurants, and launched Solidarity-Chase Bank, where Chase served as chair.
In 1991, Forbes Magazine writer Katarzyna Wandycz asked Chase why he had decided to invest in Poland.
“The Polish people don’t look at me as if I came to exploit the country,” Chase said. “Of course, they know my background; my family had been living in Poland for 500 years. And because I speak the language, there is a feeling of trust … A Polish telephone company is our partner, every city is our partner, and Solidarity is our partner. We are part of Poland.”
Chase served as chair of several businesses, organizations, and institutions, including a number of U.S. banks and Israel Bonds Connecticut. He helped establish and lead the Machne Israel Development Fund, created in 1984 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to build Chabad houses around the world. The Rebbe appointed Chase a “four-star general” for his efforts, pledging in 1990 to promote him even higher. Chase also served International Yad Vashem as national vice-chair, the Council of Economic Advisors as vice-chair, the Foundation for the Advancement of Catholic Schools as trustee, and was an advisor to NATO.
Chase received honors from around the world, including the State of Israel Gold Medal and a medal from the president of Poland. He was also one of 12 recipients of the State of Israel Gold Medal from the State of Israel, awarded by U.S. Ambassador Walter Annenberg, and was awarded the Commander’s Cross medal by Poland’s then-president Aleksander Kwaśniewski, the highest distinction given to a civilian. He helped establish relations between the Vatican and Israel, and was instrumental in the International Red Cross’s recognition of Magen David Adom and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. He was invited to many major world events, including the 50th Commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, as a guest of Polish President Lech Walesa and Al Gore; the signing of the Camp David Accord as a guest of President Carter; and the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian treaty as a guest of President Clinton, Chairman Arafat, Prime Minister Rabin, and Shimon Peres. Chase was awarded honorary degrees by the Rabbinical College of America, University of the District of Columbia, and University of Hartford.
Chase established the David T. Chase Free Enterprise Institute at Eastern Connecticut State University, where he and Rhoda earned Doctorates of Humane Letters. The family supports University of Connecticut, including the law school’s Cheryl A. Chase Hall, named for their daughter. They founded the Tufts University Chase Museum, chairman’s office, and Cheryl A. Chase Center, and are supporters of Ben Gurion University, American Friends of Tel Aviv University, and Haifa University.
Chase was a founder of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and supported Jewish institutions in Greater Hartford. In addition, they are active supporters of interfaith endeavors, including the Center for Christian Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, the Buddhist Temple in Bloomfield, the American Interfaith Institute, and the Foundation for the Advancement of Catholic Schools.
In the healthcare field, Chase contributed locally to UConn Health Center, Hartford Hospital, and St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, and internationally to Hadassah Hospital Diabetes Wing and the Polish-American Hospital in Krakow, Poland. He supported medical research through several major U.S. hospitals and organizations, and Friends of AKIM, USA, an organization helping people with mental and developmental disabilities in Israel.
In the arts world, Chase contributed to the New Britain Museum of American Art, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Connecticut Science Center, Hartford Stage, and Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, and to several organizations in Palm Beach, Fla. that advance education and help at-risk children. He and Rhoda founded the YMCA of Greater Hartford’s Camp Chase and support House of Bread in Hartford.
“David’s greatest legacy is that of a role model to his family,” says Eric Zachs, board chairman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford. “His children and grandchildren continue to apply the lessons that he taught them each and every day. From the personal and collective tragedy of the Holocaust, David was a key player in the development of the post-war American economy and, in particular, of Connecticut. He was a business visionary and leader in many philanthropic endeavors. He deeply understood the importance of a strong Jewish community, of outreach to Jews on an individual basis and of teaching the lessons of the past to current and future generations. His life is a lesson of hope and an inspiration to all.”
David and Rhoda passed on their philanthropic spirit to their children, Cheryl and Arnold, and their grandchildren.
“You do learn philanthropy by example,” Cheryl told the Ledger in 2009. “I am a philanthropist because my father’s story is very compelling for me. Giving back is important and I’m trying to teach my children to have faith, do the right thing, and follow your passions. And if you care about a particular cause, get involved. My parents were always very involved with the community. They were both raised with very strong family values and with a sense of dedication to a very high moral structure. They both got a tremendous amount of comfort from religion in times of need. I heard my father talk about how, in the worst times of the Holocaust, religion really helped him through everything, all the devastation, all the losses, all the unimaginable pain. But because he remembered the strong beliefs of his parents and especially of his mother, that guided him and had a strong impact on my brother and me.”
Gopin praises Chase for putting family and friends first. “As busy as Mr. Chase was, the personal relationship was more important than everything else to him,” he says. “He loved people and he loved to help people. He was an extremely family-oriented person. I know the way he dealt with his family; I saw it so many times: as busy as he was, he never neglected his family or his close friends.”
Chase was a longtime member and supporter of Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue in West Hartford, where his funeral was held on Sunday, June 5. “Giants such as David come along rarely in life,” says past president Clare Feldman.
“He is truly irreplaceable to Congregation Beth Israel and to the Jewish people. His dedication and support have enriched our congregation beyond measure.”
Beth Israel’s current president, Gail Mangs, hails Chase for serving as a role model for the congregation and beyond.
“His belief in the future of Judaism led him to support not only our synagogue but the Jewish community as a whole,” she says.
“He led by doing and by example.”
David Chase is survived by his wife, Rhoda Chase of West Hartford; his son, Arnold Chase and his wife, Sandra of West Hartford; his daughter, Cheryl Chase and her husband, Judge Stuart Bear of West Hartford; his grandchildren, William Chase and wife, Dr. Lauren Kopyt Chase of West Hartford; Dara Dyer and husband, Ross Dyer of West Hartford; Sara Chase of New York City; Allison Chase of New York City; Melissa Chase of New York City; and Landon Chase of Bloomfield; and great-grandchildren Dylan and Riley Dyer of West Hartford; and Samuel Chase of West Hartford.
A Birthday Gift for the Rebbe
On April 16, 1981, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson — the Lubavitcher Rebbe — sent a letter to David Chase wishing him a joyful Passover and requesting a special “birthday gift.”
“The birthday gift that I have in mind,” wrote the Rebbe to Chase, “…is that you devote a quarter of an hour of your time every weekday morning and dedicate it for the sacred purpose of putting on tefillin, with the appropriate prayer that goes with it, such as the Sh’ma and the like. …In addition to the thing itself, being one of the greatest mitzvot, as our Sages said that the whole Torah was compared to it, the Mitzvah of putting on Tefillin on the left arm, facing the heart, and on the head, the seat of the intellect, has the special divine quality of purifying the heart and the mind, emotion and reason, and bringing them into the proper balance and harmony.”
Chase readily agreed, responding to the request in a letter written to the Rebbe at Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y. on June 24, 1981.
Speaking at his funeral on Sunday, June 5, one of Chase’s grandsons noted that, not only did his grandfather continue to put on tefillin every day for the rest of his life, he also impressed upon his grandchildren to do the same.
The following is an excerpt from David Chase’s letter to the Rebbe. It can be read in its entirety at www.chabad.org.
I am in receipt of your letter dated 12 of Nissan, 5741. After reading the text of the letter, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of joy, pride and humility.
Your reference to our special relationship, your request for a birthday gift, had a most profound effect on me, and I hasten to report to you that I proceeded to put on Tefillin in my morning prayers the very next day.
Your letter is composed in two parts. One part makes reference to your blessing on occasion of Yom-Tov Pesach, and for which I and my family are most grateful.
The second part consists of a P.S., which makes reference to your request of a birthday gift and to my putting on Teffilin. If I may paraphrase your letter, that “the putting on of Tefillin is as our Sages said that the whole Torah was compared to it, the Mitzvah of putting on Tefillin on the left arm, facing the heart, and on the head, the seat of the intellect, has the special Divine quality of purifying the heart and the mind, emotion and reason, and bring them into the proper balance and harmony.”
In my humble opinion, then, the second part of your letter has much greater significance than the first part. Why then was that portion which carried so much substance included under P.S. rather than at the first portion of the letter?
Dear rabbi, I am dictating this letter on the third day of my putting on Tefillin, and I guess perhaps that my curiosity in prying into what could be just pure circumstance is looking to an intellectual or preconceived reason, and based further on the statement in your letter that the head, the seat of the intellect, has the special Divine quality of purifying the heart and the mind, emotion and reason, is instrumental in my asking these questions.
In conclusion, I am most grateful for your letter and I will do my best not to overlook putting on Tefillin in the future.
May the Almighty bless you with continued good health and well being and may you continue to spread wisdom, kindness and goodness to your constituency.
CAP: David Chase z”l receives a dollar and a blessing from the Rebbe (date unknown). (JEM Photo)