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Interview with Leo Noe

A member of David Cameron’s Holocaust Commission, head of the Jewish Leadership Council’s Commission on Jewish Schools, and an international businessman ranked 43rd in the 2019 Sunday Times Giving List - Leo Noé generously gave his time recently to sit down (virtually!) with The Fed’s Robert Marks to share his philosophy on giving.

“I would go to the market to buy tomatoes late on a Friday; I could save tuppence that way.”

As the Founder and Executive Chairman of the Noé Group, and Non-Executive Chairman of BMO Real Estate Partners – to name just two of his most high-profile positions – this intimate memory from Leo Noé is as unexpected as it is moving, standing at odds with what many might assume to be the background of a man who has built an international business empire.

Yet between that memory and the man Leo Noé is today lies a story covering continents, creativity in business, commitment to community, and an unshakeable desire to help others.

Leo is better placed than almost anyone to give advice and pass judgement on many aspects of the business world. He has spent decades working in the British and European property markets, made business acquisitions across the world, and was the recipient of the 2018 UK-Israel Business Lifetime Achievement Award.

As both a proud Jew and a proud Englishman born in the 1950s, his childhood greatly shaped the man he would become, giving root to his desire ‘to do his bit’:

“I grew up in a time when you could feel that you were helping Jews around the world,” Leo recalls.

“Looking at Israel, there was a genuine, existential threat to our people; towards the Soviets and you had Jews in incredible peril. That feeling - of wanting to make a difference - was a huge driving force for us back then to get involved with whatever we could.”  

As a Jewish teenager in 1960s Britain, Leo was exposed to a vast array of social and political upheaval which focused on international Jewry.

“When I was 14, the Six Day War broke out, and with it came an outpouring of fear for our brothers in Israel – coupled with a deep desire to help them,” he said.

“At the same time, the Refuseniks in the Soviet Union became a real concern for Jews in the West; these were two huge issues that required support. 

“Two of my earliest mentors – Eric Graus and Cyril Stein – were instrumental in fighting for these causes, and their leadership and drive had a profound effect on me. 

“Eric, who founded Herut UK, was a warrior in the defence of Soviet Jewry; he was the first true influence on my teenage self, whilst Cyril – Vice-President of the UJIA – was an indomitable force in fundraising for Israel in those dark days. 

 “Cyril raised £6 million for Israel during the Six Day War - an almost impossible sum of money in those days; he got me involved in Israel advocacy and community work, and mentored me for many years both in community work and business.  

 “The war marked a watershed moment in my development as a young adult. Both of my parents were survivors of the camps, and they tried to shield me and my three siblings from everything that might cause us anxiety or upset. 

 “When the war broke out, it was the first time I had known anything of such a terrible nature. In a very real way, it was the first time I can remember a feeling of wanting to ‘do something’ and being able to help. 

 “In Eric and Cyril, I had two men who taught me the importance of ‘getting involved’ and doing your bit for others, and I took that mantra very seriously. 

“In 1977, at the age of just 24 and with a new baby, I went to the USSR and was the first person to bring photos of Natan Sharansky out of the Soviet Union after he was arrested - hidden in the lining of my jacket and inside my shoes.” 

This early introduction to community activism was the beginning of a lifetime dedicated to helping others, which Leo believes is instinctive to Jewish people.

“We were always taught to help others – it’s a reflex. We are rachmanim bnei rachmanim – compassionate children of compassionate parents. Wanting to help others, to nurture them, is a natural inclination.” 

The reason behind this inclination is obvious, he continues:

“We come from a long line of people who have been persecuted. There was always someone in need, and there was always someone who wanted to give. It’s part of our social DNA. The generation I grew up in were not vacuous – they appreciated everything that they had and understood the imperative to support others. 

 “The test of a person’s Judaism throughout history was poverty, and by that, I mean if you were lucky enough to find work, you knew you might lose that job if you didn’t show up for work on Shabbat. Nowadays in many cases the reverse is true: people have plenty but lack the understanding of how it came to them or what to do with it.” 

For Leo, this awareness of material wealth, and the acceptance of the privilege it confers on people, is crucial to his attitude towards charity.

“As a child, I was very involved with so much in my community – Israel, UJIA, the Soviet Union, and more. I had no money, but I gave my time, always.  

“This is the fundamental point, and something so important for our current generation of young adults to absorb. As a young man I was scraping a living – I was barely getting by and used to go to the markets on Friday afternoons – but I always gave my time. 

 “When we instil in our young people the desire to give time, once they have money, they will give that also.” 

One of Leo’s great passions is his support for special needs education. Across the UK and abroad, for organisations in both the Jewish and wider communities, his contributions – financially and in terms of his knowledge – are legendary. Nowhere is this more evident than as a Trustee of London-based special needs charity, Kisharon, where Leo is now in his fourth decade of involvement.

“Our former Chief Rabbi, the late Rabbi Lord Jakobovitz, once said that we are judged by how we look after those less fortunate. 

“When I received The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust ‘Sponsor of the Year Award’ in 2008 from Ed Balls, he asked me why I had been so involved in special needs education for so many years. My answer to him was that I, thank G-d, am grateful that we don’t have these problems – so we need to help others who are in that situation.

“There was absolutely nothing like Kisharon when we started. It began with just two kids and has grown exponentially into the incredible charity we have today. 

“We have just opened a new school in London, in honour of the memory of my parents. My father, who passed away only in 2017, gave me everything – his ethics, his ambition, his drive – he taught me everything in business that I know.” 

Discussing Kisharon, a clear source of great pride and accomplishment, prompts Leo to express another guiding principle:

“It is crucial to get the next generation involved, which is why I will be standing down as a Trustee of Kisharon in the near future,” he said.

“We have to show them the way – and then, to put it simply, clear out and let them get on with it. 

“It’s time for a fresh perspective and someone with new ideas.” 

 When asked about the possibility of a generation growing up without the same inclination for giving as he had, Leo is resolute. 

“Our institutions would suffer enormously. The Jewish community as we know it would disappear. 

“Take Kisharon, as an example. If you don’t consider how these young people need to be cared for and need our help, you make yourself a lesser person. It really is that simple. 

“But – once you decide to contribute and give something back – helping out our  institutions achieves two magnificent results. Firstly, it strengthens us as a people, and gives us pride in our community – the knowledge that we are caring for our elderly, our young, those with mental health conditions, the CST, our schools; secondly the act itself - of giving to these organisations - actually helps our community – not only for others but for ourselves, too. 

“If we lose that, it all goes.”

For Leo, there is a stark difference between the backdrop to his childhood and that of today’s young adults – a difference which he muses may account for a generational disparity in attitudes to giving:

“In my generation, you knew that your help was needed. Whether it was Israel and its fight to exist; whether it was one individual Russian Jew who couldn’t help himself – you knew that your input was vital. It was almost tangible. Today, the Soviet Jewry crisis has largely been solved, and Israel is one of the strongest countries in the world. 

“The lack of urgency makes it harder to find that same connection toward our great communal bodies, and it’s something we must face. 

“Rabbis try to keep their congregations together by making them feel a sense of belonging; we need people to feel the same way about their wider responsibilities. That sense of belonging – literally being one of the Tribe, a proud Jew – is what drives our successes as a community. The same is true for our responsibility to our great country, which gave my parents a home after the horrors of the Holocaust.”

And what does Leo think of youngsters who show no interest in communal activity – who may even ‘act out’ in their formative years? He allows himself a smile.

“Young, rebellious kids often go on to be great people if they can harness that rebelliousness,” he chuckles.

“That streak shouldn’t be a hindrance to being involved in community – but they have to find their own way there. I was involved in hugely important community work as a young man, with Eric, that my parents would certainly not have approved of - had they known: our work for Soviet Jewry and publicising their problems, for example by going on stage in the middle of a Bolshoi Ballet performance and disrupting it, or making our presence known by demonstrating in the House of Commons gallery, which sometimes bordered on the unacceptable!”

Reflecting on his many achievements, Leo considers for a moment what makes him most proud.

“There are things we do in life that can help an individual, and there are much rarer things we can do that help a whole group of individuals. 

“Rarer still – and almost unattainable – are the things we can do that benefit the entire Jewish people. Whilst I am proud of everything that I am, thank G-d, still fortunate to be able to do, there are two things which stand out to me. 

“The first must be Kemach, a charitable organisation in Israel which I started in about 2007, which aims for every Charedi family to be able to make a living, whilst preserving their traditional Orthodox Jewish identity. 

“When I first travelled to Israel, I felt an enormous disconnect between the religious and non-religious communities. There was a definite lack of respect and understanding in both directions. We created Kemach as a vehicle to increase the income and welfare of the Charedi society through education, career guidance, job placements and development opportunities. 

“Fast forward to today, and we have an annual budget of in excess of $25 million, having helped more than 30,000 individuals. This knock-on effect benefits their families and wider communities, and our impact on the whole of Israel, both at a macro and micro level, is increasing year on year. We are solving one of the great crises of Israeli society – that of poverty in the Charedi world. 

The second thing that immediately comes to mind is the Noé Edition Koren Talmud Bavli –  the beautiful, innovative new version of the ancient texts of our Gemara, printed by Koren Publishers in Jerusalem. 

“It has turned what were traditionally complex and impenetrable texts, closed-off to all but the scholars, into something accessible to every single person in a way that makes the text both interesting and understandable.  

“These two things lock together my belief in Israel as a country of modern lifestyles, bound together by millennia of years of history. 

“With the Noé Talmud, we are part of a thousands-year-old tradition that is alive to this very day. When I’m at an event in Israel, often is the time that a young man with a beard and black hat approaches to tell me that ‘I got a job because of you and Kemach’, or ‘For the first time, I was able to buy my wife a new dress’.  That is a very special thing to be a part of.

“I have owned property in Israel since 1991, and my view of the country is simple. Israel is like a house of refuge. Any Jew who is persecuted now has somewhere to go.  

“I never knew a single one of my grandparents. They had nowhere to go. Since 1948, for the first time in thousands of years, Jews the world over had somewhere to go. 

“This intrinsic belief has always guided my goal of aiming to achieve whatever will benefit the entire Jewish nation. 

“Why do something small and impact a few people, when you can do something much bigger and benefit so many more? This is a principle I have always followed – and I am fortunate that I can do so.”   

For Leo, there is a huge difference between charity and philanthropy, and one which he is eager to delineate.

“To me, ‘charity’ is about helping your fellow man. Giving to schools, caring for the elderly, donating to a cause that will impact an individual or a community’s life. 

“Philanthropy is different. ‘Philanthropy’ is giving to museums, to theatres. It’s about donating to the arts. It’s a valuable endeavour, but I prefer the immediacy of charity. I want to help someone now. 

 “That’s why after Covid is a distant memory, I believe that charitable giving will remain constant. People are worried that it will experience a significant drop-off, as people look to save their money and donate only to the most local of causes – but I don’t think so. 

“Emergency Covid measures are being supported today, as indeed they should be. For the first time in the lives of many, we find ourselves feeling almost at war and living with a wartime mentality, and that fight requires an immediacy in its response. 

“But afterwards, the long-term planning which has sustained us for so long will return. We have only survived as a people because we look ahead - and we will continue to do so.” 

Looking ahead, and maintaining that sense of giving for future generations, are two principles which underpin The Fed’s unique Philanthropy and Leadership Programme, launched earlier in 2020. The programme, created by Director of Fundraising and Marketing, Raphi Bloom, aims at securing the future of the Manchester Jewish community’s social and welfare care, by developing and empowering the next generation of trustees and donors for The Fed.

Combining networking sessions and presentations from some of the most successful and charitable figures in British Jewry – including Leo who addressed the group on 12th November – the programme aims to inculcate an ethos of philanthropy – or rather, according to Leo’s earlier definition – charitable giving, in business.

So how does this charitable giant sum up his attitude to charity? Ask a multi-millionaire property investor for his motivation to give, and you might cynically expect a meandering answer regarding investment, tax sheltering and strategizing. Not so with Leo - it’s straight from the heart:

“Helping others,” he says.  “It’s really that simple.”

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