Jewish Mogul on a Mission
FIRST LOOK, LONG READ: Jeffrey Katzenberg – ‘Mogul on a Mission’ by Danielle Berrin for the Jewish Journal. “The publicity chief arrives to escort me to Katzenberg’s office. “You have one hour,” he reminds me — one short hour — in which to attempt to pin down the prolific executive. Which worries me. Katzenberg has been around too long to make the mistake of telling a reporter anything truly revealing, so the prospect of a probing interview seems both ambitious and unlikely. And yet, surely such a calculated man has his motives for talking to me today.
Judaism played a role in Katzenberg’s upbringing, albeit a peripheral one. “I wasn’t bar mitzvahed, but on the other hand, faith was in our life. I went to Sunday school; we belonged to Emanu-El,” he says, referring to the historic Reform synagogue on Fifth Avenue and East 65th Street. “I would say it was a part of our culture.” Given that his Jewish upbringing wasn’t religiously immersive, I ask Katzenberg what his Jewish identity has accorded him in life. He thinks for a minute, then says, “Pride. Conviction. A sense of belonging. The Jewish community of New York is one in which there is a lot of connection. Much more connected [than in Los Angeles]. You’re a part of something there. [In Jewish life] there’s a connection to your roots and to Israel, a sense of belonging and a sense of obligation.”
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, can speak to Katzenberg’s Jewish life, if not religiously, then in terms of his commitment to the community: “If you know Jeffrey, you know that Jeffrey doesn’t like long telephone conversations,” Hier says sardonically. “Sometimes Jeffrey can speak for 30 seconds, but to me, he is the epitome of the talmudic dictum in Pirkei Avot that says, “Emor me’at — say little, v’asey harbeh —– but do much. That fits him to the T. You ask him to do something — he says, ‘Yes’; you have about a 30-second conversation, but when you come to the delivery, it’s amazing.” Over the years, Katzenberg has not only helped fundraise for the Wiesenthal Center, attending its annual banquets and inviting his friends, he has also helped secure celebrity narrators, such as Sandra Bullock to voice Golda Meir, for the center’s award-winning documentaries. Hier also said that it was Katzenberg — along with Universal Studios chief Ron Meyer — who advised him to create an in-house production company, Moriah Films, instead of outsourcing the center’s film work.
According to a recent article by Andy Kroll in Mother Jones, Katzenberg is currently the nation’s most powerful and effective Democratic fundraiser. Since 1999, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Katzenbergs have donated an estimated $4.8 million to Democratic causes, topping every other star political donor in the United States — including George Soros and the right-leaning Koch brothers — except for Sheldon Adelson ($94.2 million). Kroll portrayed Katzenberg — who did not consent to be interviewed — as a “deep pocketed kingmaker” much cherished by the Obama administration for his fundraising efficiency and low-maintenance personality. When he and George Clooney hosted a final-stretch campaign fundraiser for the president last spring, it became the highest-grossing campaign dinner in history, raising $15 million in one night. Katzenberg’s strategy for getting wealthy democrats to pony up their pocketbooks was simple: Show them a good time. He reportedly “fussed” over details like seating arrangements — leaving an extra seat at each table so Obama could “mingle” (something the president is oft criticized for doing poorly) —– which prompted Kroll’s winning description of the dinner as “a night of political speed dating.” Another of Katzenberg’s tricks is his old-fashioned etiquette. In the age of mass e-mails and Facebook posts, Katzenberg is old school, plying his friends with “personal calls and handwritten thank-you notes.” Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, described him to Kroll as “one of the best, if not the best, fundraisers out there,” and, according to the same piece, he doesn’t ask for much in return: “No ambassadorship to Switzerland, no regulatory tweak, no nights in the Lincoln Bedroom,” Kroll wrote. Although, he added, there are some perks: “Obama takes Katzenberg’s calls, and he and his political adviser, Andy Spahn, visited the White House almost 50 times between them during Obama’s first term.” Not to mention, “It has also left [Katzenberg] well positioned to advocate for his industry’s and his company’s interests in China’s booming film market.” “Ten years from now, China will be the center of the universe,” Katzenberg declares. “And that’s what’s exciting — climbing mountains.” What drives him now isn’t fame or fortune, he says. “It’s not about the money — it was never about the money.” His goal is simpler: “New mountain. New challenge.”
Two minutes before the end of our hour, I realize I’ve forgotten to ask Katzenberg about Israel. He tells me he has personally taken Jerry Seinfeld, Ben Stiller and Chris Rock on visits there, which I hadn’t known. “I think it’s important,” he says. Israel “is a jewel. It’s this amazing beautiful gem that exists in a place where there are not a lot of gems.” So, in addition to the business, philanthropy and politics, Katzenberg quietly supports Israel and even leads trips there. It is all so very Lew Wasserman. The Wiesenthal’s Rabbi Hier even compares Katzenberg to the unnamed heroes of the Bible, the characters who never starred in the Jewish story, but who nevertheless made an impact on the whole of Jewish destiny. “If you want to know who’s going to change the course of Jewish history, you don’t necessarily find them in the temple on Shabbos getting an aliyah,” Hier says. Hier acknowledges the skepticism with which more observant Jews might view the likes of Katzenberg, who rarely steps into a synagogue. “When I was in yeshiva, I thought everyone there who wears a yarmulke is the epitome of all goodness, but it’s often people not involved religiously who do more work for the Jewish people than some who wear yarmulkes.” “Who’s gonna say Theodor Herzl didn’t work for the Jewish people because he didn’t wear a yarmulke?” Hier says wryly. “You might not see some of these people on Shabbos, but what they do affects everybody.” At 60 minutes on the dot, my time with Katzenberg is up. The PR chief peeks his head in with an interested expression. “How’d it go?” he mutters. Katzenberg answers: “Very lively.” Done. [Jewish Journal]