Harold Grinspoon profile

Making book on Jewish learning for children

What makes a philanthropist? How does someone accrue so much money that s/he can donate millions to people with less wherewithal? Why give away that hard-earned cash? And why choose Jewish causes?

For every philanthropist, a unique set of circumstances contributed to the happy combination of wealth and generosity. Here’s one case study.

Harold Grinspoon grew up poor in Auburndale, Mass. Non-Jews picked on him and called him names. The lesson he learned was, “That if I ever made any real money, I would donate it to Jewish causes,” he says.

“I started out as a carpenter and plumber – a schlepper,” Grinspoon says. “My father practiced law before he earned his law degree. You could do that in those days. But after graduating, he went back to carpentry. Eventually I started working with him. I was a handyman and a painter – a horrible painter, and I wouldn’t touch electricity. But I understand the trades. Then I bought my first two-family house as an investment.”

Time passed. Grinspoon earned real money, largely in the successful business of real estate, first locally, then nationally. And he began donating mega-bucks annually to Jewish causes, primarily those benefiting children. “His entrepreneurial spirit and eye for undervalued assets has been his modus operandi,” says his wife and active philanthropic partner, Diane Troderman.

Grinspoon founded and leads the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. In 2004 it launched the Grinspoon Institute for Jewish Philanthropy (GIJP), which concentrates on helping the boards of overnight camps. The following year he created the PJLibrary, a program that donates Jewish children’s books to more than 70,000 families in nearly 150 communities in the United States and Canada.

“The money I have made is as a trustee for my Jewish genes,” Grinspoon says. “If you have the genes to be an entrepreneur and create wealth, you can learn to give it away. I don’t own a plane. I have a boat, but it’s only 17 feet long.”

GIJP supports 85 nonprofit Jewish camps. It has donated $10 million through challenge grants, which in turn raised another $65 million. That sum would cover a lot of challahs, but instead it goes to strategic planning, best practices and more. On the website, gijp.org/, you can click on a link to the “Stop Kvetching” board webinar.

Each month PJLibrary ships free, high-quality Jewish books and music to families with kids from six months to eight years. Another 44,000 preschoolers receive books through the Israeli version, Sifriyat Pijama. Grinspoon wants to engage Jewish families, strengthening their Jewish identities and their relationship to the Jewish community.

“My wife and I want to outreach to people who want to become interested and involved. We want parents to spend quality time with their children. It’s not about income level – the books are a gift. Any family who participates in PJLibrary is getting a message from the Jewish community: We care about you. It’s especially important,” he says, “because we have such a high inter-marriage rate in this country.”

Grinspoon prefers the Israeli version of PJLibrary. “Here, we mail books to homes,” he says. “In Israel, mailboxes are too small. So we distribute books through pre-schools and kindergartens in partnership with the Ministry of Education.”

In the States, statistics show that most Jewish philanthropy goes to non-Jewish causes. Not so for Harold Grinspoon, who wants to inspire Jewish people “to give their philanthropy Jewishly so we can insure a strong Jewish future.”

Troderman believes that people who face their own mortality “Understand that it is indeed a gift to be able to think about one’s legacy. Harold and I recognize that we are here on this earth for a heartbeat in the great scheme of things. There is something very basic in our core that makes us feel that our being here has somehow, somewhere, made a difference.”

Appeared in the Jewish Exponent May 12, 2011.