Monday, October 2, 2023 -
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Having fun

Everybody has his definition of fun. The movies. Playing sports or watching sports. Vacationing. Concerts. The beach. Games, especially winning. The list is long. I am not certain I have ever met someone who had so much fun — well, giving his money away, does not quite capture it. Michael Staenberg does not just give money away; he relishes digging down into the nitty gritty of making certain it’s being spent — well, “spent wisely,” does not quite capture it. Nor does “efficiently.” Just say: he has fun making the money do what it’s supposed to do. And since what it is supposed to do is, in his case, often physical, he relishes making the physical work. That’s more than spending money “wisely” or “efficiently,” which are way too abstract. Michael Staenberg’s philanthropy is a form of taking pride in your work, because, for Michael, he’s right there doing the work, too; and guaranteeing it’s done to the highest standard.

He gets a call from someone he never met.

That someone, a lay leader, asks him to be a donor to the Denver Jewish Day School.

“What are you thinking about?” asks Michael.

“A six-figure gift.”

Point blank, Michael says he’s asked for a six figure donation.

Someone else might hang up, or burst out laughing, or politely say no, or be insulted, or whatever. Not Michael. He answers in two words.

“That’s bold.”

Then he adds these words:

“I’ve never been to it. Wouldn’t you think it would be a good idea to be invited to come see?”

So, not put off by the request, he goes to see the Denver Jewish Day School for the first time.

“We’re walking around,” he recalls, referring to the head of school and “a couple of others.”

“What do you think?” they ask me.

“I say, in my bold fashion: It’s kind of rustic in here.”

Michael explains to me: “I look at things in a way most people don’t. People look at programs, people and a purse.

“I look at the first impression. And you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

“So I’m telling them: You need a lot of improvement to your aesthetics.

“Your gym is poorly lit. Needs to be painted. Floor needs to be fixed. Needs a complete re-do.”

Hearing this blunt, rather negative evaluation from a prospective donor, others might quickly conclude: Well, it was worth a try. The donor doesn’t like what we’ve got going.

The next three words out of Michael’s mouth:

“I’ll do it.”

The DJDS people are skeptical.

“You have no idea what you’re getting into,” they tell Michael.

Actually, he does.

Remember, he likes to have fun.

Michael called his friend Stuart Bombel, whom he met while he (Michael) was updating the JCC and Bombel did the work around the pool. Michael appreciated the quality of his work.

Bombel says to Staenberg: “Let me come over and I’ll help you. I’ve been involved in DJDS previously. Let me help you find the right painter, etc.”

Staenberg: “Deal.”

Michael dropped into my office last August 4 to tell me this. The project at DJDS started last January and was finished the day he came in. Mind you, Michael lives in St. Louis, not in Denver. I said to him: “Knowing you, I bet you did more than make the donation, scope out the project and bring in Stuart Bombel.”

“I’ve been here more than a dozen times,” Michael says matter-of-factly. Of course he’s been here. He likes the fine points of construction. He likes things getting done right. And he likes surprising people, as he did when he said, “Needs a complete re-do,” and then, “I’ll do it.”

“In my fashion, I can’t stop with one project,” Michael is telling me.

“So I said: Let me change all the lights in the whole building. They’re not LED. I’ll change every fixture to make sure it looks right. By the way, we need to paint the outside of the building and change the parking lights and the landscaping and the carpet is disgusting.”

“What you you mean?” they say. They’re flabbergasted, at least in Michael’s telling.

“I’ll do it,” he says.

“So I called Debbie. She is my interior decorator — does all my nonprofit buildings — from St. Louis.

“I told her: I want new carpet, new chandeliers, I want it to look like a brand new building when it’s done.

“We finally got the carpet in today. All the paint looks good.

“Makes a good impression.

“Whole place looks great.”

What drives Michael Staenberg? 
 “The most important thing is what I said to Avi Halzel (DJDS head of school): ‘How is enrollment?’ He says, ‘it’s up.’

“I hope the parents recognize the nice improvements that were made to make it a nice place to go to school.”


“People can have the greatest teachers and programs, but if the facilities are not up to date and the parents don’t feel that it motivates the kids, then the good teachers etc. won’t matter. A good building is the same impact as great teachers. That’s the place to start: with the building.

“I recognize the nuances of a great facility.

“What I did with DJDS is no different from what I did at the Missouri Torah Institute. I helped them buy it and I fixed the gym. They have a nice weight room now. You’ve got to start with the basics.”

Debbie spent three to four days in Denver. Michael, as he said, came in over a dozen times.

“It’s important to me to make sure that it gets done.”

With his partners and his experts on the project, and with his own direct participation, the cost of the DJDS project came in at less than half of what he estimates it otherwise would have. Which means, he says, he gets credit for a much smaller donation. Which is fine with him. Because that’s part of the fun. Cost control alongside quality.

A few questions arise in my mind.
 Why does Michael Staenberg involve himself in nonprofits?

Why is he so public and unabashed about it?

“I get to meet people I would otherwise never get to meet. That’s the best thing about all this stuff.

“Everyone has time, talent and treasure. Everybody has those three things. That’s what I’m trying to promote — use me as a model to get other people to do the same. I want to inspire other people.

“It’s not that hard. Stop the talk. Do the walk.

“I want to inspire other people to understand that they can make a difference.

“I used to give anonymously. But then I had a mentor. Tommy Green. In St Louis. He owned a bank and an insurance company and was a real estate guy.

“It was during the war in Lebanon (between 1982 and 1986). I’m sitting there with him and all these people are raising their hands for $10,000 — for Israel during the war. I’m the last one at the table of probably 30 people. I raise my hand for $500. I feel like I’ve disappointed people. I go up to Mr. Green. ‘I’d like to understand how you’ve become successful and why you’ve become passionate for Israel.’ He says, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow morning for breakfast at 7 a.m. — and don’t be late.’

“For the next 30 to 31 years he and I would have breakfast or lunch at least two to three times a month and we talked three to four times a week. He took me to Israel for the first time. He put his arm around me, and said, ‘And now, what are you going to give?’ And I told him.

“And he said: Do not give anonymously. People need to know that you’re stepping up.

“In the 1990s, I. E. Millstone [after whom the federation campus in St. Louis is named] became a friend of mine. In 2003 or 2004, he came in to my office and said, ‘you’re now the guy in St. Louis. Fix the Millstone campus. You need to inspire people. And we know you can do it.’ And so I did.

“I built the Holocaust museum, the mikveh, the federation building, the senior housing, and the campus is beautiful.

“Larry Mizel is my senior advisor. He’s been a tremendous role model.

“I look up to him for all he’s done for Denver.”

“The problem with the Jewish world is that they have amnesia. People don’t know how we got here. Can’t remember how bad things were.

“Without those two guys, Green and Millstone, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I never forget them. You do not agree all the time, but you have to thank them and respect them for taking their time.”

Michael Staenberg thanks me with a couple of artifacts from another arena where he has fun: baseball. This time, it was with a painting — or maybe was it a photo? a lithograph? a piece of art? — anyway, it’s titled “Juiced” and pictures a baseball cut in half with the inside showing an orange cut in half. You know, the current “juiced” baseball.

When Michael Staenberg is around, it is not only he who is having fun. This very serious and successful man spreads the fun to whomever is around him.

Copyright © 2023 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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IJN Executive Editor | [email protected]

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