Webb Presence: A Half-Century of Impact on the TAU Campus Thursday, November 18, 2010
California's Max Webb Family has nurtured Israel's leading university from its earliest days
Anna and Max Webb
From their award-winning building on campus to their international leadership in the preservation of Yiddish language and culture, the Webb Family has been an integral part of Tel Aviv University's history for more than five decades.
The storied relationship began in the 1960s, when Los Angeles businessman and philanthropist Max Webb helped build the fledgling university's campus by establishing the American Friends of Tel Aviv University's West Coast organization to promote fundraising in a new region.
A promise fulfilled
The Webb Family School of Languages building on the TAU campus
The Webb Family — Max and his wife Anna — are among the most respected names in philanthropy in the Los Angeles area today, giving generously to both American and Israeli educational institutions.
Max survived eighteen camps over five years, as well as the infamous Death March during the Holocaust. With his first wife Sala, now deceased, he left Germany for a new life in the United States in 1952, founding the S & S Construction company with his brothers-in-law, Nathan and David Shapell. Today, it is one of the largest private home building businesses in California, and has spawned the real estate development company Shapell Industries and the Shapell & Webb management agency.
As he prospered, Max expressed his gratitude for having survived the Holocaust by creating the Max Webb Family Foundation in 1962. The Foundation is dedicated to improving the quality of Jewish life in Israel and the United States, and actively funds universities, yeshivas, synagogues, hospitals, and museums. Just over a decade ago, it provided funding for the Max Webb Family School of Languages Building, a home for language studies on the Tel Aviv University campus. It provides a home for a dynamic student body pursuing diverse curricula.
The building blocks of communication
Former TAU President Yoram Dinstein, Anna and Max Webb at the Webb Building dedication
The five-floor Max Webb Family School of Languages Building is a thriving hub of scholarship where more than 20 languages are taught, spoken, and studied at TAU. Curricula include English, American, Yiddish, French, Arabic and Latin culture studies. Dr. Rosalie Sitman, head of the Division of Foreign Languages, says she is struck by the diverse mix of languages and cultures that intermingle in the building every day.
"The building itself is quite lovely and really stands out at Tel Aviv University," says Dr. Sitman. "All the glass offers a bright and positive environment for our students and researchers, with a wonderful view of the Mediterranean Sea."
Architects Peter Keenan, Shimon Piltzer, and Danny Munk strategically placed the building over two campus paths, erecting it over a public passageway to allow free movement even when the building is closed. With an all-glass paneled façade and scenic views, the building also draws unexpected visitors to its weekly tours — "architecture tourists."
The Webb Building isn't just about languages, though. It contains a 150-seat hall, open to all units on campus for events, conferences, and ceremonies, and an outdoor reception space graced by ocean breezes. It was awarded the Rokach Prize in 2005.
Reviving a fading language
The Webb building's lecture hall is in continual use
Max Webb is passionate about reviving Yiddish, often deemed on the brink of extinction.
"The Anna and Max Webb Family Chair for Visiting Scholars in Yiddish Studies has greatly enriched both our program of study during the year and our international Yiddish summer program," says Prof. Hana Wirth-Nesher, who oversees the program. "During the year, we have been able to offer exciting and pioneering courses by young researchers who will carry Yiddish scholarship and research into the next generation," she adds.
Webb Family funding for this work has enriched the curriculum in a variety of areas, including studies on the Yiddish literary avant-garde, and the great contribution of Yiddish writers in America during the 1920's and 1930's. It also helps support Yiddish-language conferences, and enables TAU to host the world's leading scholars in Yiddish — academic stars like Dan Miron of Columbia University and the University of Michigan's Prof. Anita Norich.
"The impact of the Webb Family Chair has been both national and international," notes Prof. Wirth-Nesher. "It has greatly enriched the course offerings in this field, and trains young scholars from around the world in our international programs."
Embracing the Jewish community
Former TAU President Itamar Rabinovich confers honorary doctorate on Anna Webb in 2006
In addition to Tel Aviv University, the Webbs support dozens of Jewish institutions in Israel and the U.S., including the Women's International Zionist Organization (WIZO), the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation Institute.
"Every Jewish cause is a good cause," says Max (although he admits preferring to support education above all else.) With that in mind, he's created countless pioneering philanthropic projects, including building the 50,000 square-foot Brooklyn-based Yeshiva Imrei Yosef D'spinka, a nonprofit Orthodox school that houses 27 apartments; building the Anna and Max Webb School of Psychology at Bar Ilan University; and creating the Anna & Max Webb Family Outpatient Cancer Therapy Center at the Sheba Medical Center.
"If I start something, I work at it until I put it on the map," says Max, who also endowed milestone gifts to the LA Holocaust Monument and Museum at Pan Pacific Park, and Congregation Beth Israel and Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. The Webbs are Founders of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
In recognition of their leadership, both Max and Anna Webb have received honorary doctorate degrees from Tel Aviv University and from Bar-Ilan University.
A dedicated American Friend
Dedication of the Webb Building, 1996
William Cohen, national chairman of American Friends of Tel Aviv University, calls the Webbs outstanding philanthropic role models. "Both Max and Anna know that Jewish education is key to the ongoing survival of the State of Israel — and of the Jewish people," Bill says.
In March of this year, hundreds in the Los Angeles community came together to recognize Max's 93rd birthday in a celebration that honored his life and decades of giving back. Today, the Webbs continue their tradition of promoting Jewish education around the globe.
"God gave me a gift," Max says. "I survived, and I'm not going to take the money with me. So this is my life."