Managing real estate assets estimated to be worth billions, stretching from Los Angeles, New Mexico and New York to the Middle East, Michael Sapir’s real interest is in being a mensch. As the never-married mogul approaches 50, he finds himself less enamored with the shallow playboy lifestyle and more interested in living a meaningful life.
Michael Sapir has been in development for over 30 years, creating shopping centers, warehouses, high-rise offices, and boutique hotels in major metropolitan areas across the globe. He has six construction projects in the works and is most comfortable being profiled about business topics, but after we became social media and telephone friends, he graciously agreed to talk to Dallas Jewish Monthly readers about what he discusses with me personally: Judaism, Jewish pride, and the crisis of Jewish apathy. Buildings are his passion, but he knows education is the tool for building people and improving society.
“We can change the look of a city by altering its skyline, but the only way to transform society is through education,” Sapir says. “Humanity’s hope comes from the Jewish people. Why else have we survived if not to serve as an example and a guide to others?”
Sapir has no children of his own and feels a responsibility to those following him.
“I didn’t appreciate it when I was younger,” Sapir says of his traditional Jewish upbringing by the strict Russian grandparents who adopted him as a three year-old. “My grandparents were very religious and, as a kid, that felt restrictive. I badly wanted to assimilate into the American culture. American kids could eat and do anything they wanted to and I wanted that for myself. The restrictions of an Orthodox and Kosher household were in my way, so I thought.”
“Growing up in Los Angeles and New York, I wanted to experience other cultures and knew there was more to life than just being Jewish. This sentiment broke my grandparents heart,” Sapir regrets.
“As a teenager, rebelling against a very strict Jewish household, I committed the sin of getting tattoos on my body. Jews do not get tattoos because it is forbidden by the Torah so, part of the emotional torture of the Holocaust is that in the concentration camps we were branded with serial numbered tattoos for identification before being herded like animals into gas chambers disguised as showers and piled into mass graves after our gold was removed from our mouths. The Nazis knew that to tattoo us was an absolute abomination. Nevertheless, I did it to myself and was almost disowned by my grandparents, who were deeply upset that I would do such a thing.”
Sapir pauses to organize his thoughts. He doesn’t ordinarily give personal interviews or share details of his private life. He is a prominent figure and his is a particularly powerful life story, it is understandable that he has guarded his privacy, but he believes there is a purpose to sharing it now. He will allow our conversation to be “on the record.”
“I was born in the U.S. and my father left when I was born. Shortly after, my mother gave me up to her parents. All I had in the world was my grandparents. My grandfather traveled often for business and I was raised by my beautiful grandmother Celia, who spoke Yiddish, just as she had in Russia. My grandmother was an orphan, separated from her parents in the Holocaust. She related to me being an orphan, too. My grandmother told me Jews were mistreated in Russia and killed in the Holocaust. She desperately wanted me to understand my heritage.”
“All the Holocaust and (excuse me) Jewish crap didn’t matter to me at the time. I was 12 and in love with the American culture. I wanted to be a surfer with my buddy, Pauly Shore, who is now a famous comedian. I wore them down and my grandparents finally said ‘let him just go.’ It’s the equivalent in our world of like being Amish and defecting,” Sapir laughs ruefully.
His grandparents both passed away when Michael was just 23 and he says “I know today what they were trying to teach and instill in me.”
“Being Jewish is a wonderful thing. We have Jewish people scattered all over the world: white, brown, and black Jews. We were slaves, forced to build the pyramids in Egypt. We may not be able to understand it in our teens or at our Bar Mitzvahs, but I get it now. I mean, six million of my people were just murdered two generations ago. European Jewry was nearly erased and today, Jews are the top achievers. For real! We represent a fraction of the population, but impact the world with cures and solutions and we share it with everyone. Israel shares both intelligence and technology with the U.S. It was Israel who notified the U.S. and President Trump that Iran was continuing with its nuclear program which led to Trump pulling out of the Iran deal.”
“Today, I proudly define myself by my Jewishness,” Sapir says. “It’s who I am, it’s the core of my identity. Judaism is my superpower,” he laughs.
“Most of us today do not attend temple and our kids are not being taught our heritage. Many of the most prominent artists and business people I know do not even admit they are Jewish,” he laments.
“I won’t reference them in this article, but next time they won’t get off so easy,” he says with a grin.
Sapir and I discuss how Pride Day has become such a prominent experience for the LGBQT community and he expresses his desire to see pride swell in the Jewish world.
“We need cool rabbis and religious services that are relevant to contemporary life. We can’t expect to find Jews in synagogues or at Jewish community centers anymore. We have to find them where they are.”
“On their phones,” he laughs. “At rock concerts.”
“I’m starting the conversation here and will be sending this article out to Jewish influencers to seek assistance. I want all your readers to do the same! Perhaps the best way to celebrate our culture and our great people and achievements is to begin staging Jewish festivals with people like rock icon Gene Simmons, the founder of the Kiss rock band, who was born in Israel, and Madonna, who so passionately embraces our faith, and Roseanne, who has just gone to study in Israel, and my old pal Pauly Shore and other Jewish stars. Maybe it’s a video project we all work on and contribute to through YouTube. Maybe it’s #JewishPride. I want Jews all over the world to wake up, be proud, and get involved. My people – our people – the Chosen People – have come such a long way, and I’d like our youth to carry on with the Jewish faith. What will it take for that to happen? Whatever it is, let’s do it. Our grandparents were right and our future grandchildren – well, the only way to ensure we have Jewish grandchildren is to be Jewish ourselves.”