Baran Family – The Baran Endowment: five generations of passionate philanthropy


Baran Family

The Baran-Spiwak family has an incredible legacy for supporting Jewish causes locally, nationally, in Israel and around the world with the guidance of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles.

Ben and Sarah Baran were the first family members to approach The Foundation. In 1976, they established the Jacob and Zlata Colloff Endowment to honor Sarah’s parents. Sarah, who died in 1982, inspired her family with her communal work and commitment to tzedakah that she learned from her parents. Impressed with The Foundation’s capabilities, Ben and his brother Milton created a second endowment in 1978 to honor their parents, Max and Anna Baran.

They’re a truly amazing family, says Marvin Schotland, president and chief executive officer of The Foundation.

Ben Baran was a larger-than-life-person. Over the years I’ve met many generous philanthropists, but Ben was one of the purest charitable individuals I’ve ever met.  Ben and his brother Milton were totally dedicated to creating a substantial endowment so their family could give back to the community in a significant way, and they wanted us to help fulfill their ideals,’ Schotland continues. ‘Ben and Milton knew we could provide a structure to ensure that in future generations their family’s wishes would be fully carried out.

Today, nearly 40 years after the family’s first endowment was established, the next generations-Ben and Sarah’s daughters Evelyn Baran, Gloria Baran, and Sheila Baran Spiwak and husband Alan, as well as grandchildren Aaron Spiwak and Sarah Gelbart-work closely with The Foundation and its Center for Designed Philanthropy to distribute substantial grants each year to 30 or more worthy organizations through the Max & Anna Baran, Ben & Sarah Baran and Milton Baran Endowment Fund. (The fund was initially named for their grandparents, Max and Anna, but after Ben died in 2004, the Baran sisters renamed the endowment to also honor their parents, as well as their uncle who died just last year.)

The most important accomplishment of their lives

Ben and Milton each worked for an astounding 70 years at Southwestern Bag Company in downtown L.A., which was started by their father Max in 1924. Alan Spiwak now runs the 90-year-old company along with his son, Aaron, who previously worked as an attorney, but now represents the fourth generation working in the family business.

Ben and Milton, who came from humble beginnings and were very grateful for their success, felt that creating the Baran Endowment was the single biggest accomplishment of their lives. Every year they dutifully contributed significant earnings from their business to the Baran Endowment. Ben often gratefully told Southwestern Bag’s customers they were his ‘charitable partners’ because of the important role they played in supporting the endowment.

‘Ben and Milton knew deeply what tzedakah was all about,’ says Mark Meltzer, executive director of the Jewish Free Loan Association, a favorite charity that the Baran-Spiwaks have supported for decades. ‘When I met Ben in 1980, he was a true inspiration to this young nonprofit worker. Whenever I spoke with Ben, I felt elevated that I was really doing G-d’s work.’

‘Ben and Milton were very concerned about the availability of Jewish education for future generations,’ says Gil Graff, executive director of Builders of Jewish Education (BJE), another long-time Baran Endowment grantee. ‘They recognized that Jewish education is an essential platform for meaningful Jewish life.’ Now, Sheila and Alan Spiwak carry on the family tradition by serving in leadership roles at BJE.

A wide range of charitable interests

‘The three sisters are a reflection of all the aspects of their parents and grandparents. They embody them in terms of their personalities, connection to the community, and their love of tzedakah,’ says Schotland.

(L-R) Evelyn Baran, Sheila Baran Spiwak, and Gloria Baran

Evelyn, Gloria, and Sheila and Alan are all deeply involved in many different organizations and causes across the spectrum-from larger, more established programs to smaller, grassroots efforts. Baran Endowment grants support a wide range of interests; among them are Jewish education, children and the elderly, Holocaust survivors, people with special needs, food and basic necessities, urgent humanitarian relief, as well as spirituality, meditation and healing. Thousands of children and adults across many communities have significantly improved their lives through assistance and opportunities provided by the Baran Endowment.

One of their favorite grantees is The Good People Fund, which supports small nonprofits run by dedicated individuals who are creatively healing the world. According to Naomi Eisenberger, executive director, ‘There’s a tremendous compassion for others with this family, a deeply ingrained commitment to tikkun olam, repairing the world. They give in a way where they don’t draw attention to themselves, very much in line with the most idealistic levels of Maimonides’ Ladder of Tzedakah.’

Foundation support on several levels

Because the Baran Endowment is one of The Foundation’s largest-distributing a significant number of grants each year-it requires close collaboration between The Foundation and Baran family members. According to Sheila, ‘The Foundation has been extraordinarily accommodating to us over such a long period of time. When they suggest organizations and funding opportunities to support, it gives us a greater awareness of what’s going on in the world. They have breadth and exposure that we don’t have.’

‘The Foundation has been wonderfully cooperative and supportive in assisting us in making the transition from my father’s and uncle’s endowment to what has now become our endowment fund,’ Evelyn points out.

‘While it’s very fulfilling and a privilege to help so many, the giving process can be a little overwhelming at times,’ admits Gloria. ‘Working closely with The Foundation’s experts makes the grantmaking process more manageable and enables us to assist people in the most meaningful and effective way.’

The younger generations come forward

When Aaron Spiwak and Sarah Gelbart were B’nai Mitzvahs, their grandfather Ben and great-uncle Milton established charitable funds for them at The Foundation so they could begin making their own grants.

‘It was a great hands-on practical experience,’ says their mother Sheila. ‘They looked at the need and they could actually do something because they had their own charitable funds. Whether it was Katrina relief or animal shelters, it opened their eyes-they had to pay attention to the community and the world.’

Over time, Sarah and her husband Josh, along with Aaron and his wife Alissa, plan to take a more active hands-on role with the Baran Endowment’s grantmaking.

Now a special education teacher in Culver City, Sarah says that ‘I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned from my family is that you should always give in any way you possibly can. It’s giving for the sake of giving and doing all you can to help others.’

According to Sarah’s brother Aaron, ‘This is a legacy I will pass to my children. It’s important to instill in them, early and often, the idea that time and money can be used for other purposes than just for ourselves.’