The Erwin Rautenberg Foundation


When Erwin Rautenberg, of blessed memory, established the private foundation several decades ago that bears his name, his core mission was to strengthen Jewish causes.

For Rautenberg, who was born in 1920, that charitable goal was formed by formidable life experiences, beginning with a childhood in pre-World War II Nazi Germany. His subsequent business success, achieved after immigrating to the United States, provided the financial means for his foundation’s eventual generosity now benefitting many Jewish causes. To make a lasting impact with his hard-earned wealth and to gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of strategic grantmaking, Rautenberg and his advisors placed their trust in—and the responsibility for managing the foundation’s grantmaking—with the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles (The Foundation).

As Rautenberg wrestled with issues pertaining to legacy and the ultimate disposition of his wealth, estate planning attorney Fred Marcus, a partner in the law firm Freeman, Freeman & Smiley LLP, recommended working with the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles because of its deep reservoir of philanthropic expertise and grantmaking capabilities. In the ensuing years—contemplating his charitable legacy—Rautenberg strategized with a circle of confidants, including Marcus, his longtime accountant Tom Corby of Corby & Corby Accountancy—who today leads the Erwin Rautenberg Foundation—and Marvin I. Schotland, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles.

“Erwin Rautenberg devoted considerable thought during the latter stages of his life to assessing his legacy,” said Schotland. “We are deeply honored that the Jewish Community Foundation played a central role from the beginning with a seat on the Rautenberg Foundation’s board and that Erwin placed his trust in us to help fulfill his charitable wishes.”

The outcome of that planning is a unique strategic alliance between a private foundation and a community foundation. When Rautenberg died in 2011, most of his estate was bequeathed to the Erwin Rautenberg Foundation. Today, it holds substantial assets, distributing millions of dollars per year in grant awards.

Each year, 25% of those grant awards goes to the Jewish Community Foundation to support its own institutional grantmaking—specifically its Cutting Edge and Israel Grants—enhancing grantmaking locally for new and innovative Jewish initiatives and in Israel. Another 25% is distributed through the Jewish Community Foundation to The Jewish Federation for programs meeting Rautenberg Foundation guidelines. The remainder is directed to special opportunity “Impact Grants” and Discretionary Grants. As such, the Jewish Community Foundation’s Center for Designed Philanthropy is an advisor to the Rautenberg Foundation to guide its giving, researching and recommending recipient causes and organizations, managing the proposal and vetting processes, and monitoring results of the grants.

A Deep Impact in a Short Time

Over a brief time period, the Rautenberg Foundation’s grants have cast a substantial— and far-reaching—charitable footprint stretching from Los Angeles to Israel to Moscow and places in between.

In the years prior to Erwin Rautenberg’s death, when his foundation’s assets were comparatively modest, giving focused on a few personal interests. These included, among others, a lead gift to Yeshiva Gedolah LA for Jewish education and funding to restore a synagogue near Rautenberg’s childhood home in Büeckeberg, Germany, where he was the last bar mitzvah in 1933 amid the tide of rising anti-Semitism. Rautenberg felt “an imperative to perpetuate Judaism, to keep the faith alive,” stated Rabbi Eliezer Gross, head of Yeshiva Gedolah.

Since 2013—following the transfer of the bulk of his estate— the Rautenberg Foundation’s support for Jewish causes has blossomed. During that three-year span, 170 grants totaling more than $7 million were awarded, including part of a $500,000 grant over five years to The Jewish Federation for naming its New Leaders Project, a pivotal program for developing and training future civic leaders of the LA Jewish community. The Erwin Rautenberg Foundation partnered with the Jewish Community Foundation to award a $500,000 grant to The Jewish Federation to endow its New Leaders Project, a premier civic leadership training program for emerging LA Jewish leaders. At a ceremony in May, the initiative was renamed the Rautenberg New Leaders Project. (L-R) Jewish Community Foundation Chair of the Board Larry Rauch and President & CEO Marvin Schotland; Erwin Rautenberg Foundation President Tom Corby; and Jewish Federation Chair of the Board Julie Platt and President & CEO Jay Sanderson.

“The recently renamed Erwin Rautenberg New Leaders Project is a great example of the Rautenberg Foundation’s forward thinking in creating the next generation of Jewish civic and communal leadership,” said Jay Sanderson, president and CEO, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “Our partnership focuses on two main priorities of The Jewish Federation: leadership development and caring for our most vulnerable. We are deeply indebted to the Rautenberg Foundation for its generous support.”

Another recent grant is helping the Jewish senior population. A $500,000 multiyear Rautenberg Foundation grant made possible the in-house pharmacy at the Los Angeles Jewish Home’s Joyce Eisenberg Keefer Medical Center. Jewish Home President and CEO Molly Forrest commented: “Having the Erwin Rautenberg Pharmacy onsite to provide medication for residents of our medical center is an invaluable service and enhances the quality of their care.” In addition, Rautenberg funding enabled Jewish Vocational Service to provide 80 college scholarships in the 2015–2016 academic year (out of a total of 200 awarded), having a positive impact on many students’ lives.

Funding from the Rautenberg Foundation is supporting Jews in other parts of the world, like Israel, where its grants have helped organizations addressing food insecurity, vocational training and educational programs for youth. A 2015 grant to Chamah, an international aid organization, supported a Moscow medical facility and other critical services for the elderly. According to Chamah Executive Vice President Moshiach Chudaitov, “The Rautenberg Foundation’s funding has enabled us to provide muchneeded medical support and services for the elderly in Moscow, and to help people find employment in Israel.”

Keeper of the Legacy

Steering the Erwin Rautenberg Foundation is Tom Corby, its president, who knew Erwin Rautenberg better than anyone did, serving as his accountant for the last 25 years of his life.

“I think it’s fair to say that Tom Corby is the son Erwin never had,” said Schotland. “There is no person better suited than Tom to carry out Erwin’s legacy—no one who better understood him or can be more faithful to his wishes.”

In leading the Rautenberg Foundation, Corby said he is guided by one single overriding consideration: “Is this something that Mr. Rautenberg would have wanted to support?” The soft-spoken and thoughtful Corby is enjoying his evolving role in philanthropy and his relationship with the Jewish Community Foundation, where he now is an active member of the Cutting Edge and Israel Grants Committees.

“I have spent my entire career in accounting and finance and, admittedly, had very little prior exposure to the complexities behind effective philanthropy and charitable giving. Participating on several Jewish Community Foundation grants committees and seeing the depth of research and decision-making behind the giving has been very enlightening. I’m enormously impressed with the knowledge, ideas and dedication of my colleagues on those committees. This process has broadened my horizons.”

In the Jewish Community Foundation, Corby said, he and the Rautenberg Foundation have an ideal partner. “As someone with limited prior knowledge in selecting and vetting charitable causes, I value the Jewish Community Foundation’s expertise. Its staff members understand the Rautenberg Foundation’s goals and are enormously collaborative. They bring a structured, methodical, and organized pragmatism to the process. It gives me great confidence to see the thoughtful approach they take to awarding grants.”

From Adversity to Opportunity

Erwin Rautenberg was born and grew up in Germany as the Nazis rose to power. In 1937, his father sent him to South America to escape persecution, hoping Erwin, then age 17, would eventually obtain exit visas for his family to join him in Argentina. His father, who was beaten and briefly jailed following Kristallnacht in 1938, returned a broken man and died before World War II began. The rest of his family perished in the Holocaust. Rautenberg spent the war years in Argentina where he worked on a cattle ranch in the Patagonia region and was also recruited by the US government to spy on German naval operations in Argentina for the Allies.

Rautenberg ended up settling in Los Angeles quite serendipitously. Arriving first in New York after the war, he then traveled to San Francisco. Next, he came to Los Angeles intending to return to Argentina, but lacked money for the return passage.

Instead, Rautenberg found work as a shipping clerk with a local trucking and freight-consolidation company. Recognizing the growing potential of post-war international trade, he established a division within the company, Air-Sea Forwarders, to capitalize on opportunities. With his multicultural background, fluency in languages, and keen business mind, Rautenberg grew the enterprise rapidly and ultimately took ownership of Air-Sea Forwarders, which still operates today with offices worldwide.

Understandably, his early experiences and subsequent business success in America after arriving as a near-penniless refugee galvanized a deep sense of patriotism for Rautenberg’s adopted United States. Rautenberg’s fervent patriotism manifested itself another way: a decades-long partnership with the Central Intelligence Agency, through which the CIA ran a mirror-image Air-Sea Forwarders to support its Air America operations, primarily in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. After the CIA wound down the covert operation, the alliance was chronicled at length in the The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other media.

By all accounts, Rautenberg was tough but fair, a pragmatic and deeply principled businessman. He also could be very compassionate and enjoyed the loyalty of longtime employees to whom he was devoted in kind. When asked how he believes Rautenberg would react to the effect his foundation is having on Jewish causes, Corby commented, “He was modest and private, so I think the attention might embarrass him a bit. But I think he’d be very proud that the monies awarded through the partnership between the Rautenberg Foundation and the Jewish Community Foundation—that Mr. Rautenberg worked so hard to earn—are being used in a very good way, the right way.”