Leon Charney was an American original. The son of a sewing supply salesman who left him just $34, he became a self-made billionaire, a leading philanthropist in the United States and Israel, and Honorary Chairman of the Board of Governors of the University of Haifa.
“Leon was a true friend who deeply cared about the State of Israel,” said Amos Shapira, President of the University. “We say goodbye to a dear man, a special man, and a friend. His contributions over the years have been invaluable and have laid a foundation that will be here for eternity.”
A true renaissance man – Mr. Charney was a prominent lawyer, real estate developer, author, and broadcaster. He was an advisor to statesmen, including President Jimmy Carter and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and was a renowned cantor, singing on Sabbaths and Jewish Holidays at synagogues across the United States.
Mr. Charney’s rise to international prominence is a classic tale of the “American Dream.” Born to an immigrant family, he worked his way through Yeshiva University and Brooklyn Law School. With $200 in his pocket, he started his own law firm, and went on to represent sports figures and show business personalities.
He was a great resource for Israeli government officials who sought his help over the years. At age 36, Mr. Charney became Special Counsel to Senator Vance Hartke of Indiana. At the request of Prime Minister Golda Meir, he used his position to help free Soviet Jews and enable the emigration of 1,000 Jews to Israel.
In response to requests from President Jimmy Carter and Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, he served as a “backdoor channel,” assisting Israel and Egypt in putting together a workable document which ultimately led to the Camp David Peace Accords. President Carter has referred to Mr. Charney as “the unsung hero of the Camp David Peace Treaty.” In 1986, at the request of the senior Israeli Defense personnel, Charney secretly traveled to Tunisia to meet with Yasser Arafat in order to try and promote talks between the PLO and the State of Israel.
For more than 15 years, Mr. Charney has moderated The Leon Charney Report, an award-winning nationally televised program. He is the author of four books: Special Council, Spy for Peace, The Charney Report: Confronting the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and The Mystery of the Kaddish, which is now in its second printing and was ranked #1 in religious affairs on both Amazon.com and Barnes and Nobles.com.
Mr. Charney served as Chairman of the Board of Governors of the University of Haifa from 2007 to 2013, after which he was named Honorary Chairman, the first in the University’s history. He was the recipient of many awards, including four honorary doctorates, one conferred by Yeshiva University and another by the University of Haifa.
Mr. Charney’s philanthropy set an example for all to follow and he was known throughout the United States and Israel as a true pillar of the Jewish community. His vision and generosity in establishing the Leon H. Charney School of Marine Sciences catapulted the University of Haifa to global prominence in this increasing vital field. The Charney School is now the cornerstone of Israel’s National Center for Mediterranean Sea Research at the University. He also founded the NYU Cardiac Center, in addition to many other philanthropic projects.
In an interview with Forbes Magazine, Mr. Charney was asked, “What one job should every person have to do at least once in their life?” Mr. Charney replied: “Volunteer for a charity.” And in response to “Describe your life in five words,” he said: “Eclectic, multifarious, spiritual, curious and charitable.”
Mr. Charney is survived by beloved wife Tzili, has children Mickey and Nati, his sister Bryna Blumenreich Dryer in Israel, and his extended family, friends and colleagues throughout the world. May the memories of the righteous forever be a blessing.
To make a contribution in memory of Leon Charney, click here.
To read Mr. Charney’s obituary in The New York Times, click here.