Businessman/philanthropist David Magerman is the kind of guy who makes things happen. After he and his wife moved to the Main Line in 2004 to become part of a richer Jewish community than they’d known in Long Island, Magerman told others he knew they should move here as well. When they balked because the Jewish schools weren’t good enough, Magerman formed a foundation to make the schools better. Later, when Jewish people told him they wouldn’t move to the Philly area because there was nowhere for them to eat, Magerman opened a kosher restaurant with Zahav chef Michael Solomonov.
“The thing is,” says Magerman, “I’m a systems guy. When I looked at the day school community, I saw a broken system so I tried to think what system would work and tried to implement it. And then with other things, looking at the community and seeing limitations, I see missing pieces and I want to put them together.”
Since he arrived here, Magerman has been extremely effective at transforming community in multiple capacities: religious, educational, culinary. Every decision he’s made has been with the intention of community-building. Along the way, he’s also been building some real estate. We spoke to him this week.
You were living in Eastern Long Island in 2004 when you decided to move to Philadelphia. How did that come about?
“It was a little bit of a shot in the dark because we didn’t know anyone here. We came out here on a secular trip to look at real estate and we weren’t really planning on making a move, just seeing what was out here. We came back a week later to put a deposit on a new construction we ended up living in.”
How did you decide where in the area to live?
“We looked at the Main Line–Gladwyne, Bryn Mawr, Villanova–and we also looked in Cherry Hill. But we felt like Cherry Hill felt a lot like Long Island.”
You were looking for more Jewish community. Did you find it?
“Absolutely, yes. One of the things we were amazed by when we came to visit was the number of synagogues that were available. We only had one where we lived that drew from like a 30 mile radius. When we came to visit the Main Line we were driving to one of the synagogues and we passed three other synagogues on the way. We couldn’t believe how many choices there were.”
But fewer choices for Jewish schools? Is that why you founded Kohelet?
“The mission was to improve Jewish day schools, make them more affordable, make them more excellent. There’s a need for Jewish education in the entire Jewish community but Philadelphia actually has some of the lowest Jewish enrollment–percentage-wise we’re only covering 4 to 5 percent of eligible Jews. The typical is 15 percent.”
Which communities have been most receptive to Kohelet’s mission in the Philadelphia area?
“On the Main Line, there’s not a lot of [receptivity] for it because there are excellent public schools and there a lot of good choices for private schools which compete with the [Jewish] day schools. In the Orthodox community, I’ve gotten great reception because there it’s a captive audience–they need to go to the schools they’re going to and they need to make them better and more affordable. And out in some of the northeastern suburbs of Philadelphia, where the schools are not as good as on the Main Line and also where they don’t have as many private school options, they’ve also been more receptive.”
What about in Philadelphia proper? I imagine the Northeast would be fertile ground.
“There’s definitely a community [in the Northeast] that’s looking for a Jewish school and a lot of those kids go to Politz Hebrew Academy. I have been working with Politz; we’re building a new building on their campus and we’ve been doing a lot of work with them in adding new technology to their program. And we’re looking at whether it would be feasible to bring [a Hebrew-language charter school] to Northeast Philly.”
What about other neighborhoods?
“There is actually a community in Center City that’s looking to put together the beginnings of a day school–a couple grades of lower school because there are a lot of families, kind of in the middle of Center City, that are kind of far away for their kindergartner and first grader to commute to the schools that are out there. So they’re looking to form their own school.”
I know you’re doing some national educational work, but I want to move on to food. You also own a restaurant, Citron and Rose.
“It’s actually pretty amazing. I was looking to do this for years now. It was all a part of the community building. I was looking for a while because I’m not a restaurateur–I don’t know what I’m doing–so I was trying to find someone who would open it for me. And around the time I found out that Michael Solomonov was thinking about doing kosher for his next project. A mutual friend put us together. It’s really a phenomenon.”
People come from all over the country to eat there, right?
“We don’t realize how central to the East Coast Jewish community Philadelphia is. I’ve gone to the restaurant a lot and talked to people who are there just to see what their story is, and one couple’s from baltimore, one couple’s from New York and they have a friend in Philadelphia, and they came to meet the third family at Citron and Rose. One night we even had two families from Toronto that both had come in to visit Philadelphia to come to the restaurant. We have a steady stream of people who come from Lakewood and Brooklyn and there are two people from Los Angeles whose law firm has an office in Center City and they’ve been out four or five times already–every time they come to Philadelphia for business they stop in.”
What’s next on your agenda?
“We are thinking about our next restaurant project. There are other needs of the community. We have this very elegant, nice, high-end restaurant and we’ve been thinking about whether we should take on doing a dairy restaurant at the mid-price range or some kind of deli. Michael Solomonov seems to be intrigued by the idea of doing what he’s done with the Eastern European meat area and to try to do that in the Jewish kosher dairy arena.”
Where would the new restaurant be?
“We’re open to different possibilities. I feel like it could be in the area where Citron and Rose is but there’s no need for it to be exactly there. Actually, there’s an amazing amount of unoccupied commercial real estate, so we’ll just knock on doors and see what’s available when we’re ready.”
Speaking of real estate, you’re building a new home near City Avenue. Why the change?
“I decided I wanted to move to be closer to my synagogue and to the observant community. We were looking for two or three years for a good property and we finally found one we could use.”
Some nearby residents weren’t happy about your construction there. Why is that?
“We knocked down what was considered to be a nice house. It was from the early ’40s. It was not very usable. One of the previous residents said it was kind of a mess inside. But we really wanted the property and the house happened to be on it. People were concerned that we were going to put up something that wasn’t appropriate for the community. It’s on Latches Lane, on the Merion Station side of City Avenue.”
So you’ll still be outside of Philadelphia County, which means you won’t have to obsess about AVI.
“I’m kind of agnostic about these kinds of things. I feel like communities do what they feel like they need to do. There’s a lot of stir about St. Joe’s and some of the things they were doing over there. But I’m a big fan of property rights, so if you own something you have the right to do with it whatever the town allows. If the rules say you can do something, I’m kind of supportive of people doing them.”
When will the house be done?
“I think by the summer of 2014. My wife will not let me put the other house on the market until we have the CMO for the new house because she doesn’t want to risk us getting an offer that we can’t refuse, so we’re not going to list it until we’re ready to move.”
That sounds practical.
“It’s practical but people know it’s for sale in that people know I’m moving. So if someone came along who was looking for a house like this, I’m sure we’d get a call.”