The Controversial David Magerman

Wealthy Main Liner David Magerman has given millions to Philadelphia's Jewish community. The Jewish community is thankful. Sort of.

It’s July Fourth weekend, and I’m almost certainly the only person taking the Fire Island Ferry to visit an Orthodox Jewish guy. That a man whose religious denomination in theory condemns homosexual acts spends his summers on an island best known as a gay beach haunt is a paradox I can’t help commenting on when Magerman meets me at the dock. “Yeah,” he says of the island’s reputation, bemusedly. “And that’s great, ’cause it keeps people away.” It turns out the gay enclave is further east. He and his wife, Debra, whom he met on JDate, picked Fire Island precisely because it was low-key—the anti-Hamptons.

Indeed, Magerman isn’t overly preoccupied with appearances. During both our extended interviews, he’s dressed like he’s in summer camp: shorts, polos and ratty slip-ons. Decked out neither in the black garb of the Haredi (he’s not that Orthodox) nor like a guy who made a fortune as a high-frequency trader, Magerman has a Mark Zuckerberg quality to him. He’s a computer geek who fell into a shitload of money and never bothered taking off the hoodie.

On Fire Island, another Zuckerbergian trait emerges: Magerman is interested more in being correct than in being politically correct. Sometime in the late afternoon, after he’s pounded two bottles of unsweetened iced tea, he reclines in a wicker deck chaise overlooking the ocean and volunteers an embarrassing story.

Last November, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia was holding its annual fund-raising event at the Marriott in Center City. Before the dessert reception, at which Jay Leno would (ostensibly) humor the crowd, assorted big-money guys whipped out their checkbooks for a little friendly gift-giving competition. Magerman, emboldened, he confides, by excessive alcohol consumption, decided to one-up everyone in the room … while issuing a massive f-you to Federation.

“I stood up and said, ‘I am strongly supporting the missions of the agencies that Federation supports, if not Federation itself’’’—which was the jab—‘I agree to give $10,000 to any Federation agency that contacts my foundation.’”

Magerman was showing up his host—a.k.a. the mother hen and institutional power broker of the entire Philadelphia Jewish community—and flaunting his bling: 23 agencies took up his offer, and just like that, he was out $230,000. “I will tell you, it was not a ringing endorsement of Federation,” recalls shopping-mall magnate and Federation supporter Lew Gantman, diplomatically. “It’s not what you would typically see.”

Magerman says he’s undergone extensive therapy to tone down his confrontational behavior. But it’s not entirely clear he wants to; the Federation dinner wouldn’t be the first or the last time he refused to compromise his vision. Besides, by pulling off the stunt, he probably gave more to charity than Federation ever would have. “In a vacuum,” Magerman muses, “it was a beautiful thing to do.”

Last April, he suffered another breakup when Zahav and Federal Donuts creator Michael Solomonov announced he was leaving Citron and Rose. He and Magerman had opened it to great fanfare only six months earlier. The rift centered on Magerman’s plans to expand the restaurant to better serve Philly’s observant population. “I told him: I’ve got a community to serve,” he says. “The fact that this place is so nice and it’s hard for people to get reservations is actually a bad thing.”

Solomonov and his business partner, Steve Cook, Magerman says, weren’t interested in doing catering for a “mundane $5,000 kiddush or bris” for fear of tainting their “brand.” So he decided not to renew their contract. (Solomonov, who cautiously called Magerman “opinionated, but in a good way,” confirmed the source of the disagreement.)

Magerman knows he’s pissed off a lot of people with his my way/highway approach. But ultimately, he knows no one can get too upset at him. “How horrible, that guy gave $50 million to Jews,” he says, mimicking his critics. Indeed, those critics are less upset with what he’s doing than how he’s doing it.

One prominent philanthropist says his only wish is that Magerman could get himself a PR person so he would stop infuriating everybody and dividing the community. “I’m not sure exactly how much stability there is,” adds departing Perelman head of school Jay Leberman, irked at the amount of control Magerman insists on exercising over his carefully targeted grants. “There’s thoughts of grandeur there.”

For example, in late 2012, Magerman offered a $4.5 million gift to Perelman Saligman Middle School. Leberman says the Conservative school rejected it because Magerman wanted too much control in setting the terms on how the money would be spent. Magerman says the school board just didn’t trust his motives. Both assessments are true. “David’s a hedge fund person. This was a hedge fund move to make us look bad,” Leberman says. “He’s always one step ahead. You know, he’s calculating.” Magerman eventually withdrew the offer.

Perhaps the harshest indictment, however, comes from the man who tries—and fails—to say the least about Magerman. This past spring, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia parted ways with its CEO of seven years, Ira Schwartz. Ever since their Megafund project derailed, Schwartz and Magerman haven’t liked each other. Magerman, for his part, thinks Schwartz was a bad fund-raiser with a “gruff” personality who purposely underfunded Jewish education in favor of pet projects. Schwartz, as the following email exchange suggests, was similarly eager to dish. Here’s how our exchange unfolded:

I prefer to bow out and not get involved.

I tried again a week later, only to receive a similar reply:

I have no interest in getting involved in this matter.

Twenty minutes later, however, a sign of life:

I’m sure you’ll have no problem finding people who can fill you in on Magerman, both positively and negatively. I have no interest in getting involved.

And then, unsolicited, 45 minutes later, came this missive:

When you interview people about Magerman, ask them what one word that comes to mind that would describe him. This should prove to be quite revealing.

When I got back to him soon after with a half-dozen answers, he was dissatisfied by the lack of vitriol:

Who did you interview, his kids?

Eventually, he began plying me with the names of a couple of potential Magerman critics (neither criticized him), urging me repeatedly to “keep digging.”