The Controversial David Magerman

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

There’s something about Magerman I haven’t mentioned yet. It’s true that he quit his hedge fund in 2008 in the midst of an existential crisis. But two years later, bored out of his mind, he rejoined the firm, working remotely. He emphasizes to me that he’s only an employee—not a manager—so he’s decidedly less involved in the business of creating wealth out of nothing for no discernible purpose. Still, the fact remains: He’s never psychologically adjusted to his new life mission. His cash can prop up teetering schools, but truly changing Philadelphia’s Jewish community might require something he doesn’t have.

One evening last December, Magerman found himself standing helplessly in front of a PowerPoint presentation in a packed auditorium, caught in a screaming match with a bunch of middle-school parents. Everyone in the room had a kid at either prestigious Saligman in Melrose Park or prestigious Barrack in Bryn Mawr. Saligman leaders were contemplating a move to the richer, faster-growing Main Line for financial reasons. Saligman parents didn’t want to lose their neighborhood school. Barrack parents didn’t want the competition. Everyone was freaking out.

So sometime in late November, Magerman created a Facebook group and invited every parent from both schools—­everyone else was barred—to a meeting at Gratz College that was so contentious, it’s near-impossible to get anybody to talk about it on the record. Magerman, a Saligman dad himself, would propose a handful of options to the parents, from maintaining the status quo to creating a new school. If two-thirds of them voted for any one choice, he’d provide tens of thousands of dollars in tuition abatements for parents of both schools. Ballots were printed and numbered. The whole thing was very professional.

As soon as he took the mic, however, the meeting dissolved into chaos. One person says a group of Barrack parents purposely “sandbagged” Magerman from the get-go, yelling loudly to disrupt the gathering. Another says Magerman was in fact the saboteur, undercutting the schools when he had no right to. Magerman himself says he walked out twice in frustration after losing his temper; others would say he was ousted. No single proposal received two-thirds of the votes, though one Saligman mom thinks the election may have been rigged. A couple weeks later, the schools made the decision themselves, agreeing to merge Saligman onto Barrack’s campus.

“I fault David for creating an environment where instead of having a thoughtful and rational dialogue about the future of Jewish education, he created an emotional hardship for many families,” says Montgomery County Commissioner and Perelman parent Josh Shapiro. “David should have never run the meeting in the first place,” echoed another Saligman parent who remained anonymous to avoid hurting Magerman’s feelings. When it came to massaging away the anxieties of a couple hundred strung-out parents, in other words, Magerman wasn’t the guy for the job.

Which leads us back to the problem of the two Davids. On one hand, Magerman came up with a creative and equitable solution to a crisis roiling a rudderless community. Kudos. On the other hand, his plan was hopelessly utilitarian, a “system” that hadn’t factored in what he might call human error: hurt feelings, held grudges, unfounded suspicions. It was classic “Two Jews, three opinions,” and a PowerPoint presentation didn’t stand a chance.

The day after the meeting, Magerman told the Jewish Exponent, “I can sleep at night knowing that I have done everything a person can do to get a good outcome.” The same could be said of his entire philanthropic mission. But that doesn’t mean anyone’s going to come out and thank him for his efforts. The system just doesn’t work that way.