Milton and Doris Chasin: Leading By Example

In Memoriam:  Milton Chasin

Tuesday, May 26, 2009:  Jewish Federation joins the Chasin family, and their many friends throughout California and the United States, in mourning the loss of Milt Chasin.  We are grateful to have benefited from his vision, his compassion for others, his energy, wit and wisdom.  We will miss him, and we know that his legacy will continue to inspire us.  The interview below was conducted in September, 2007, hence the present-tense references to Mr. Chasin in the text. 

A Conversation on Business, Anthropology and Community-Building
Kathleen Mellon 09/2007

It is written in the Mishnah that “a community is too heavy for any one to carry alone.”  Over iced tea on the patio of their cozy waterfront home late this summer, Doris and Milt Chasin voiced this ancient wisdom in their own words.  “We have been very fortunate,” said Milt.  “And we always felt it was important to give back.”  Added Doris, “We don’t take our good fortune for granted.  Nobody achieves anything all alone.  There are so many unknown people who help us to achieve our goals in life.”

The Chasins met at New York University where both were students, and married in New York.  They will soon celebrate their 59th wedding anniversary.  Doris notes, “When we decided to marry, we knew we wouldn’t live in New York.”  Milt continued, “We came to Southern California because this is where the jobs were – in entertainment, building, aerospace.  This was the land of opportunity.  We really came here with nothing.  We came with no family, no friends.  We couldn’t afford temple membership, but we were welcomed (to Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles) and told “you’ll pay when you can.”  Doris added “I was on fellowships at UCLA for my graduate work – someone I never knew helped me to cover my expenses.  That’s how we were raised, and that’s what we’ve tried to do, in return, through our philanthropy.”

And so they have done.  Permanent residents of Orange County since 1983, and of Los Angeles from 1949 until their move to the OC, the Chasins have enhanced the lives of countless individuals and families through their devotion to hands-on philanthropy.  They have provided scholarships to Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu, a named arts center building in the new Westside Education Center of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and a scholarship endowment fund with UCLA’s Honors Collegium, for high academic achievers with financial need.  In our community, they have been generous supporters of Jewish Federation, the Merage JCC and Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’alot, among other causes.  Nationally, they are longtime significant supporters of the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose syllabi on teaching tolerance, for elementary school educators, are greatly admired by the Chasins. In Israel, they continue to provide nursing scholarships at Hadassah Hospital in memory of Milt’s aunt, Eva Lieberson Rosen, a nurse who went to Israel in 1917 with a Hadassah group led by Henrietta Szold.

This legacy of leadership, and a desire to involve others in building a flourishing community, led the Chasins to establish the Chasin Family Micro-Enterprise Loan Program with Jewish Federation.  In addition to their initial founding investment of $250,000, they have generously pledged to match $1 for every $2 raised from others, up to a total additional investment of $250,000 toward the goal of a $1 million micro-enterprise loan fund.

Getting Started in Business

“You can do well in a lifetime if you just have something with which to get started,” Milt stated.  “I recognize that, and I remember how hard it was for us.  So we want to do better for others.  There’s so much ambition out there.  So many dreams.  So many inventive ideas.  And a lot of the people with these dreams and ideas and ambition just can’t get their hands on the cash to bring those dreams to reality.”  Doris continued, “It takes capital to make capital.  We had nothing in the beginning.  When Milt started his business partnerships none of them had any wherewithal.” 

Milt’s father passed away when he was just 11 years old, and he was raised by his mother and his aunt. “I’d been working all my life, and going to school at night,” he recalls.  His US Army service, in the finance department during World War II, reads like an adventure novel – from building an airbase in Eritrea to a soldiers' R&R center in Egypt to a Coca-Cola plant in Libya.  His journeys in this time included two and a half years in pre-state Israel, to which he considered moving after the war, and travels through South Africa. 

After receiving his degree in accounting from NYU and moving to the West Coast as a newlywed, Milt worked for 10 years as an accountant for the State of California, but wanted to go into business for himself.  “Whatever I wanted to do, Doris backed me,” he says.  He became the controller for a sheet metal company whose owner promised him an eventual partnership, but “when the time came, he said he had two brothers as partners and didn’t need another partner.”  So Milt left and sourced out another fellow in the same industry, who agreed that within 3 years, Milt would have a piece of the business.  “The problem was, he didn’t listen to my financial advice, so I left and took another job, but my relationship with him remained warm and friendly.  About a year and a half later, he phoned me and said ‘okay, you were right, I’m ready to listen to you, please come back.’  I agreed, but 3 months later, he passed away, and as I looked at the books I saw that his company had fallen apart.  It was bankrupt.  His wife asked me to take over the business. I said ‘there’s no business to take over’, and her response was ‘I know, but there’s a building, what do you think it’s worth?’  So we came to an agreement, and I rounded up two other people in the business who became my partners.  We grew to become the largest sheet metal company in Southern California.”  That company, Weiss Sheet Metal, will soon celebrate 69 years of providing metal framework for shopping malls around the country. 

At the same time, Milt decided to form a second sheet metal company with two other partners, one that would work in the housing industry to avoid conflict of interest with his first partnership.  “I went to one partner and asked ‘how much cash can you put up?’ and he said ‘$2,500’.  Don, my other partner, put in a bench, a press, and a beat-up truck.  I put in an Anglia car (a little British sardine can of a car) and $500 that I had.  So our company was valued at $7,500 at the beginning.”  This company, Summit Sheet Metal, became the largest sheet metal subcontractor for tract housing and planned communities in Southern California, as well as all of the Rossmore Leisure World facilities throughout the country.  “We operated Summit from 1960 until 2002.  My partners and I are still in contact with each other - it was a long and happy ‘marriage’.”

An International Family, a Broad World View

Doris Chasin was born and raised in Borough Park, Brooklyn in a family with strong Zionist roots.  “My father was born in Safed,” she related.  The oldest of 13 children in his family, he spoke Hebrew, English and Turkish, as the region was then part of the Ottoman Empire.  He left Safed in his mid-teens, and made his way to Alexandria, Egypt in search of his future.  “He worked for a jeweler, putting necklaces and bracelets on interested customers.”  Because of the Muslim prohibition against men touching women other than their wives, she explained, Egyptian jewelers hired boys to assist in the sales process.  “He earned enough money to get to France, and from there across the Atlantic to the USA.”  Her mother, a piano teacher, was born in New York.  “My father played the accordion, so I grew up in a home filled with music.  And because of my dad’s background, my two sisters and I had to learn Hebrew.  So I graduated from the Florence Marshall Hebrew High School, studying there parallel to public high school.” 

Following her undergraduate degree in New York, Doris completed her Master’s degree and doctorate in Comparative and International Education and African Studies at UCLA in the late 1960s.  Her doctoral dissertation analyzed teacher training in Ghana, West Africa.  “I looked at 25 different teacher training colleges there, some of which were run by Ghanaians and some by nuns from Scotland, England and the USA.  It was after the fall of Nkrumah (Kwame Nkrumah, one of the most respected leaders in African history who was deposed in a coup in 1966).  He had been very eager to Ghanaize the population following years of British rule, and wanted all expatriates to be replaced in the education services.  The problem was, they lacked sufficient training to assume these new responsibilities.  I saw that the quality of teacher training was very poor in the Ghanaian institutions as compared with those run by nuns.  Even today, I’m sad to say, the best-educated Ghanaians go abroad for their higher education and don’t return.  My time there was a life-altering experience.  I lived in the bush.  I had never been away from my parents or my husband, let alone in the African bush.  And they treated me with a great deal of respect.” 

These extraordinary life experiences have certainly informed and enhanced the academic leadership posts Doris has held in the years since.  She served as Academic Dean of Marymount College, has taught at Loyola University and several schools in the UC system including UCLA and UC Santa Barbara, has been West Coast Regional Director of the Institute of International Education, and has been an advisor to African students at UCLA.  She retired in 2004, after teaching anthropology for twelve years at Orange Coast College.  Today, she continues to speak to community groups about her worldwide travels. 

Putting Down Roots in The OC

Longtime residents of Westwood in Los Angeles, where they raised their children Gil and Barbara, the Chasins enjoyed sojourns to Newport Beach once the kids were grown.  Says Milt, “We used to come down on weekends just to relax and enjoy each other.  We’d come down on Friday, but you couldn’t check into a hotel before 4pm, and on Sunday you’d have to be out by noon.  So we decided to try and find an inexpensive place down here.”  In 1968, in order to help Doris complete her doctoral dissertation, Milt rented a small apartment on Balboa Peninsula.  He quipped, “I deposited her in the apartment with her books and materials.  She just laid everything on the floor and got to work, no telephone calls, no interruptions.  She finished her dissertation in just 10 days."  Several years later, in 1972, they purchased a one-bedroom co-op on Lido Peninsula. “In those days, OC real estate was affordable to us,” says Milt.  “We thought, as long as we use it one and a half times a month, we’ll be ahead of the game.  It became a joke, because once we got the apartment, all our friends wanted to come down, and 1.5 times a month became 4.5 times!” 

While continuing to maintain home base in Los Angeles, the Chasins spent more and more time in Newport Beach.  Doris noted, “During the 10 years we were part-timers, we got to know the community and it seemed like a nice place to live permanently.  Once the children were grown, it didn’t seem necessary to stay in Westwood.”  They bought a vacant apartment upstairs from their Lido pied-a-terre, remodeled into a duplex, and became fulltime Orange Countians in 1983, in every sense but congregation membership.  “We have such a strong relationship with Wilshire Boulevard Temple, we just continued to belong there even while living here,” says Milt.  Three years ago, they joined Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’alot in Irvine, where they have established a birthright scholarship to provide summer Israel experiences for teens. 

Teaching by Example, Living the Example

“One’s whole life points one in a particular direction,” says Doris.  Her work in anthropology and education, as well as her and Milt’s philanthropy, demonstrates commitment to opening opportunities to young people.  “The focus of anthropology is understanding how a culture is passed on to the next generation so that it survives,” she says.  “We raise our children in our own image.  Part of knowing how to behave as adults is giving to others.”

Philanthropy is an extension of the nurturing role women hold in our society, according to Doris.  As women move into more worldly positions, they are reaching out philanthropically beyond their families to their local communities, as well as national and international causes.  In a sense, she notes, philanthropy is a very natural result of women’s urge to nurture.  She stresses that the techniques of organized philanthropy are not innate – they have to be learned.  Therefore, she has devoted a good portion of her life to cultivating the spirit of philanthropy in younger people, and teaching them how to give, through money as well as service, to improve their communities.

“When we were kids,” she continues, “there was a pushke (tzedakah box) in our house for HIAS – the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.  Everyone put in nickels and pennies.  My father would empty his pockets of coins every week and it would go to HIAS.”  Her parents helped others through their congregation, and gifts to needier relatives.  Doris recalls, “They also believed they should help people they didn’t know.  You teach with your actions.  It’s more in what you do, than what you say.  Children learn from what they see.  My mother set the tone, and that’s why I’ve always felt a responsibility, as an adult, to be a role model not only for our children but for other young women.”

Doris Chasin has been mentoring young women professionally for decades.  At Marymount College in the 1970s, she created a continuing education program for the mothers of students.  In another program, she welcomed high school students onto campus and paired them with faculty and administrators to learn about careers in academia.  “I’ve been on the Board of the College of Letters and Science at UCLA for 20 years,” she relates.  “A few alumnae, about seven of us, got together and started Women & Philanthropy.  We’re mentoring young women to become philanthropists in their own right.  We encourage young graduates to begin giving immediately – especially those who received scholarships and fellowships to complete their degrees.  The idea is to start giving back, in whatever amount they can, and not to put it off until they’ve become successful.  And we have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars!  Giving has to be by example.  It’s not going to happen by itself.”

The Chasins speak fondly of the UCLA students they have met, recipients of their endowed scholarship. “The first year, it was one recipient,” says Milt.  “Today, it’s grown to 5 or 6 each year.  We meet people from all backgrounds.”  Continues Doris, “Our first recipient was a young, Catholic Republican from Fresno, a former aide to Senator Hayakawa.  Last year, one of our recipients was a woman in her 30s who had been a Las Vegas showgirl.  When her mother died of cancer, she decided to go back to school, and to study biology toward a cure for cancer.  These scholarships have been a way of connecting us to a world, and people, that we’d not know otherwise.”

Milt Chasin lives the example in his business life as well.  “Back in the late 1970s I met a young Iranian Jew, about 20 years old at the time, who had come to America when the Shah fell.  He went to work for my partner, and stayed with us for years.  When we were retiring, we minimized the down payment to allow him to take over the business with his brother and a partner.  Then last year, he asked us if we’d sell them the building.  I agreed and we closed the deal recently.  He had only to put up his home as collateral – which was a very small amount compared to the value of the building.  Just enough to have the awareness of an obligation.” 

In establishing the Chasin Family Micro-Enterprise Loan Program, and announcing the $1 for $2 challenge grant toward a $1 million goal, Doris and Milt Chasin exemplify creative, entrepreneurial philanthropy.  “It’s all about encouraging others to step up and join us in a program that will help businesspeople at a critical juncture in their lives,” says Milt.  Concludes Doris, “We know that this is what we leave behind, to carry on our beliefs and the work we hold so dear.”

To contribute matching funds toward the Chasin Family Micro-Enterprise Loan Challenge Grant, click here.

A portion of Doris Chasin’s comments on women and philanthropy first appeared in the publication “Women’s Philanthropy” published by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute (formerly the National Network on Women as Philanthropists) in 1994.