When he was in his mid-20s, Mel Heifetz made a pledge to himself that if he ever became successful, he would give back, and that the object of his generosity would be the gay community.
Successful he was, and now, about to turn 82, the Center City real estate investor is converting 26 of his Center City residential properties into a grand act of charity. On Friday, Heifetz announced that he has gifted them to the Philadelphia Foundation, which will in turn sell them and place the proceeds in an endowment. The expected $16 million from the sale plus cash will join Heifetz's existing $4 million donor-advised fund at the Philadelphia Foundation, and investment income earned on the money each year will go toward LGBT groups.
"This is really a fulfillment of a pledge I made to myself almost 60 years ago," Heifetz, a fulfillment, he admits, that has left him "quite emotional and tearing up, which at 82 is easy to do."
Others in the LGBT community are also feeling emotional.
"This massive donation from Mel is a game-changer, and it will change LGBT advocacy in this region not just for decades, but for all time," said State Rep. Brian K. Sims, a Philadelphia Democrat.
Heifetz is a well-known supporter of LGBT and liberal political causes on a local and national level. In 2005, he paid off the mortgage of the William Way LGBT Community Center, and at least part of what he would like to see this new gift do is to lift philanthropy in the gay community generally.
When he gets notes of thanks for his generosity, Heifetz demurs.
"I say, 'Don't give me your thanks, donate $25 to any organization that supports our community.' If only we could get people to come forward and support our community," he said, "we would be a lot stronger and have a lot more representation."
"I often draw an analogy between Jewish and LGBT philanthropy," says Chris Bartlett, William Way's executive director. "There is an expectation in Jewish philanthropy that people will step up to heal the world. Jewish institutions have put in place that expectation. The LGBT community has to have the same seriousness of purpose. I think part of Mel's frustration is that many in the LGBT community haven't been convinced of the need to invest in LGBT causes, so they give to the opera or the orchestra."
Heifetz's presence in the community has, Bartlett said, "made the case to many other donors that we are worthy of that investment."
Heifetz — who is distantly related to violinist Jascha Heifetz — grew up in South Philadelphia (at Seventh and Wharton Streets, then Eighth Street and Snyder Avenue), the son of two hairdressers. He was working by the age of 8 or 9, cleaning his parents' salon and selling door to door with his father. He served in the Army, then studied real estate at Temple University. He left college after less than a year to learn on the job. He bought his first property in his 20s in South Philadelphia for $600 and rented it for $50 a month, and two or three years later bought a five-unit apartment building at 22nd and Locust Streets for $24,000.
"I still own it today," he said, "It brings in $60,000 a year."
And then he remembers.
"Well, I did own it. Until yesterday," he says, turning to Pedro A. Ramos, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Foundation, which has long existed to manage both its own endowment as well as donor-advised funds of others.
"It's a real estate success story," said Ramos of Heifetz.
Now the money will go to work in the service of charity. Heifetz's fund at the Philadelphia Foundation is called the GLBT Fund of America and will support groups that work on civil rights, social justice, and health needs. (The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com, operates under the auspices of the Philadelphia Foundation.)
But given all of the accomplishments of the last decade or two — same-sex marriage, just to name a major one — one might wonder: Is giving to LGBT causes less critical than it once was?
"No, it's even more critical now," said Heifetz, who himself has a partner. "We are literally under attack by our own government. The government and the unnamed person [President Trump] have hired people whose first requirement seems to be that they have to have a dislike for homosexuals, and they have to promise to do everything they can to exclude us from any benefits. The number of things they've already excluded us from — every day, they seem to add something else. And I'm sure at the end of the list is gay marriage. One more appointment to the Supreme Court will probably fix that. And it's a shame after spending your whole life wanting to see your community achieve the same equality everyone else has.
"This is not the America we grew up with," he says, echoing himself more softly. "Not the America we grew up with at all."
Heifetz says that after him, the GLBT Fund of America will be shepherded by a trustee or two who will keep it true to his intent, and that even after making his gift, he "won't be eating hot dogs on the street at $2 apiece. I live a very middle-class lifestyle, and I'm happy with that."
Despite the generosity, no one who knows Heifetz was surprised that he "would give away his life's wealth for the betterment of the community," says Sims.