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Jewish real estate chiefs hail museum 'mission'

Jewish Federation Real Estate Group raises cash for Philly, Israel projects as $150 million museum nears completion

Dean Adler of national real estate investor Lubert-Adler Partners LP, Bart Blatstein of Northern Liberties redeveloper Tower Investments, condo builder Carl Dranoff, mall owner Ronald Rubin and 400 more - a Who's Who of Philadelphia property moguls - jammed the not-quite-finished fifth-floor ballroom of the massive National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall, after work and before the Flyers game Wednesday, at a Jewish Federation Real Estate Group fundraiser that was also a pre-launch party for the $150 million museum.

Blatstein told me the group withered during the frantic real estate boom of the mid-2000s, but had "grown back bigger than ever" during the bust. Keystone Property Group owner William H. Glazer stood up front and broadcast Adler's somber view on market conditions: "Dean opined that this is a nine-inning game, and we're still in the third inning."

But Glazer and other organizers quickly went to work getting the crowd to think less about weak sales and more about opening their wallets.

The federation raises $40 million a year to finance Jewish programs in Israel and the Philadelphia area. Glazer urged the real estate men to grab their Blackberries and give. Their pledges were instantly projected on the walls: $25,000 from Intech Construction, $10,000 each from Vineland landlord Sandy Brown and Goodman Properties, $5,000 each from David J. Adelman's Campus Apartments, Klehr Harrison, Cozen O'Connor. And many more.

The program was titled "The Power of Real Estate and Its Impact in the Jewish Community"; the speakers focused on the patch of historic Independence Mall that's becoming the Jewish museum. "This is going to be one of the world-class facilities in one of the premier locations in the country to deliver our message," Adler told the crowd.

Rubin, boss at Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, told how backers got hold of the historic site, the southeast corner of Fifth and Market, next to the Mikveh Israel synagogue, whose congregation traces its roots to Colonial times. He credited Parkway Corp. parking-lot mogul Joseph Zuritsky with first learning the former KYW studio building was available. "We jumped on it, but by the time we got information the property was already sold," to developer Ravi Chawla and his foreign investment partner.

The developer agreed to approach his Danish client - "who turned out to be an Orthodox Jew. Talk about luck," Rubin said. "When he found out what our concept was, he agreed to give us the (sale) contract at his price, nine and a half million," without a profit.

Museum director Michael Rosenzweig gave the long view of the project. "As Jews we are accustomed to thinking about history in thousand-year increments," he said. "As Jews living in this country a this time, we are perhaps more blessed, more free, more prosperous, more influential than at any time anywhere in our history... In this museum we'll try to tell the whole story," plus "a much broader mission: to inspire Jews and non-Jews for a deeper appreciation for the American experience, the American immigrant experience... Ultimately at its core it's a story of freedom. It's not unique to Jews. It's a quite universal story. A very important story for non-Jews to learn."

The appeal has gone national. Director Stephen Spielberg, insurance billionaire Eli Broad, laptop-computer mogul Michael Dell, amogn others have contributed toward the $125 million raised to date for the building, Rubin said. So has the bridge-toll-financed Delaware River Port Authority. Rubin credited Goldman Sachs' retired Philadelphia partner, George M. Ross, the museum's chairman, with doing the "bulk" of the fundraising "by himself."

"It's not too often in your life that you can be part of the development of a project that will be there for a thousand years, God willing," Rubin concluded. The museum is scheduled to open the weekend of Nov. 12-14.