The business world knows Marc Lasry as a very successful private equity investor and hedge fund manager, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Avenue Capital Group and one of the wealthiest businesspeople in the U.S. today.
And since this past April, Milwaukee has come to know him as one of the new owners of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team and therefore a new major player in the city’s economy.
Both of these are primary reasons that about 650 people attended the Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Economic Forum on Oct. 28 at the Pfister Hotel, where Lasry was the featured speaker.
But what the general community may not know is that Lasry has a distinctive Jewish story also. He is from the Jewish community of Morocco, having been born in Marrakech.
His family came to the U.S. when he was 7 years old; but Morocco has not entirely left him. As he said in a brief interview with The Chronicle before the forum, he continues to practice some of the distinctive customs of the Moroccan Jewish community.
For example, this writer has read that Moroccan Jews at one point during the Passover seder lift the seder plate over the heads of the celebrants.
Lasry confirmed this and added, “And then you take the flowers that are around the table and put them around somebody’s head. It’s a sign of good luck and a long life.” And he said he still does this at his seders.
He also is a Jewish community activist. He has been to Israel many times both for business reasons and because he is “involved in a number of charities” there, though he would not say which because “we’re doing it kind of anonymously.”
He is also a board member of the 92nd Street Y (whose full name is the 92nd Street Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association) in New York City and is helping to build a new synagogue in Westport, Conn.
Lasry said he is interested in getting to know Milwaukee’s Jewish community better. “From everything I’ve read and heard about the Jewish community of Milwaukee, it’s a phenomenal community… Everyone seems so nice and kind.”
And this is not only because of his investment in the Bucks. He and his wife Cathy Cohen have five children, one of whom, Alexander, has moved to Milwaukee and is working as vice president of strategy and operations for the Bucks.
Lasry said his family left Morocco “right before the Six Day War” of 1967 between Israel and the Arab nations Egypt, Syria and Jordan. He said his family left not because of any anti-Semitism problems, but because his mother had visited the U.S. as a student, and “she thought it would be a better upbringing” for her family.
Lasry now has the appreciation for this country that many successful immigrants or immigrants’ children have. “You couldn’t do what I did anywhere else,” he said during the forum. “We need to be able to give people that chance.”
After his presentation, Lasry conversed with a panel of business leaders comprising:
• Matthew Bronfman, chair of the board of Bronfman E.L. Rothschild. (An interview with him will appear in the December Chronicle.)
• John W. Daniels, Jr., board chair of the Greater Milwaukee Committee.
• Katherine M. Gehl, president and CEO of Gehl Foods, Inc.
Chairing the event were Linda Gorens-Levey, a managing director at Startk Investments, who also served as moderator; David Lubar, president of Lubar & Company; and Allan “Bud” Selig, Commissioner of Major League Baseball.
At the beginning of the forum, MJF President and CEO Hannah Rosenthal said this Economic Forum “highlights how sports can have an impact on a community. And I want you to know that the Milwaukee Jewish Federation ‘gets it.’”
She described the JCC Maccabi Games, which will be held in Milwaukee this coming August, an event that is expected “to raise and invest in the community over $3 million.”
“We know we can’t have a vibrant Jewish community without a vibrant Milwaukee,” she said.