AFIPO Executive Director, West Coast Justin Pressman: Thank you so much for taking this time to speak with us, Morton. You were the first person that came to mind when I was tasked to find a venue for our Dallas-Fort Worth event. I think you exemplify both of the distinguishing features of the Israel Philharmonic- both a connection to classical music, and a connection to Judaism and Israel. I’d love for you to tell us a little about your upbringing and what fostered your connection to both the art form of classical music, and your connection to Judaism.
Alright, so those are three things: Classical music, Israel, and Judaism.
As far as classical music, my parents were both musicians. My mother was trained in classical music, and played it to me when I was in utero. Now, at this time, the Mozart effect didn’t exist- it wasn’t done in those days! When I was born, there’s a picture of me right after my birth on a bassinet waving my arms in time with music. It was clear to her that whatever experiment she did (predating the mozart effect) was successful. She was thrilled with that, and she played me the piano all the time.
At the beginning of World War Two, I was three. There was no TV, there was no money, so our family entertained themselves with family picnics and singing. I would stand on the piano bench singing music that she played. That went on until I was four when I started piano lessons, which I took until I was 13.
In seventh grade, I joined the glee club, and because of my background was designated a solo in my first performance. I forgot the lyrics, and I never sang another solo in my life. I retreated from that experience into singing in the chorus. I sang in the choir during high school.
I went to the University of Texas at Austin, I was a liberal arts major in philosophy economics, but I was always at the music school. They used to have practice rooms with pianos, and I would go in and play. One afternoon, I went to the practice room and heard some 50 people singing choral music in the auditorium across the hall. I went in, sat down, and the director turned around and asked who I was. I said “Morton Myerson.” He asked if I sang and then asked me to join them. For four years I sang, and then took a music majors course, and I still sing in the Dallas Symphony chorus sometimes.
I took my mother to every concert. When I wasn’t in town, she went to every concert for about 15-20 years. And then she finally died in 98. That’s the music story.
Onto the Judaism part of your question- my families didn’t speak to each other because of my father’s ultra orthodox kosher home versus my mother’s German Jewish reform home. My parent’s families didn’t talk to each other until my bris. I became the peacemaker. I was raised in a very Christian Baptist community with a tiny number of Jews in Fort Worth, Texas. I was always known as the Jewish kid, and I went to religious school at the reform temple. It was quite a feat because I was a football player, and there were no Jewish football players- that just didn’t happen.
One time, a game in my junior high school fell on Rosh Hashana. I went to my parents and asked what I should do, and they told me that I had to make up my own mind. So I went to my rabbi and asked him what to do. He said that I have to make up my own mind, and that it’s a matter of conscience. Eventually, I decided I wouldn’t play. I was quite an athlete- I played both offensive and defensive. I was on the first team from the day that I started, and I was key to that team, so the coach went hysterical. He was very Christian and he said, “I can’t count on you. I’m going to demote you. I won’t throw you off the team but you’re going to the third team.” So I said, “well, you have to do what you have to do, I have to do what I have to do.” I practiced for two weeks on the third team, we went to the game, they wrote the starting lineup, and I wasn’t on it. They kicked the ball off, we got the ball, and on the first play he turned to me and said I needed to go in. At that point, I learned a life lesson that if they need you, they’ll call on you. That was a very big thing in my life. I’m in the 8th grade having to deal with that kind of stuff. And in Texas, football was kind of like a religion itself.
I was also an officer in the army. I wasn’t the only Jewish officer, but there was only a tiny number of Jewish officers. Then, I became involved in the computer- I was liberal arts major but I discovered computers in the army. I had an epiphany, which is a Christian thing [laughs], and decided I was going to do computer work. I did that for most of my career afterwards. There were no Jews in technology in 1962. In the early days, Jews didn’t do engineering because you couldn’t be hired. Most engineering firms wouldn’t hire Jews, and AT&T would not hire Jews in those days. I had a very good business career, and then in 1998, my only son died. I was so broken up about that I went to Israel for two months. Before all this occurred you’d call me a reformed Jew- I gave tzedakah, I went to 2 or 3 events, celebrated High Holidays, and did Seder.
When I got to Israel, I studied in a small liberal yeshiva with men and women. One day, the chief rabbi asked me if I’d like to study privately. I said I wanted to study Tzedakah, because I’m a check-writing Jew, I give money [laughs]. I know what’s going on, I know the rules, but I don’t know why I’m doing it other than my family did it and my grandfather told me that I should. I studied for about a month. I learned the history of tzedakah, which was very important to me because I’m a liberal arts guy, and that’s what liberal arts people do.
Eventually, I came back to Dallas and spent six months using what I learned in Israel. I created our family foundation. I run the foundation, and I have been doing it for the last 23 years. Whenever I went to Israel, at least once a year, I would do a tzedakah road trip. I had friends there that would give me a list of nonprofits and I would go visit around 18 of them and give contributions.
Many of our readers do donate and are very active in philanthropy, so I’m curious if you could tell us more about your approach to philanthropy, and maybe expand upon what tzedakah means to you.
Tzedakah is not philanthropy. Philanthropy comes from Greek. Philo-lanthropy- for the love of. It’s attached to charity, charity is not tzedakah, a lot of Jews don’t know that. I know the history of tzedakah. It’s not philanthropy, it’s not charity, It’s tzedakah. So, I know what the rules are, and there’s a hierarchy of: you take care of yourself, your immediate family, your broader family, your community, and then Israel- in that order.
I did everything that it calls for. The foundation is built around that, roughly. Our target is to do 50% of all of our tzedakah Jewish the other half not Jewish. I think we owe the broader community. We do university stuff, scholarships for indigenous people, and they’re typically not Jewish. We do most of our giving anonymously, which is not required in Judaism.
Some people think that if the nonprofit’s only ran themselves in a more business-like way we’d be happier, or we’d give to those that are more efficient. I don’t believe that. Because the purpose, the objective, the mission of nonprofits is different from businesses, therefore, how can you use the same approach? You can require efficient, effective nonprofits- which we do, but we don’t try to make them into small IT companies.
And lastly, I will say that I’m very interested in legacy. I’m 83 years old. I’m not going to be here forever… I think. I’m already turning over a lot of things to my daughters, all of my networth goes to our foundation and I don’t have any trust funds to buy Cadillacs or sports cars. We don’t want Trust Fund babies. It’s generational. We have enough money that we will go generations, and we have generation skipping trust. I have a whole plan on what to give to the family, and a whole plan on what to give to the foundation. I think it’s possible that the foundation won’t live in perpetuity but it’s set up to do that, to invest on its own.
Can you tell us about the naming of the Meyerson Symphony Hall and Ross Perot? You mentioned that you were averse to attaching your name to major projects.
In my opinion, to name things, or to give donations and have your name attached to it- I’d rather have people give money and do that. However, to me, the higher way to do it is to not name it. If I was financing the project, I would never have put my name on it or potentially donated with that in mind. I could have financed it, but Perot did, and it was his decision to name it for me. I actually pushed back and tried to get him to name it the Perot family symphony hall. So he said to me, “Do you want the money? If you want the money, I’ll name it.” What Perot did was bizarre, and what I did was bizarre. So it’s like two x bizarre.
What are the implications of music, and what has it meant in your business life?
Most people separate music. They’re like, “I go to the symphony,” “I go to chamber music,” “I go to musicals,” “I sing in a small group,” “I play the guitar,” like these are separate events. I don’t believe that that’s the essence of music. I believe in an ensemble, because I’ve already told you I’m a choral singer, not a soloist. If you think about ensemble, you’re only as good as the ensemble is, there’s no such thing as a star in the chorus. If a voice sticks out because of how beautiful or bad it is- that is not a good thing. Whatever the number is in the chorus everybody’s got to carry their own weight, and you’re only as good as other members.
Now, guess what? That’s what business is like. Imagine yourself as a symphony conductor, you’re setting the rhythm, and you’re giving subtle help in rehearsal. In rehearsal, you help people, but in the final when you’re in performance, you’re carried by the orchestra.
That’s what businesses are like, and that’s what organizations are like. Most people don’t think that way. I believe that classical orchestras, any multiple duets, quartets, and all choruses are a metaphor for a way of living that is constructive and efficient. Now, what does it teach? It teaches teamwork and helping each other. If companies do that, they win. If they don’t, they lose.
On a very optimistic note, what kind of things are you looking forward to most in the future?
I am looking forward to hearing one of my great grandchildren sing in a chorus, or tap dance, or give money unilaterally to somebody they see in need, or do a kind deed. That’s what I’m looking forward to.
Is there anything else you’d like to add, anything else you’d like to say?
Give money to the Israel Philharmonic. If you know the history, and I do, it’s quite an organization. It requires support because it represents Israel on many different levels, it’s not just an orchestra.