Scene Last Night: Offit, Ackman, Harvard Hillel, ’Agile City’

Hillel Renaissance Award Dinner
High school classmates Marjorie Burack and William Ackman, CEO of Pershing Square Capital Management LP. Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

William Ackman said he found Harvard College “a pretty WASPy place.”

“So what did I do? I joined the crew team to meet some other Jewish kids.”

The chief executive officer of Pershing Square Capital Management LP gave a rather intimate biography last night -- beginning with his circumcision, ending with marrying a Jewish girl (to his parent’s delight) -- as the keynote speaker of the Hillel Renaissance Award dinner.

Ackman was a chairman of the event, held at Manhattan’s Pierre Hotel, along with others including Jeffrey Aronson, co-founder of Centerbridge Partners LP and Brian Schreiber, AIG executive vice president, treasury and capital markets. Guests included Robert Harteveldt, global head of leveraged finance at Jefferies Group Inc., and Leonard Feinstein, co-chairman of Bed Bath & Beyond Inc.

The event honored Morris Offit, chairman of Offit Capital Advisors LLC, and raised $1.75 million for Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, which funds activities at more than 550 college campuses.

Growing up in Chappaqua, New York, Ackman said he ate many helpings of bagels and lox, chopped liver, pot roast and Chinese food. There was also “spin the bottle” at the after-party for his bar mitzvah.

At Harvard, he took a seminar on ethnicity taught by Martin Peretz, which led him to write a paper, “Scaling the Ivy Wall: The Jewish and Asian Experience in Harvard Admissions.”

“What’s fascinating about the university is that controlling the admission policy at an important university has an impact on the world,” Ackman said. “I made the argument that Michael Chang would never have won the French Open if Harvard hadn’t changed their admission policies.”

‘Home Away From Home’

As for Shabbat dinners, the food at Harvard Hillel was much better than on the rest of campus, he recalled. “I didn’t make it there every Friday night but there was a connection. It was a home away from home.”

The dinner last night was also homey, featuring chicken and chocolate-chip cookies. Asked about Shabbat dinners on college campuses today, Hillel executive directors reported innovation.

At Brown University, student athletes gather for Shabbat dinners on Thursday nights, as their sports schedules usually send them off-campus on Shabbat.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, when NCAA finals fell on a Friday students held their Shabbat services early and watched the games together.

“In North Carolina, Judaism is a religion, and basketball is the religion,” said Ari Gauss, Hillel’s executive director for the state.

James Russell Book

With BookExpo America in town -- one of the largest gatherings of publishers in the country -- it has been a week filled with book parties. Last night Bloomberg News celebrated “The Agile City: Building Well-Being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change,” by James Russell, the U.S. architecture columnist for the global news service. The book is published by the nonprofit Island Press.

The event was hosted by Manuela Hoelterhoff, executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg’s arts and leisure section. In a slide-show presentation, Russell detailed projects that are shining examples of reducing carbon emissions: a parking garage in Amsterdam has room for 5,000 bicycles; a building on the Yale campus features a long, narrow shape to harness passing breezes for ventilation.

Conservation of energy in the built environment “is low-hanging fruit,” Russell said.

(Amanda Gordon is a writer and photographer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)

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