David Adelman is a private investor and entrepreneur. He is also what is known as a “real estate mogul.” He is CEO of Campus Apartments, which he has grown to amass over $2 billion in assets for on- and off-campus student housing, spanning more than half the states in the country, for about sixty universities. He structures deals and raises capital. He is breaking ground (literally) in the world of Jewish philanthropy, and is an ardent and outspoken supporter for Holocaust remembrance, for which he is currently building a plaza and installing a sculpture in his native Philadelphia. He is involved in a wide variety of charitable causes and is a board member of The Jewish Federation in Philly and the chair of the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation’s board. He met with me in Tribeca to tell me, among other things, what it means to have a reputation that precedes you, why it’s so important for Jews to help Jews and how to stay humble when you have incredible—and apparently incredibly coveted—hair.
Periel Aschenbrand: You’ve raised a lot of money for Holocaust awareness. If that’s what we’d call it?
David Adelman: Did you ever hear the story about my grandfather?
PA: Tell me again. I know your mom is Israeli.
DA: My mom was born in West Germany, after the war. After the war, they had these kind of reclamation camps for survivors. My mother was born there.
PA: I just got goosebumps.
DA: This story is nuts. My grandfather was captured with his first wife and kids. Two lines, right? Strong working men in one line to go work, women and children in the other line. Terminated. It was the last time he saw his wife and kids.
PA: My god.
DA: And he was at the Sobibor Prison Camp and what’s interesting is that there is a movie called Escape from Sobibor, it’s one of the few times there was a prison break. Interestingly enough, my grandfather was going to be part of the escape that afternoon. But all of sudden, he gets attached to a work detail with another guy and he’s like, “Oh, shit, I’m not going to be able to be where they are, when they escape.” So my grandfather and the other guy, essentially had one guard with the two of them, and the guard fell asleep and so they killed him and escaped on their own.
PA: How old was he?
DA: I have to imagine mid to late twenties. Early thirties?
PA: His kids were little?
DA: Yeah. There was such a somberness to my grandfather. He was such a good man. You couldn’t understand what it was because he would never talk about. It was only my mother telling me about it, after the fact.
PA: What was his name?
DA: Sam Wasserman. So he escapes and joins up and becomes a freedom fighter and winds up getting shot fighting and in the hospital meets my grandmother.
PA: What was she doing there?
DA: Nurse. They get married. And after the war, they had all these camps with all the refugees. Like, what do you do with all these people who were freed from the prison camps? They had nothing left. So my mom was born in what was then West Germany, right around the time when Israel was starting. So they moved to Israel. But she wasn’t born there.
PA: That is so crazy. And he never talked about it?
PA: Did you guys grow up knowing that story?
DA: Not when I was a kid. When I was older. I remember being a kid and seeing the scar on his back from where he was shot. And I would ask my mom and she would slowly start to tell us things.
PA: So then what happened? Do you remember this moment when it was like, holy shit?
DA: Yeah, I mean, my mother would tell us things and it was like, “Wait! You never told us that!” And what’s interesting is, we didn’t grow up particularly religious, it’s only when I got into my mid to late twenties, that I started connecting with our federation in Philly and just getting involved and then in 2007, I got invited to join the board of the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation. Little known fact is that Philadelphia has the oldest Holocaust monument in North America, this sculpture. I eventually became chair of the board and was going to build this crazy place of contemplation and remembrance. I hired Moshe Safdie who did Yad Vashem to be our architect and then the downturn happened, so we didn’t obviously build that. Then a bunch of stuff happened and long story short, about two years ago came back and was asked to be the chair again.
PA: They were like, this guy’s not actually that bad?
DA: Right! They thought my brand could help. They knew my reputation in the city and were like maybe this guy can actually do some work. And we have!
PA: What’s your reputation in the city?
DA: Depends who you ask!
PA: I’m asking you.
DA: I’ve done okay in business. I’m involved in two very successful businesses. One on the real estate side and one in the asset management side called FS Investments and that’s a lot of notoriety. And I’ve become a fairly active entrepreneur/private investor. So I think they thought I could help. We’re building a really cool plaza around the monument.
PA: Your grandfather is no longer with us?
DA: He died when I was eighteen. I do this all for him. And I want my kids to remember this.
PA: That’s a really important part of this, huh?
DA: Yes. Over the past seven years, my Jewish philanthropy has really grown. The signs are everywhere: People are forgetting, letting their guard down. It’s just so important. When I’m fundraising for Federation, which is bigger than for just the Holocaust, what I tell people is there are lots of charities to help lots of people, but if Jews aren’t helping Jews, we’ve got a bigger problem.
DA: In Philadelphia, we’re the fourth largest Jewish population in the country and our federation is number twelve in giving. It’s embarrassing, to say the least.
PA: I mean… It’s kind of complicated because the question becomes how does the repetition of “never forget” actually translate into real life?
DA: And then you have a Charlottesville.
DA: I’m not an expert…
PA: You don’t have to be. You’re a person who is actually doing something. You’re building something.
DA: Here is what it comes down to for me. Through a mix of luck and hard work, I’ve been able to do pretty well. But in a different time, in a different place, none of that would mean shit. And by the way, what if there is a time, that because I’m Jewish, nobody wants to do business with me? I don’t take any of this stuff for granted. I view our project as a humanity project. I’m not just targeting Jews. I’m on the board of the Shoah Foundation. They graduated from the Holocaust to other genocides. So I think you need people who are thinking about this and aware of this.
PA: Right. What else?
DA: Pennsylvania is introducing Holocaust education in schools.
PA: How does that resonate with people who say the Holocaust never happened?
DA: We’ll see. There are a lot of imbeciles out there.
PA: That’s like my go-to slogan: Never underestimate people’s stupidity.
DA: Totally crazy. My goal is to create a permanent structure that is a lot harder to discount than deleting a tweet. So I’m going to build this plaza and people are going to have to walk by it on their way to work. People are going to have walk by it when the parkway celebrates its 100th Anniversary next year. There will be millions of people there. They can say it’s bullshit or not, but it’s going to be there. We also have a high concentration of survivors in Philadelphia and if you saw the conditions they live in, it’s a fucking disgrace. That we, as a Jewish community, can’t give these people the dignity to end their years in respect and not squalor. Thirty percent of Philadelphia’s Jewish population lives at or below the poverty level. We have to fix this.
PA: You’re giving me hope for humanity right now. Honestly. And on that positive note, what’s your favorite drink?
DA: I’m a wine collector but I love tequila. Añejo. On the rocks, with a splash of club soda.
PA: How do you eat your eggs?
DA: Usually as an omelet.
PA: How do you drink your coffee?
PA: What’s your favorite Jewish Holiday?
DA: I actually like Yom Kippur because I won’t do any business that day. I get home from services, I’m laying around, kind of cranky
hungry, but I’m not thinking about anything.
PA: Fair. What shampoo do you use?
DA: I have to think about the brand. I don’t know. I can tell you my kids favorite shampoo?
DA: It’s Fructis. And they love it because they say, “Fuck this.”
DA: Really funny.
PA: Gefilte fish or lox?
PA: Five things in your bag right now?
DA: My phone is number one. Making sure my hair is done properly is number two…
PA: Wait. What’s “done properly?” Let’s get into this.
DA: My hair is a thing. I don’t know how this happened but it did. My wife had a “Hair Ball” for me, for my 40th birthday.
PA: OH. MY. LORD.
DA: Some guys actually got extensions to try to get their hair to look like mine. It’s hysterical. So my hair is a real thing. I don’t make it a thing, but I kind of roll with it now.
PA: Let’s talk about it. What goes into such a lovely head of hair, Mr. Adelman?
DA: It’s kind of top secret. There are lots of people who are striving for this hair.
PA: What’s the upkeep like? Are you in the salon every morning getting a blowout?
DA: I don’t set foot in the salon.
PA: What do you mean?
DA: I have someone who, you know, comes to my house.
PA: EVERY MORNING!?
DA: No! No, no, no!
PA: Okay, so somebody comes over. Who is he? Has he been with you for years?
DA: He has been with me for years. When we had that party, somebody dressed up as him.
PA: That is genius. What’s his name?
DA: His name is Mark Latka.
PA: I’m sorry, what?
DA: True story. I’ve been with this guy for twenty years. But he moved to Arizona.
PA: So now you go to Arizona to get your hair done!? By a man named Mark Latka!?
DA: No, I don’t go to Arizona. He has business in Philly so he actually still comes there ten days out of the year. That is really his name.
PA: This story is so unbelievable.
DA: I know. It’s so embarrassing!
PA: I don’t think so. I think for all the wonderful things you do, you deserve to have such nice hair. I could literally spend all day asking you about Mr. Latka. But I digress, what’s favorite pair of shoes?
DA: I love Tod’s.