SOUTH FLORIDA LAWYER, ACTIVIST AND PHILANTHROPIST GARY LESSER IS DEVOTED TO GIVING BACK TO HIS COMMUNITY IN THE CHARITABLE WAYS HE LEARNED FROM HIS GRANDFATHER.
By Linda Marx | Photography by Real Memories Photo & Film
West Palm Beach lawyer and philanthropist Gary Lesser, 48, received the Chanukah gift of his life in late November. After learning of the existence of a donation envelope sent by his late grandfather Joseph Lesser in 1934 to honor his great-grandfather, Phillip Lesser, Gary was blown away when a friend handed it to him for Chanukah.
“I was beyond elated,” says Lesser, Managing Partner of Lesser, Lesser, Landy and Smith, a personal injury law firm in West Palm Beach, Stuart and Boca Raton.“I recently learned about this donation envelope after spending my entire life devoted to admiring and emulating the generosity and compassion of my grandfather. I was amazed and thrilled!”
In 1934, Lesser’s great-grandfather Phillip, the owner of a dry goods store in Rome, Georgia, was struck and tragically killed by a car as he walked home after worshipping in his synagogue, Congregation Rodeph Sholom.
Following the funeral, Lesser’s grandfather Joseph wrote a check in honor of Phillip to support the Jewish refugees moving to the British Mandate before it became Israel in 1948. “The donation went off in the mail and nothing about it was seen again,” says Lesser.
Last September, Lesser, who supports more than a dozen Jewish and non-Jewish charitable organizations across the country, became aware that an envelope carrying the 1934 donation had been found and was to be auctioned on eBay. So the excited and hopeful lawyer told some close friends about the existence of the envelope, and then got ready to place his bid. But in the end, he lost to someone else. “I was upset and spent time seeking out the seller so I could find the envelope buyer and hopefully buy it back from him,” Lesser explains. “But when I finally found the seller he said he was sorry but the auction was over and I had lost.”
Growing up, whenever I had money, I gave it to different charities.
Still disappointed, Lesser admitted he had to accept the reality that this family treasure was forever gone. He would have to exist with the memories, stories and legacy of his warm and giving grandfather who died in 1982.
What he remembers the most—and takes to heart—were his grandfather’s pithy sayings: “Every person is born a debtor and they have an obligation to their family, to their synagogue or church, to their community and to their country,” reason for which Gary Lesser helps organizations such as the Jewish Federation, Jewish Women’s Foundation of the Greater Palm Beaches, Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies, Florida Atlantic University, and others.
Then in late November, Lesser got a big surprise. He was having dinner with his boyhood friend Britt Deviney, now a financial adviser in Florida, and they were reminiscing about their days as Boy Scouts and Little Leaguers together in West Palm Beach.
“I was enjoying dinner with Britt and his wife, and we had talked for two hours, even had coffee, before he handed me the donation envelope written by my grandfather that he had bought for me on eBay,” says Lesser. He said, ‘Happy Chanukah,’ knowing how much my family means to me and that this gift would be amazing. I couldn’t believe he did this for me.”
Says Deviney, “There was no way I would let anybody else but Gary get his grandfather’s envelope.”
GARY LESSER: A CLOSER LOOK
Gary Lesser, who is married and has three teen-aged daughters, Lillian, Josie, and Rebecca, gave his first charitable donation of $18.00 to the Jewish Federation in 1973. It “felt great,” and he began his mission to help others. “Growing up, whenever I had money, I gave it to different charities,” says Lesser. “I owe this to my grandfather and others who led by example. I do the same thing with my children. I take them to the Jewish Federation and other places and they learn by doing.”
While Lesser’s law firm employs 11 lawyers and has gone to trial in more than 2,000 cases, he has an unusual empathy for his clients. In 1990, he suffered a severe car accident in which he hurt his neck, back and jaw. Through 2008, he had to endure multiple surgeries on his jaw, which had degenerated in a way that baffled his doctors. But he eventually healed after the long rough road to recovery.
“I wanted to be a personal injury lawyer even before this happened, but the experience taught me to slow down as much as I can be slowed down,” explains the admitted workhorse. “It also taught me who goes to bat for you in tough situations. When I woke up in a Dallas hospital after a surgery, I saw that my law partners and friends had flown there to give me support. I will never forget it.”
Lesser believes empathy is part of his personality, and he understands what clients go through, the life interruption that occurs where there is a tragedy. He finds that when he selectively lets clients know that he has been through personal injuries himself, it comforts them to know that he really understands.
“Most of the time my clients do know I care and feel for them, but occasionally I share my story and it’s taken very well,” he says. “They know that I know. When you can’t work, you can’t pick up your kids…this isn’t like whiplash, ‘my neck hurts.’ People get really hurt. Their lives are affected terribly. It’s not just the pain…we try to deal with the pain.”
“For charity, I focus my energy where I can make the most impact. I am a big believer in helping our society, especially those who might not otherwise get help.” And he helps, just like he learned from his ancestors.