Just as the economy began to dip further into recession and traditional funding sources were slashing their giving, Guma Aguiar appeared on the scene. The self-made businessman who divides his time between New York, South Florida, and Jerusalem has emerged as a new — and significant— force in Jewish philanthropy. He made headlines when he donated $8 million to Nefesh B’Nefesh, which promotes North American aliyah. Other big gifts include half a million to March of the Living and another $500,000 to sponsor worldwide Passover sederim through Chabad.
Born a Jew in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Aguiar and his family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and converted to Christianity in his childhood years. When he was 26, he called up Tuvia Singer. "I heard he was focusing on helping get Jews out of the church," he says. "At the time, I thought that was a terrible thing to do." Singer proceeded to dismantle Aguiar’s arguments. "I just found the truth," Aguiar says of the experience, adding that he lives near Singer in the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem and that the two remain close friends.
"I was never exposed to the truth," he says. "I was reading Bibles, but the words were mistranslated and verses were taken out of context. It’s like someone asking me to put together a puzzle, but they’ve given me pieces from three different puzzles. It’s not going to happen."
Aguiar’s company, Leor Energy, made one of the largest discoveries of natural gas in the last decade at a location a few hours away from Houston, Texas. He sold the company in November 2008, and has since focused his efforts on giving back. "I’m just trying to bring awareness and educate people about their own heritage," he says.
He now spends most of his time focused on his philanthropic efforts and on learning more about Judaism. "I affiliate with the Orthodox, but not any particular stream of Orthodoxy," he says. "I love all Jews — Ethiopian, Yemenite, all of humanity."
Top form: As a teenager, Aguiar was one of the top tennis players in Florida. ("And Florida is a very competitive state when it comes to tennis," he says. "It’s not like being No. 2 in Idaho.") Salon Aguiar: Aguiar’s house in Yemin Moshe, Jerusalem, is a gathering point of intellectual life, where professors, rabbis, artists, Knesset members, and others gather.
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