David Bohnett Speeches

David Bohnett remarks for the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Jewish Committee’s Ira Yellin Community Leadership Award

Thank you Rabbi Diamond, and Governor Brown, for those very kind remarks. It’s really heartwarming to be here among friends from so many diverse but inter-connected personal circles. Your friendship and support for me, and for AJC, is an honor for which I am touched and very grateful. My personal thanks as well to this evening’s co-chairs, Edye and Eli Broad, and my friend, philanthropist, and great bridge player, Wallis Annenberg.

Having served in downtown Los Angeles as Chairman of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for five years and as a Board member for over a decade, it’s hard to overestimate the role Ira Yellin played in the renaissance of the historic core of Los Angeles and the downtown district. Ira was an urban pioneer and it was his passion and vision and risk taking that provided the singular catalyst for the thriving revival of our city center. It’s an honor to join the ranks of my fellow recipients of the Ira Yellin Community Leadership Award and to be here tonight to thank Jessica and Adele for their efforts to inspire others as a legacy to Ira.

I stand here this evening as a tribute to two men, Rand Schrader, and Sheldon Andelson, who embodied the spirit of AJC through their courageous and trailblazing activism, their service to their communities, their commitment to family, and their passion for social justice.

Rand Schrader was a pioneering gay rights activist, educated at Berkeley and UCLA Law School, and appointed to the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1980 by Governor Jerry Brown. I met Randy in 1983 and we were partners for 10 years leading up to his death from AIDS in 1993.

Sheldon Andelson was a lawyer, banker, restaurateur, entrepreneur, consummate political fundraiser, and a civil rights activist as well. Randy and Sheldon both served in founding and leadership positions at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. On the night of our first date, Randy Schrader was late because he was at Sheldon’s home when the news came down of another key appointment by Governor Brown , that of Sheldon to the Board of Regents of the University of California.

Governor Brown’s appointments of lesbians and gay men, woman and minorities, are a shining example of the Governor’s commitment to provide opportunity for all the citizens of California. Thank you, Jerry, for your presence and remarks here tonight and for your steadfast and remarkable leadership of our beloved State.

Meeting Randy and Sheldon marked my coming of age as an activist in Los Angeles in my late 20’s, and with their passing in my late 30’s, came a great responsibility to carry on their quest for social justice. I accept this award in honor of Randy and Sheldon and so many others who succumbed to AIDS before they reached their full measure.

The AIDS epidemic hit just as the lesbian and gay community was gaining real momentum in the fight for equality and social justice. Tens of thousands were cruelly cut down in their prime and lost in the trench warfare and futile battles for securing funding from the abhorrently negligent mid-1980’s national political leadership.

Our early optimism in the beginning of the decade turned to the tragic routine of watching our friends and lovers die. Many of us in this room were at Royce Hall for Sheldon Andelson’s memorial in January, of 1988, when Randy delivered a moving tribute and call to action for his fellow friend and fallen soldier;

[view video of Randy's speech]

Thirty years prior to that speech, Randy addressed a different audience for his Bar Mitzvah speech in May, 1958, which included these remarks;

“…each day starts the same with light in the morning, and each day ends the same with darkness in the night. And each person is made of the same pattern and always starts life at birth and ends life at death. But there the similarity should stop.

There each individual should recognize his first duty – the duty he owes himself. It is because of this duty that I respect the Jewish religion. For Judaism as a way of life says that each individual should strive for the best – within himself. Since God gave man the facilities to think better than anything else in this world, man should use those facilities to better himself and his fellow man.”

These words spoken by 13 year old Rand Schrader echo AJC’s mission to enhance the well being of the Jewish people and promote democratic values in the United States and around the world. AJC’s work on socially responsible energy and transit policy, immigration reform, and marriage equality, mirror my own political work and philanthropic activities through the David Bohnett Foundation.

But the David Bohnett Foundation was quite a ways off as I listened to Randy’s eulogy for Sheldon in Royce Hall. Indeed, there were even darker days to come, as Randy courageously fought his own battle with AIDS, through eleven hospitalizations, crippling neuropathy, and a final, agonizing last few days at home prior to returning to Century City hospital to die in June, of 1993. Needless to say, these were many years of great despair.

At the graveside unveiling ceremony a year after Randy’s death, I said;

“Death has challenged me to define the significant parts of my life, and therefore by definition, to identify those behaviors and attitudes that don't really matter, the ones I must let go. We're lucky if we know what really matters. Learning what to cast aside is what takes courage, a glimpse of the kind of courage we saw in our beloved Randy.”

Six months after that, I founded the internet company, GeoCities, and then with great good fortune and much gratitude I founded the David Bohnett Foundation five years later, having taken GeoCities public and subsequently selling the company to Yahoo!.

My work for social justice this past decade and a half was made possible not just through the success of GeoCities, but much more so through the lessons learned from Randy and Sheldon, the strength of our community forged through the AIDS crisis, and the sense of hope and opportunity from business leaders like Ira Yellin and political leaders like Governor Brown.

Although we are in the final, yet still difficult stretch in the fight for lesbian and gay civil rights and marriage equality, there remains very significant and I think even larger challenges that we face in pursuit of the AJC’s mission to promote democratic values and social justice.

As President Obama said recently, the dream of upward economic mobility is breaking down and the growing income inequality gap is a “defining challenge of our time. The basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed.”

As Randy said in his Bar Mitzvah speech, we have a responsibility to use our intellect, will, and status as a member of society to better our fellow man.

We in this room cannot ignore or deny the fact that self centered attitudes like; ‘if I support programs for the less fortunate, then there will be less for me’, and policies like preserving tax benefits for the wealthy, and stripping funding for social welfare programs, not only do nothing to better our fellow man, but in fact exacerbate the insidious effect on a growing gap between the haves and those who don’t even have enough to get by.

Through your support for AJC and its mission, you are helping to address the income inequality gap and create a fairer society. I would encourage Rabbi Diamond and the leadership of the Los Angeles chapter of AJC to embrace income inequality as a key initiative in the coming decade.

It’s been a great honor this evening to receive this award named after a hero of Los Angeles community service, and to help keep the memory alive of those who came before us who continue to inspire our passion for social justice and community service. Thank you very much.