CEO stands up to anti-Israel activities

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Jim Hiller, a member of the Detroit Jewish community and president and CEO of the supermarket chain Hiller’s Markets, faced down anti-Israel pressure when he encouraged customers to buy kosher-for-Passover products made in the Jewish State, and his success in doing so inspired him to “permanently change the way my family and I lead our lives and determine our priorities.”

Hiller shared his story with about 100 people who attended a meeting of the St. Louis Council of the Jewish National Fund, which was hosted earlier this month at Congregation Shaare Zedek in University City.

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The local event, co-chaired by Ellen Stein and Pauli Rose, was arranged with the cooperation of Yaron Iram, senior campaign executive of the Chicago-based Midwest Zone of the JNF, the 106-year-old organization which owns 60% of all land in the State of Israel and is best known for its re-forestation program, in which it has planted over 100 million trees throughout Israel, which had been virtually devoid of vegetation at the end of the 19th century.

Hiller, a native of Detroit and a 1973 graduate of the University of Detroit School of Law, after two decades of practicing law began a new career in 1989 as CEO of Hiller’s markets, a six-store chain, joining his father, Sidney, who had founded the firm in 1941.

Long active in both the Jewish and general communities of Detroit, Hiller said that he has made donations to 1,068 charities in Detroit, and “has always been a passionate Zionist and an ardent supporter of the State of Israel.” Wanting to do something more to help Israel in the aftermath of the deadly series of Palestinian terrorist attacks called the “Second Intifada,” Hiller decided to purchase all of his kosher-for-Passover products in 2004 from Israeli sources “and to donate 100 percent of the profits directly to Israel.”

Hiller said he did not expect the strong reaction from extreme elements within the large Arab-American and Muslim community in Greater Detroit. “We had demonstrations and pickets calling on customers to boycott our store, and some of our facilities were vandalized,” recalls Hiller.

If that were not enough, when Hiller was being honored at a black tie affair at Detroit’s Towsend Hotel in May 2004, protesters picketed the annual Promise Ball, to protest the supermarket chain executive’s being honored for his assistance in helping to advance the Juvenile Research Foundation’s cause. One protester held a sign reading “Hiller Supports Israeli Violence,” and indicated that demonstrators were picketing outside of all six of Hiller’s store every Sunday.” As reported by Al Elvin of The Daily Oakland Press in Detroit, the sponsors of the event stood by Hiller.

The same source quotes Hiller’s son Andrew Hiller as saying, “I’m proud of what he’s done. He’s been successful, and I’m glad he’s giving back some of what he’s received. (Protesters) have the right to say what they want, just like he has the right to give money to whatever charity he wants. Supporting the State of Israel is a noble cause, and I stand behind him 100 percent in his decision.”

In addition to his support of Israel through the Jewish Federation of Detroit, Hiller became active in the Jewish National Fund “after I discovered the full scope of its magnificent work. I grew up thinking the JNF was a little blue and white box where you dropped coins to plant trees in Israel — which it does, but there is so much more to the JNF story.”

Hiller said that after the experience with the protests and vandalism over his promotion of Israeli products, “Our family made a conscious decision to permanently change our lifestyle, to start giving in such a way that it requires us to change the way we live.”

Among many projects which Hiller and his family have started and supported is a water reservoir at Kibbutz HaSolelim in Israel, and a visitor center at the Hulah Bird Sancturay in northern Israel. The bird sanctuary, which is close to the Golan Heights and the Hula Valley, drew some 200,000 visitors last year, and the new visitor center could more than double that number, Hiller said.

Last October, Hiller and his wife Marge took part in a ceremony for the dedication of the Solelim C Reservoir in the Galilee. After learning of Israel’s severe water shortages, Hiller decided to donate the vitally needed reservoir in the Galilee. Shimon Peres, deputy prime minister of the State of Israel, attended the dedication ceremony and discussed the importance of the project. Peres had headed the ministry in charge of the water replenishment program. At the ceremony, Hiller stressed his present and future commitment to the development of Israel in general and the Negev Desert area in particular.

Hiller urged those in attendance “to make a decision to literally change your lifestyles so as to make a contribution to the State of Israel. From personal experience, I can promise you that this work can be very rewarding.”