Our community has seen
many developments in the advancement of Orthodox Jews’ involvement in
commerce and politics since the bulk of our communities’ arrival to our
shores. Some have achieved great success in retail, real estate or
traditional manufacturing. It is not unusual to see an Orthodox Jew as
a prominent developer of a skyscraper or as mayor of a nice-sized
village or district, sometimes in full Chassidic garb, doing his chosen
work. Yes, we have arrived.
Still even those who pay
close attention to the growth of committed Chassidic Jews’ involvement
in all spheres of American enterprise are in disbelief that a young
Satmar chassid from Boro Park is the founder and chairman of the New
York Wheel, a planned giant Ferris Wheel being built on the
northeastern shore of Staten Island.
The New York Wheel will
be the world’s tallest “observation wheel” in the world and the only
attraction of its kind in New York City. The 625-foot (roughly
60-story) Wheel will feature 36 capsules, each carrying up to 40
passengers, and will offer incomparable views of lower and midtown
Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor, and beyond, for the
duration of each 38-minute revolution.
In terms of size, scope,
and spectacular sights, the completed attraction promises to rival the
London Eye, the Eiffel Tower, and the Sydney Harbor Opera House. The
attraction will accommodate as many as 1,440 people per trip, and will
welcome as many as 30,000 visitors each day and an anticipated 4.5
million visitors per year.
The man behind the
entire idea of a project that is destined to become one of the City’s -
and the world’s - great landmark attractions is none other than a
product of the Satmar Yeshivah in Kiryas Joel and Yeshiva Bais Meir.
Reb Meir Yosef Laufer is convinced that the Wheel, when built, will
change the New York City skyline and become an iconic fixture.
Since he attended the
much-publicized press conference announcing the planned new attraction
for New York City, Mr. Laufer has preferred to stay in the background.
Even during the press conference, he chose to let the professional
members of the team explain to the media all aspects of the project.
“Baruch Hashem, we have
brought together a first-class team of professionals and major
investors capable of satisfying the stringent demands of the City, on
whose land this will be built,” Mr. Laufer related.
But as a member of our
community, Mr. Laufer feels that his endeavor could serve as an
inspiration for other “dreamers” in our midst. “Even if you look and
dress like a Chassidishe person, that should not prevent you from
dreaming big. Nothing should be beyond your perceived capability,” he
told Hamodia. “That is why I agreed to speak to Hamodia; I should at
least talk to the frum media, so that others like me should be inspired
to think ‘out of the box.’”
In the course of
preparing this article I met with Meir on a few occasions. One such
encounter was during hakafos on Simchas Torah night. There was Meir,
wearing his shtreimel, dancing fervently with his dear son Menashe with
the sefer Torah. While rejoicing with the Torah, Meir must have been
mentally far removed from his modernistic, iconic project that is about
to change the face and image of New York. But when meeting with city
fathers and investors, Mr. Laufer is not detached from his background.
The view out of the
offices of the New York Wheel, located at the southern tip of Manhattan
overlooking upper New York Bay, is stunning. Ships small and large,
including the New York City ferries with their mile-long wakes, move
like playthings in a pond. To the far right we look down upon Lady
Liberty, standing in the harbor near Ellis Island, where many of our
forebears passed through to begin setting up their new lives on these
same shores that Mr. Laufer is about to change.
I express wonderment as
I consider the advances of our community - mainly comprised of
immigrants - just one or two generations in this country. Surely those
Jewish “huddled masses,” who had their modest dreams of finding a safe
harbor in America after the Holocaust, hoped to be able set up a life
committed to Torah with a decent livelihood - nothing more than being
able to put bread on the table and live modestly. Did they ever dream
that one of their own unassimilated offspring - with beard and peyos -
would attain this degree of acceptance? I put the question to
Meir, but being a bit shy and not of a philosophical bent, he demurred.
He would rather have others ponder the question. “We have come a long
way since Ellis Island,” Meir says. “New York - especially Manhattan -
was always seen as a place of opportunity. So here we are!”
“I have not encountered
any prejudice at all. People looked at the proposal and the reputation
of the person proposing it, and recognized that we did our homework and
put together a solid team, so nobody minds my background.”
Mr. Meir Laufer, 37, is
the son of Reb Chaim Dovid Laufer - a real estate investor, prominent
mispallel and one of the roshei kehillah of the Satmar shul in Boro
Park. As CEO of Plaza Capital Management LLC, Mr. Meir Laufer’s group
has successfully formed investments to develop real estate, mainly in
Manhattan and in private equity ventures.
“You might wonder - I
only had a solid Gemara education in United Talmudical Academy of
Satmar. But I applied myself to thoroughly study every aspect of
investing,” says Mr. Laufer. “And with the help of Hashem, we succeed.”
Mr. Laufer is also a
board member of Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services. “I serve as a
kind of ambassador to the Chassidishe community. Sometimes members of
our community are in need of family and mental services, they need a
heimishe person to [help] in the process of getting aid, and I am proud
to serve that need in conjunction with Ohel,” Meir says.
He and his wife, the
daughter of Reb Yankel Horowitz, z”l, who was a well-known askan from
Monsey, are the proud parents of six children.
Got Him Thinking of a Ferris Wheel in New York? About four years ago,
Meir read about the London Eye. The popular 12-year-old tourist
attraction on the South Bank of the Thames River, near Parliament, is
443 feet tall (in comparison, Deno’s Wonder Wheel at Coney Island
stands 150 feet tall). Each year the London site attracts about 3.5
million visitors who ride in large, glass-enclosed “pods” and enjoy
panoramic views of London.
“I thought: Why not New
York, and why not me?” Meir puts it simply, without giving much thought
to the audacity of a Chassidic person pulling off a grand,
“game-changing” development feat. “I got to work right away.”
Mr. Laufer intensively
studied the London Eye, and made numerous visits in order to experience
the ride. He even shlepped his father to ride the London Ferris wheel.
(Most of Mr. Laufer’s acquaintances and colleagues passed on that
opportunity, since most of them just could not fathom that this could
come to fruition.)
Audacity, Meir says,
comes from working many years in New York City’s financial district. “I
regularly observe tourists - you can recognize them; they always look
up, trying to capture the height of skyscrapers. Native New Yorkers
look straight ahead to avoid bumping into them,” Mr. Laufer quips.
Pays Off The enormous popularity
of the London Eye convinced Mr. Laufer that New York could outdo London
in both scale and effect. Even though London itself is a major
international tourist attraction, London’s winter climate does not lend
itself to viewing the panorama.
“Visibility in London
tends to be decreased by rain and fog, so attendance at the Eye tends
to fall off during the winter months. But the air in New York during
much of the winter is cold, crisp, and clean, with stunning views far
into the distance,” Meir explained. “New York City attracted over 50
million visitors last year. In winter and the new year season, New York
is already a major destination. Tapping into that market will make the
New York Wheel a year-round must-see destination.”
The city, Meir thinks,
is the hub of many industries including Wall Street, which generates a
good chunk of city revenues through taxes and fees. But increasingly
the city is depending on the massive increase in the numbers of
tourists coming to see the major attractions.
“I knew that one day New
York City would have such a wheel. I was utterly convinced that this
was going to happen.”
Meir put together some
seed money. “What you need even more is a lot of patience and
perseverance,” he told Hamodia. “We later found out that other very
successful people tried to bring this project to the city, but somehow
they did not have perseverance to pull it through.”
He arranged to have
experts in all fields related to the project study the proposal and
share their know-how. But the most important coup in getting the
project moving was getting the same team that built the London Eye -
Starneth B.V. - to sign an exclusive deal with Plaza Capital.
Having Starneth B.V.
firmly on board, Mr. Laufer had the requisite cache to attract capital
and well-known investors with past experience in major project
development, particularly in New York City. The $250-million project
needed to draw in those types of partners.
The Wheel project was
fortunate to be joined by three well-known real estate developers: the
Feil Organization, a private commercial real estate firm and a powerful
force in real estate; Mr. Lloyd Goldman, known for his investment with
Larry Silverstein in the World Trade Center; and Joe Nakash, founder of
Jordache Enterprises, Inc. and head of Nakash Holdings.
At first the group
thought of placing the Wheel at South Street Seaport, but quickly
realized that the local residential community would be overwhelmed. In
addition, it would have created traffic problems on the FDR Drive and
the Brooklyn Bridge.
The team also considered
Governors Island, but that was not feasible. Then they approached the
city and Staten Island’s Borough President, who became extremely
excited at the prospect of having the wheel in the long-forgotten
“At that point we
realized that the project was destined to happen on Staten Island. We
enlisted Mr. Rich Marin to serve as CEO of the project,” Meir says.
“Mr. Marin was formerly the president of Africa-Israel USA. Prior to
that he served as CEO of Bear Stearns Asset Management and as CEO of
Deutche Bank Asset Management.”
“When we made our
proposal to the city we had to answer every possible question regarding
engineering, environmental, geo-tech issues, traffic and so on. The
city was extremely impressed with our team’s presentation and responses
to every question posed - and they were tough to please,” Mr. Laufer
relates. “We had a top-notch professional team from day one, because a
project that will change the skyline view of the city needs the most
professional team possible, and this is what we did.”
Legacy for the Mayor For many years Staten
Islanders complained that they were New York City’s “forgotten
borough.” This project has the potential to change that perception
forever. The Mayor, on his last term and keenly interested in a lasting
legacy, has shown unusual enthusiasm for the New York Wheel. “Most New Yorkers can’t
even locate Staten Island on a map of New York City,” Meir quips. “The
Bloomberg administration immediately recognized the merit of this
project. This Mayor is a true businessman; this project will have a
major impact on the local economy, with the addition of hundreds of
jobs to the local Staten Island economy.”
The project will include
a 100,000-square-foot retail building that will be home to a number of
restaurants, souvenir shops, event space, and an exhibit on clean
energy, all additional reasons for visitors to spend time on Staten
Island. The project group figures that most people will arrive at the
wheel on the Staten Island Ferry from Manhattan, used by more than two
million tourists yearly. But there will be car and bus parking as well,
for people arriving from other areas.
Clean, Kosher Chol Hamoed Destination Meir thinks that the New
York Wheel will be a perfect outing for the family during Chol Hamoed.
Mr. Laufer expects the entire experience to be perfectly suitable for
most frum visitors. “There will be many shops but also some quiet areas
and open space for relaxing.” This true family experience includes
plans for a kosher restaurant.
The entire project is
expected to run on clean and alternative energy, and will include an
educational exhibit explaining the projects’ energy sources. School classes will
be able to reserve an entire cabin for themselves. Each cabin will be
equipped with the technology to explain the stunning, 360-degree views.
The Wheel will have the
capacity to carry 1,440 passengers at once, moving at a slow pace of 10
inches per second, and will operate day and night.
I tried to plead with
Mr. Laufer for a reservation on the night of July 4, during the famous
Macy’s fireworks show, but he just smiled. (I am sure the New York
Wheel will accept reservations for July 4 as soon as operations begin.
But we can be sure that we folks stand little chance against the Trumps
of the world, or even the president of the United States, in securing a
At any time of the year,
nighttime views will be stunning. “The average London resident has
visited the Eye four times. I am sure the same will happen in New York
as well. People will love to see the sunset, nighttime, and daytime. It
will be a different experience each time.”