The Wrap Star
Syd Mandelbaum is smashing poverty and hunger one concert, ball game or special event at a time.
By Jenna Schnuer
At 31, Syd Mandelbaum accompanied his father to the first world gathering of Jewish Holocaust survivors in Jerusalem. At the time, he was a married graduate student with three kids and a full-time job, but because his mother felt it would be too emotionally painful for her to attend—“her losses were still fresh [in her mind]”—he agreed to step out of his life to go on the trip.
“It was a mind-blowing experience for me,” he says. “I was at the Western Wall...one of the most holy sites of all religions. We were waiting for a speaker to come on and my dad looked at me and I looked at him. Something passed between us. I had this epiphany with him that lasted 20 or 30 seconds. When I kind of came out of it, I said, ‘Dad, I have to go back and change the world.’ He said, ‘I felt the same thing.’ It was so earth moving that it has influenced me to this moment now.”
As a scientist, Mandelbaum has walked through DNA history, working on some of the most prominent forensics cases ever—“Anastasia,” Thomas Jefferson and, yes, O.J. Simpson. He now spends more time in the rock music world than in the lab.
So what’s a nice boy from Brooklyn doing hanging out with rock royalty? Fighting poverty, of course.
The mission of Rock and Wrap It Up, Mandelbaum’s anti-poverty think tank, is simple.
“We exist to increase the assets for agencies that fight poverty so that they can use the money that we’ve saved them to purchase services to treat the root causes of poverty. So, if I save an agency US$1,000 a month, they’ll be able to hire tutors and social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and job placement counsellors, which we know in the aggregate will lower the poverty level because it all boils down to money. It’s our belief that the more successful we are, [the more] we can incrementally decrease poverty because these assets will be available. That’s what we do.”
The Rock and Wrap It Up mission has its own roots in the life stories of Mandelbaum’s parents—throughout his childhood they regularly talked about their Holocaust experiences.
“I was very much affected by my parents near starving when they were teenagers and losing their entire families,” he says. “I dedicated Rock and Wrap It Up as a testament to their survival. It is very much at the heart of what I do, to try and end hunger on this planet.”
His parents—one from Germany, one from Poland—met at the Landsberg Displaced Persons camp outside Munich after the liberation of the concentration camps in which they’d been imprisoned. They married in 1947.
“They waited, literally, for a country to take them in,” Mandelbaum says. “God bless the U.S.A.” The couple arrived in America the first day of spring in 1950—just eight weeks before Syd was born.
The family settled first in a derelict area of Brooklyn and, when his father had saved enough money, moved to “an Italian neighbourhood where none of us really spoke English well,” says Mandelbaum, who spoke German for the first four or five years of his life. “I had a really great upbringing. We were dirt poor and didn’t know it.”
Mandelbaum is all forward motion. Ask him to reflect on the past and he’ll put sharp focus on the highlights in rapid succession to drive ahead to his current passion, Rock and Wrap It Up.
“I never look back. It slows you down,” he says. “The past was the past because it’s not the future, when you are always looking to improve and morph and do a lot more things. If you look back, what’s that going to do?
“I use the same processes today [that I used in science]. The same processes I do to be successful in fighting poverty, I use those same skill sets in everything I’ve ever done. I had a work imprint in my brain. That is really what I depend on. [Moving on is] the only way I could continue to change the world.”
Although Mandelbaum may not want to do a big rewind, his past accomplishments are far too interesting to leave out. Having spent most of his career in cutting-edge, high-end medicine, Mandelbaum not only worked on high-profile DNA cases, but he was also part of a think tank that helped greatly improve the chances of conception through artificial insemination; introduced home run measurement into baseball; and founded the DNA Shoah Project, which uses DNA evidence to reunite families separated by the Holocaust (www.dnashoah.org). Mandelbaum’s papers from his work on the Anastasia case—which disproved a woman’s assertion that she was the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia—are on display at the Dolan DNA Learning Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
“A lot of what I’ve done has changed the world,” he says matter-of-factly. “That’s fun to look at, but I don’t have time to look at it.”
Through Rock the Answer Appears
The strong desire to do something for others was, at the time, out of character for Mandelbaum: “I really wasn’t a doer. I really wasn’t a volunteer.”
Attending that gathering of Jewish Holocaust survivors in Jerusalem with his father set off a string of events that led to the founding of Rock and Wrap It Up in 1993. In 1990, Sandy Chapin, singer Harry Chapin’s widow, who had recruited Mandelbaum for the board of directors of the Long Island Cares Regional Food Bank, introduced him to legendary concert promoter Ron Delsener.
“[He] was a friend of everybody and said to us, ‘We have no money for you—rock stars aren’t cheap. But we always have food at Jones Beach Theatre [on New York’s Long Island] and we throw it out. You’re welcome to it.’”
With the start of the spring 1991 concert season, Mandelbaum picked up food after every show at the venue. By summer’s end, he had hauled about 4,000 pounds of food to a soup kitchen he had been working with, The Claddagh Inn. It was enough for 8,000 meals. He continued the pickups through the summers of 1992 and 1993.
One night, the backstage manager at Jones Beach wanted to fill Mandelbaum in on one of the quirkier sides of rock band life. He showed him the rider for a band’s upcoming show in which they had detailed what goodies they required on hand for their performance.
“It hit me like a thunderclap,” he says. “Could we say in the rider that food can’t be thrown out? [The backstage manager] looked at me and said, ‘That’s a great idea.’”
Rock and Wrap It Up was born.
Mandelbaum met with band management for every act that hit the stage at Jones Beach. They all agreed that, if Rock and Wrap It Up would handle the logistics, they would gladly put it into their riders at shows around the U.S. Then Mandelbaum approached MTV newsman Kurt Loder, who he had met years earlier at a Joan Jett concert, and asked him to do a story about the organisation. The piece resulted in a groundswell of volunteer support that really made the organisation.
“I had already gotten commitments from Aerosmith, Nine Inch Nails and the Rolling Stones—all saying that they would put us in their rider. We had about 15 cities covered. We had very solid people and we were feeding people—just through rock and roll.”
By 1996, the list grew to 75 bands. Group managers, who shift from band to band, “were taking us with them in their heart and philosophically. It really was a very word-of-mouth kind of thing. We never went after a lot of publicity. It’s my belief that good ideas travel on their own. I don’t need to do a lot of pushing on things that just make sense.”
One of the program’s most supportive proponents is Sharon Osbourne, wife of rock icon Ozzy. She once called Mandelbaum to see if they were in need of shampoo and other toiletries. She collected her way through a European tour and shipped dozens of boxes worth of goods in the direction of those in need.
Clearly, a lot of people think the idea is a sound one. Rock and Wrap It Up has extended far beyond backstage food tables. Now, more than 30 professional sports teams—across baseball, basketball, football and hockey—donate prepared but not served food from their concessions. Schools and hotels have also jumped in.
Mandelbaum estimates that in 2009 Rock and Wrap It Up will feed between 15 million and 20 million people in Canada and the U.S., and plans are afoot to move food in Germany and New Zealand as well.
“The larger programs we’re getting involved with have occurred because we’ve morphed so much into being a green company,” Mandelbaum says, “feeding by greening our country [and keeping excess out of landfills].
“I love quoting Eli Wiesel for this,” Mandelbaum says. “Eli Wiesel would say if you hear the testimony of a survivor of the Holocaust, you have an obligation to repeat it to somebody else. I’ve always viewed that if I have this passion, if I could [not only] influence somebody else to feel this passion but, even more importantly, to go inside of their brains to show them what they could do, then they have that responsibility of going to find somebody else to go and fight hunger and poverty.” One+EMEA
JENNA SCHNUER is a freelance writer based in New York. Mandelbaum’s inspiring story caused Schnuer to begin considering all the ways the pieces of one person’s life can add up to something much bigger.
Wrap Up Your Meeting
Wrapping up extra event food isn’t just the stuff of rock concerts and hockey games. Syd Mandelbaum, CEO of Rock and Wrap It Up, offers the following tactics to make the most of the assets at your meeting.
1. Use your contracts. You never have more power in planning than before signing contracts with hotels and caterers. Develop a contract clause that requires the hotel to donate extra food to a local food bank or other service organisation. “We launched a project and it went to fruition with the Langham Huntington Hotel & Spa Pasadena,” Mandelbaum says, “where Fortune magazine and its event planner put in the contract that all of the food that was prepared but not served from meetings could not go into landfills. It must feed the hungry of Pasadena. We gave them the name of the largest [local] facility, The Union Station Foundation. They immediately started picking the food up.” In addition, Rock and Wrap It Up also asked the hotel to start saving paper products and toiletries from room cleanings after guests checked out. “When a guest left, they would throw out the toilet paper roll which maybe had five sheets removed, the box of tissues, the elegant toiletries that they give away. They immediately stopped [throwing them out]. These are the kinds of items [that shelters need].”
2. Plan a “greening day.” During the conference, offer delegates the option of working for a few hours at a local soup kitchen or food bank. “I think in 2009 and 2010 there isn’t a conference going on that should not have some element of [green or corporate social responsibility],” Mandelbaum says. “Rock and Wrap It Up thinks that this should be an integrity [element] in every company that is doing work in a down-spiralling economy. If they are going to have meetings, part of that meeting should [work] to increase the physical and economic health of all people.”
3. Offer an asset recovery program. “If conference attendees are travelling with their own toiletries, let them take [the hotel toiletries]—which they’ve paid for indirectly—and set up a large box in the meeting rooms or in the registration areas that, for the two or three nights people are staying at that hotel, [will be used for] collecting those toiletry items.”
4. Share the swag bags. “How many of these meetings give somebody a bag of some kind? Maybe they can print up an extra 100 or 200 bags since they’re getting it at wholesale rate.” Pass the extras along to local service agencies. “If people are using soup kitchens and shelters, a lot of times when they move from the shelter to a place that may be a temporary housing, I don’t want to see them going with paper bags to hold their belongings.”
5. Put Rock and Wrap It Up to work for your meeting. Mandelbaum says the organisation will gladly help meeting planners connect with local food banks and shelters. Contact Rock and Wrap It Up at 877-691-FOOD or email@example.com. For more information, visit them online at www.rockandwrapitup.org.