Haron "Hal" Dahan, a successful self-made immigrant home builder whose philanthropic interests included educational institutions in Baltimore and Israel, died Monday from heart failure at Sinai Hospital. He was 87.
"Haron was a giant. He was not just a philanthropist but he was also a decent man and friend. He was the most decent man I've ever met and the nicest guy in the world. He's major league," said Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation, a longtime friend.
"I never heard one bad word about him from either his personal or business life," he said. "And through his philanthropy, he has guaranteed the education of Jewish children for centuries to come."
The son of a market manager and a homemaker, Haron Dahan was born and raised in Tiberias, Israel, a mixed Jewish-Arab town near the Sea of Galilee.
When he was 16, he joined the Haganah, the Jewish Agency's fighting force; two years later, he enlisted in the British navy.
Mr. Dahan then joined Menachem Begin's underground group, the Irgun, which fought for Jewish independence.
"He fought for the establishment of the State of Israel, " said a son, Nissim "Nick" Dahan of Owings Mills, who said his father later joined the Israeli army after independence, becoming a tank commander and attaining the rank of major.
While in the army, Mr. Dahan met Rachel Algazi, who also serving in the army. They married in 1950.
In 1958, he emigrated to New York City, where he had little money and knew very little English. His family joined him in New York a year later.
"When he was trying to get a green card, he was asked if he had any special skills, and he replied, 'I make a great hummus,'" said his son. "And that's how he got legal status."
Because of his military background and his management skills, Mr. Dahan was able to secure a job at the Manhattan Towers, a hotel, where he rose to manager.
It was Mike Lotman, a friend from Tiberias who had moved to New York City, who introduced Mr. Dahan to the building business.
Mr. Dahan worked his way up at his friend's company from salesman. In those early days, being unfamiliar with building terminology, he would hide in closets to listen to other salesmen explain the meaning of studs, partitions and other construction terms to their customers.
"He was also aggressive," his son said. "He'd buy tickets to sporting events or the theater and then tell a salesman he had a ticket he couldn't use that he could have. And when a customer walked in, he'd have the floor to himself."
He and his family moved throughout the United States after leaving New York and finally settled in Philadelphia, where his wife earned a degree at Gratz College.
They moved to Baltimore in 1968, and two years later, he established Caddie Homes #13, a home building firm in Bel Air, which also was a development and financial firm. In the 1980s, he added Dahan Homes.
"He amassed lots of money, and he used it to promote the cause of education. He believed in education," his son said.
The two objects of his philanthropy were the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School and Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, where a classroom building, the department of Sephardic studies, an electrical engineering building and the Dahan Department of Nanotechnology and Green Energy are named for Mr. Dahan and his wife.
He "made education possible for hundreds, if not thousands, of students — not just at Bar-Ilan, but also in his longtime home of Baltimore," said Bar-Ilan University President Moshe Kaveh. "With his most generous heart, he was the embodiment of Menschlichkeit and man's humanity toward man. I feel a great sense of personal loss, but I am comforted by the fact that future generations will continue to be touched by [Mr. Dahan] and his dream of providing them with an outstanding education."
Rabbi Wohlberg recalled learning that Mr. Dahan wanted to establish a Jewish co-educational high school at Beth Tfiloh.
"I remember it like it was yesterday. I gave him a coffee and a Danish and he gave me a half a million dollars," said Rabbi Wohlberg. "And ever since, we used to kibitz of what he would have given me had I included eggs and a bagel."
Mr. Dahan was also one of the major founders and benefactors of the Bar-Ilan University Medical School in Zefat, Israel, his son said.
Mr. Dahan retired about seven years ago.
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"He'd continue going to his office in Bel Air, where he managed his investments and philanthropy. He was a shrewd investor and never cared about owning yachts or a big house at the beach," his son said. "He loved making money and giving it away."
"The children at Beth Tfiloh loved seeing him," said Rabbi Wohlberg. "Students in Israel would write to him and he kept their letters on his nightstand, which he read before going to sleep."
Mr. Dahan funded a 1996 Jewish Historical Society exhibition on and model of the Old Bay Line steamer President Warfield, which under the name Exodus 1947 played a pivotal role in the birth of Israel.
Mr. Dahan enjoyed going to the movies and presiding over Friday family dinners at his Pikesville home in the Enclave community. Earlier, he had lived in Stevenson for many years.
Services will be held at noon Wednesday at Beth Tfiloh Congregation, 3310 Old Court Road, in the sanctuary that is named in honor of him and his wife, who died in 2008.
In addition to his son, Mr. Dahan is survived by another son, Eliav "Ely" Dahan of Los Angeles; seven grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.