During an event sponsored several years ago by WNET, New York City’s public television station, Sylvia Poyta, a longtime supporter of the station, took Neal Shapiro, WNET’s president, aside for a short, quiet conversation.
She told Shapiro that she and her late husband Simon, a dentist, had included some funds in their estate for WNET, Channel 13, to establish an unspecified initiative to combat anti-Semitism.
Poyta mentioned that her husband had made some good investments, and the money they were leaving to the station “could be worth as much as $1 million.”
Shapiro thanked Poyta, a comptroller, telling her “A million dollars is a lot of money.”
“I promise you we’ll spend it responsibly,” he told Poyta.
She died in 2012.
It turned out that the gift that the philanthropists from Forest Hills, Queens, had left to WNET was $20 million, the largest bequest in the station’s 53-year history.
“We were shocked,” Shapiro said.
WNET announced last week, after the couple’s estate had passed probate and the station received the funds, that it has established The Sylvia and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism.
The station is considering a wide range of uses for the money — including documentaries about anti-Semitism, expanded news coverage of the subject, and “community-focused efforts against anti-Semitism” in the Greater New York area — but will not announce specific details until the endowment begins to yield interest in about a year, Shapiro said this week. “We have many projects [in mind]”, Shapiro said.
In recent years, anti-Semitism has grown both in parts of Europe and in the United States, he pointed out. “Issues like this have not gone away.”
He said Simon Poyta’s interest in fighting anti-Semitism stemmed from his service in the U.S. Army during World War II, when other soldiers in his unit, assuming from his name that he was Italian, would freely say anti-Semitic things in his presence. These consisted of stereotypes and “anti-Semitic jokes,” Shapiro said, based on what he heard from Sylvia Poyta.
Simon Poyta, who died in 2006, “was shocked by how pervasive it was, and how openly soldiers talked about it,” Shapiro said. Dr. Poyta served in the European Theater during the war, but Shapiro said he could not speculate on what aftermath of the Holocaust Dr. Poyta saw.
The couple “really liked public television … its ability to literally transmit a message,” Shapiro said. “They wanted to do something that has lasting good [for] people they never met and will never meet. It’s highest level of tzedakah.”