By Brian Robin
Fulfilling A Life’s Promise
When Leona Aronoff-Sadacca was a young girl growing up in World War II-ravaged France, hiding out on a farm from the Nazis, she would sit in a field, pick a daisy and play a little game.
“I would pull one petal after another, saying ‘I’m going to America. I’m not going to America.’ I started making all kinds of promises to God that if He let us come to America, I would do everything I could to help people and make sure there is no hunger in the world,” she said. “I kind of failed at that last one, but when you’re 8, you have big plans.”
Aronoff-Sadacca definitely got the first half right, though. She has helped countless people over the years. A member of the SCR Board of Trustees, where she chairs the Education and Outreach Committee, Aronoff-Sadacca was recently honored with the National Philanthropy Day (NPD) Legacy Award given by the Association of Fundraising Professionals.
According to the NPD website, the award “recognizes the cumulative philanthropic efforts of an individual, family or family foundation over a period of 10 or more years of exceptional generosity who, through direct financial support, demonstrates outstanding civic and charitable responsibility and whose generosity encourages others to take philanthropic leadership roles in the community. Candidates will specifically demonstrate significant long-term involvement with one or more Orange County nonprofit organizations.”
Aronoff-Sadacca checks off all the boxes—and then some. She was nominated by SCR, the Pacific Symphony, Think Together, the Jewish Federation of Orange County, the Hebrew Union College Institute of Religion and Temple Bat Yahm.
Aronoff-Sadacca is passionate about education and children. She is the Honorary Producer for SCR’s upcoming Theatre for Young Audiences and Families production of Alice’s Wonderland, her eighth production. Previously she served as Honorary Producer for Snow White (2022), Last Stop on Market Street (2022), Red Riding Hood (2021), Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (2020), Nate the Great (2018), Ella Enchanted: The Musical (2017) and Mr. Popper's Penguins (2016).
"She supports very worthy causes and does so with energy and passion," said Rabbi Hillel Cohn, the longtime rabbi at Congregation Emanu El in Redlands, who has known Aronoff-Sadacca for more than 50 years. "She has shared her resources in many ways. Her commitment to a vibrant Jewish life is reflected in her support of our temple as well as the temple in Newport Beach where she lives. ...
"She gives with humility and inspires others to give. She is my dear friend and I am so proud of her."
Aronoff-Sadacca has donated to Jewish causes throughout her life. After she retired as president/CEO of Gate City Beverage Company in 2007 and moved to Orange County, she focused her munificence in new directions.
“After I retired, I figured out what organizations I wanted to be involved in and I picked South Coast Repertory because it’s the arts and I know nothing about the arts. I’ve been working all my life,” she said. “There was Think Together (which helps underserved kids) and I picked SCR and the Pacific Symphony because even though I knew nothing about the arts, it still followed my original thought that I wanted to do something for children and all of my philanthropy has that underlying moment where I make sure children get to see a play or listen to some good music.
“By supporting the arts, I wanted to do something that I didn’t do in business or in my life.”
By any measure, it’s been a wildly successful life, one that began in pre-World War II France, where Aronoff-Sadacca was born. When she was 8, her life changed with one of those fortuitous breaks that literally meant the difference between life or death for millions of Europe’s Jews.
That break took Aronoff-Sadacca to Bellac, a picturesque, small town in central France. Today, it’s a tourist attraction, with a 13th century bridge and medieval cathedral named after its more famous big brother 240 miles to the north in Paris—Notre Dame. But in the 1940s, it was Aronoff-Sadacca’s and her family’s sanctuary.
“My dad was in the French Resistance and he needed to work and find food for us. He heard about this small community that had a sheep ranch and needed workers,” Aronoff-Sadacca said. “I don’t know how my dad got there, but the mayor of that town had a sheep farm. He described what needed to be done and my dad said ‘I can do that.’ The mayor of the town picked my dad and my dad took him aside and said, ‘I’m not alone. I have a family, a wife and two kids. I don’t want to get you in trouble, but we’re Jewish. My name is Heinrich Epstein.’
“He said ‘That’s no longer your name.’ He gave us French names and told my dad he had the job. He risked his life for us. This was a man who knew we were Jewish and still hid us out on his sheep ranch. It’s pretty amazing.”
Aronoff-Sadacca and her family were there for two years, hiding in plain sight on a sheep farm without an indoor bathroom. Aronoff-Sadacca said she didn’t know what a bathroom was until she came to the United States and to this day, half-jokes that she measures her wealth by how many bathrooms she has.
Two years later, they ventured to the United States. The family migrated to Los Angeles, where Aronoff-Sadacca’s incredible work ethic manifested itself early. She started working at 12, cleaning medical tubes, flasks and pipettes for a lab. Eventually, she married her first husband, Jack Aronoff, and moved to San Bernardino.
After raising two sons, one of whom died of meningitis, she told her husband it was time for her to work. She went to work at the family’s beer distributorship in Rialto and took over the business when Jack came down with Parkinson’s Disease. The woman who started as an administrative assistant charged with figuring out the company’s one computer was now running a multi-million-dollar company.
It was one of several. From there, Aronoff-Sadacca started a non-alcoholic beverage company, a leasing company, an insurance company and a trucking company that covered seven Western states—all companies that supported in some way the original Gate City Beverage that was founded by her father-in-law. Eventually, she sold all of the companies.
“The rest is history,” she said, laughing.
Aronoff-Sadacca is still making history—and an impact—one donation, one cause, one child at a time. Few things bring a smile to her face quicker than sitting in the theatre and seeing children beaming at the performance unfolding in front of them. The show she helped bring to life.
Part of the promise she never forgot.
“I always remember that day and I’m trying to fulfill that promise I made when I was 8.”