UT alumnus Dan Ricketts (business '85, law '92) was born and raised in Tullahoma, Tenn. He didn't travel outside of the United States until after college. Now that he travels the globe for work and pleasure, he revels in exploring new places and diverse cultures.
His husband, Steve Frankel, was born and raised in Ohio. The son of Holocaust survivors, Frankel has made numerous trips to Israel to visit relatives and learn about his heritage. While attending New York University, he studied abroad in London and traveled to Paris, Ireland, Wales, and the Netherlands. That semester was a treasured experience, and, like Dan, it ignited his passion for traveling.
Ricketts and Frankel are now highly successful businessmen in Los Angeles, Calif. When considering programs to support, they look for causes they both care deeply about.
Judaism, Israel, and Holocaust remembrance are important to Frankel. Ricketts loves art. Both men say traveling has enriched their lives.
Those passions led them to create the Frankel-Ricketts Scholars in Israel Program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The program will give UT students from all faiths and backgrounds the opportunity to travel to Israel and immerse themselves in its rich and diverse culture.
They have created an endowment that they will support with annual gifts and, eventually, a bequest. Their contribution "will be our biggest single donation ever," said Helene Sinnreich, associate professor of religious studies and director of the Fern and Manfred Steinfeld Program in Judaic Studies.
Ricketts and Frankel want their contributions to be used for travel scholarships for students to visit or study in Israel; undergraduate scholarships; visiting lecturers or faculty from Israel who come to UT for short-term teaching assignments; faculty awards for teaching or research focusing on Israeli culture; and other programs that help students learn about the history and culture of Israel.
"It's really important for people to travel outside of Tennessee, outside of America," Ricketts said. "It really changes your perspective on America and the world."
Ricketts said these days, when there's so much strife in the world, travel can lessen prejudice and hatred and enhance understanding and tolerance.
While cultures are different and unique, "you learn that everybody's kind of the same," he said. "If you've been to a place, it gives you a whole different perspective. It's hard to hate someone you've gotten to know."
A trip of a lifetime
The Frankel-Ricketts Scholars in Israel Program will debut in spring 2024 with Religious Studies 225: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, a three-credit-hour general education course open to students in all disciplines. Enrolled students will travel to Israel for the week of spring break. They will reside at Hebrew University, which was founded by Albert Einstein in 1918. The students will attend lectures by Hebrew University faculty and enjoy a private tour of the art and archaeological exhibits in the Israel Museum.
Collaborating with Hebrew University was a natural choice. Sinnreich has a strong relationship with some of the faculty.
Frankel is a board member of The Friends of Hebrew University and The Friends of The Israel Museum. Frankel and Ricketts have been honored on the university's Wall of Life for their monetary support and received the university's 2021 Humanitarian Torch of Learning Award at a dinner that raised more than $2 million for the university's scholarship program. The men are also supporters of the Israel Museum.
Among the experiences Sinnreich is planning for students on the trip: a visit to a Bedouin camp to learn about that desert culture's hospitality, food, religious practices, and textile production; visits to Kibbutzim (collective communities), which were instrumental in establishing Jewish settlements in Israel; and visits to archeological sites, including UNESCO World Heritage sites such as Meggido, Masada, and the Crusader tunnels at Akko.
The first class will be limited to 15 students. Scholarships will cover most of their traveling expenses.
Sinnreich will teach the class and lead the trip with colleague Erin Darby, who is an associate professor of religious studies, an archaeological project director, and UT's inaugural faculty director for undergraduate research and fellowships. Ricketts and Frankel will try to meet up with the entourage during the trip.
"I hope this is a class that really transforms students, especially students who wouldn't otherwise have this opportunity by giving them a taste of an international experience," Sinnreich said.
While many trips to Israel are sponsored by groups from a particular faith, this trip will allow students to "view these spaces with a critical eye" while learning about the area's importance to Christians, Jews, and Muslims, she said.
Ricketts and Frankel also want students to learn about modern-day Israel, with its thriving start-up economy, the strong high-tech sector, and reputation as a foodie's paradise.
"We want students to really experience Israel and its vibrancy," Frankel said. "They need to experience Israel on the ground while having fun and meeting people."
About the Donors
Ricketts remembers his time at UT as a "normal college experience"―living in a residence hall, pledging a fraternity (Sigma Phi Epsilon), and going to football games and concerts."
Though he loved art, he worried about making a living as an artist. He opted to major in business and, after graduating, worked as a banker in Nashville for a few years.
Ricketts was raised Baptist and briefly considered pursuing a graduate degree in theology. Instead, he decided to attend UT's College of Law. The day he graduated, he accepted a job in California. He spent several years working in the legal departments of computer companies and dot.coms.
When the dot.com bubble burst, he decided to try his hand at flipping houses. Although he had no formal training, he had a knack for interior design. That knack became a business that grew into DJR Design Group, whose corporate and residential clients range from Hollywood stars to wealthy businesspeople. The group has done projects in Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Nashville, Palm Beach, New York City, Toronto, Montreal, Bali, and Jakarta.
Frankel was born and raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio. His parents, Rina Barth Frankel and the late Samuel M. Frankel, were Holocaust survivors.
"As young people, my parents endured unspeakable horrors and incredible personal loss," he told an audience at a US Holocaust Museum event in Cleveland last year. "They met in Israel and married six weeks later. They put down roots and started their own family. From an early age, my sisters and my brother and I were inspired by their resilience and understood our obligation to honor the memory of those murdered during the Holocaust."
He earned a degree in liberal arts from NYU and moved to California in 1990.
Today, he is a realtor in Beverly Hills and specializes in luxury properties. He's sold more than $2 billion of residential property during his 25-year career and consistently ranks in the top 1 percent of real estate agents in the world.
Ricketts and Frankel have been together for 25 years. They were married in March 2015 by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who performed their nuptials while he was the state's lieutenant governor.
In addition to supporting the new Israeli travel program in Judaic Studies, Ricketts and Frankel have been strong supporters of UT's Pride Center. For several years, they've matched all gifts given during annual fundraisers.
Like Ricketts and Frankel, Sinnreich has a passion for Israel and making sure people remember the horror of the Holocaust. Her grandparents were Holocaust survivors.
A Holocaust scholar, Sinnreich has been at UT for six years. She has a doctorate and master's degree from Brandeis University and a bachelor's degree from Smith College. She has served as a fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. She is co-editor of the journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
Sinnreich said she's been to Israel "many, many, many times," including twice in the last six years.
In November 2019, she traveled to Israel with UT System President Randy Boyd, College of Arts and Sciences Dean Theresa Lee, Vice Provost for International Affairs Gretchen Neisler, and other UT faculty members and deans. Ricketts accompanied the group and got to know more about UT and its desire to forge academic collaborations in Israel.
"I think Israel is an amazing country to visit," Sinnreich said. "It is in many ways so different from the United States and at the same time, it has surprising similarities. It has a very deep and rich history. There are so many layers of history that you can see, literally and figuratively.
"Seeing how it touches your life can change the way you see the world," she said. "For me, it's always been a very unique experience. It could have been my 20th time going to Israel, yet I will see things I have never seen before."
Associate Vice Chancellor Marc Gibson, UT System President Randy Boyd, and donor Dan Ricketts go out for a jog in Israel