Growing Up Schottenstein: The Blessing and Burden of Belonging to Columbus’ Last Dynasty
The inside story of Columbus’ most extraordinary family and the challenges facing its next generation.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to add additional comments from David Schottenstein and to correct the date of his sale of shares of the Canadian cannabis company Aphria in January 2019.
The photo helped break the ice.
Cathy Schottenstein noticed it right away when she entered the beachfront condo in Surfside, Florida. On a wall near her second cousin David Schottenstein’s kitchen, she saw a framed image of her grandfather Alvin and his three brothers: Leon, Saul and Jerome. Cathy had never seen this particular photo—the four Columbus retail pioneers, looking young, handsome and sharply dressed—and it helped her connect with David, Leon’s grandson, whom she’d never met before, even though both grew up in Central Ohio. It reminded her of their shared lineage. “There was something nice about that,” she says.
The photo also was a memento of a more united time. Starting in the early 1980s, relatives began to splinter in her branch, fighting over the Columbus-based business empire that the foursome had built from a single discount department store that their father, Ephraim Schottenstein, founded on Columbus’ South Side. Now, a new internecine dispute had emerged: Alvin’s widow, Beverley, Cathy’s grandmother, was accusing two of her grandsons, Evan and Avi Schottenstein, of mishandling her roughly $80 million fortune in their roles as her financial advisers.
On this February 2019 morning, David, a retail entrepreneur and investor, explained to Cathy why he’d asked to meet with her. As they talked over coffee and pastries, David—pronounced “da-veed,” the Hebrew elocution—didn’t make any specific demands of Cathy, who was supporting her grandmother’s efforts to pursue a complaint against her cousins with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA, the nonprofit that disciplines registered broker-dealers in the U.S. Mostly, he offered to help the two sides start communicating again. He wanted to avoid a protracted public battle that might embarrass the family, the kind of discord that had become too common in recent decades. “I think he saw himself as a peacemaker,” Cathy says.
Indeed, David did seem to occupy a unique space in the family. As a child, he told Cathy, he made friends with estranged cousins, and he continued to build relationships with them and other relatives as an adult, bridging the divisions within the family. He even became close with Jay Schottenstein, the head of the family’s vast network of retail and real estate interests (and the son of Jerome, who waged a bitter legal battle against David’s father and uncle, Tom and Bill).
David managed to find common ground with Cathy. When she mentioned the “toxicity of inherited wealth,” he nodded in agreement. When she talked about their side of the family’s often “crazy” behavior, he declared, “that’s a Schottenstein thing.” They discussed their family’s complicated history and dynamics and how each of them had avoided the pitfalls that ensnared other Schottenstein relatives. “I think we both had this impression: ‘You’re normal, but everyone else isn’t,’” Cathy says.
First impressions, however, can be deceiving. Unrelated to the Beverley Schottenstein case, about a month earlier, as federal authorities later revealed, David sold more than 70,000 shares of the Canadian cannabis company Aphria, making a $74,000 profit. It was the last of five stock sales he’d made over the previous two years that netted him a $635,000 total gain. And it turns out his stock-picking prowess wasn’t the result of hard work, strategic thinking and the other virtues that have made the Schottenstein family synonymous with business success in Columbus for more than a century. Instead, it was cheating, he admitted in federal court in February 2022. He made the stock deals based on insider material information he obtained through his family connections.
When David met with Cathy in 2019, he seemed to present himself as a paragon of probity who wanted to protect their family name. But three years later, he was the one sullying it.
David initially didn’t respond to a request to comment on the encounter with Cathy. After this story appeared online, however, he contacted me. He says he didn’t portray himself as a morally righteous person. "I'm a flawed human being, obviously," David says. "I've messed up. No question about it. I own that. But one thing I've never wavered from is that I value peace, especially in the family. The sole purpose of meeting with Cathy was to try and make peace between her and her family. I don't think it's ever worth fighting over money."
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As other power-broker families fade, the Schottensteins remain
The Schottensteins might be Columbus’ most remarkable family. With their profound achievements, enduring influence and far-and-wide reach, they have shaped the city in numerous ways, from retail, to real estate, to homebuilding, to civic affairs, to religion, to philanthropy. And they’re not done. While many of the city’s other historically important families (the Lazaruses, the McCoys, the Galbreaths, the Wolfes) have begun to fade away, the Schottensteins remain a force. They are CEOs, lawyers, entrepreneurs, real estate developers, community leaders, philanthropists and more. They include seasoned pros such as Jay, Bobby, Gary and Bill Schottenstein—savvy businessmen who absorbed the lessons of their well-known fathers and strengthened family businesses or built new ones. But they also include up-and-comers just beginning to make their mark in areas as diverse as concert promotion, urban real estate development and name, image and likeness marketing in college sports. Perhaps the most high-profile among them is Brett Kaufman, a developer rooted in social causes whose projects are transforming Franklinton. They are the real deal—a dynasty. In fact, they are probably Columbus’ last one.
Yet few fully understand what the Schottensteins have accomplished or how they all connect to each other. They consist of hundreds of descendants of two Lithuanian peasants, Yoneh and Chaya Gerzhevsky. With so many family members—and so many branches—it’s hard to keep track of such an expansive genealogy. In 1989, more than 300 family members attended a Schottenstein reunion at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the family’s first immigrant in Central Ohio (Jacob Schottenstein, a pawnbroker and bicycle shop owner). Today, few can imagine attempting another familywide mega-gathering. “I don’t know where you’d hold it,” says Howard Schottenstein, a Bexley resident and a retired builder. “The convention center?”
The Schottenstein Family Tree:How the various branches of Columbus’ sprawling last dynasty connect to each other
There’s also another reason to avoid a repeat performance: The family has become more splintered. That, of course, is an inevitable consequence of adding more and more generations, with individual branches becoming their own self-contained units. For instance, the descendants of Meyer and Libbie Schottenstein—the parents of M/I Homes co-founder Irving Schottenstein and the grandparents of current M/I CEO Bobby Schottenstein—hold their own reunion every couple of years or so, with the next one planned for later in 2022. About 100 people typically attend, family members say—an impressively large number that makes more sense after you take a closer look at the family tree. (Meyer and Libbie had nine children and 29 grandchildren).
What’s more, the splintering isn’t just a numbers game. It’s also personal. Lawsuits have long exposed divisions in the family. In the early 2000s, Steven Schottenstein, Irving’s son and a former M/I executive, was involved in what local legal observers then described as possibly the longest-running divorce in Franklin County history, a case that went all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court. But the most significant legal battles have occurred on the retail side of the family tree—nasty struggles that pushed relatives out of the business, left hard feelings in their wake and, ultimately, solidified power in the hands of Jay Schottenstein. As one relative jokes, “you’d need several Berlin Walls to keep peace” if the whole family were to gather together again.
To better understand the Schottensteins, I contacted dozens of family members in Central Ohio and elsewhere. Many did not want to be interviewed for this story, but some did. In the end, I spoke to 16 individuals of multiple generations.
So what’s it like to be part of this sprawling, brawling, impactful and high-profile family? For some, their name makes them feel special, a member of Columbus royalty, providing community goodwill, access and financial resources. For others, it can create false impressions and make them feel like they’re under a microscope.
For instance, the Schottensteins aren’t a monolith, even though many in Columbus and elsewhere seem to view them that way. They’re not all rich. They don’t all know each other. Most of the businesses are separately owned and managed. Not every Schottenstein is an Orthodox Jew. Or a Bexley resident. Or a business leader. Their numbers include social workers, political operatives, a tennis pro, nurses and architects. Diane Warren, a descendant of the branch of the family that once operated soda pop and seltzer water plants, launched Katzinger’s Delicatessen in German Village. Anna Schottenstein, a history and U.S. government/politics teacher at Bexley High School, co-founded the Bexley Anti-Racism Project.
When Anna graduated from Bexley High School, she decided to enroll at Ohio University. One of the reasons she rejected Ohio State was its basketball arena: the Schottenstein Center, named after Jerome Schottenstein, a distant relative. “I didn’t want to go to a university where people would associate me, potentially, with money and fame,” says Anna, Howard Schottenstein’s daughter, who grew up middle class in Bexley. Cathy Schottenstein made a similar decision after graduating from Pickerington High School, choosing to attend Emory University in Atlanta. “It felt like a relief, because when I said my last name or when my name showed up in class, no one was like, ‘Oh, are you connected to the business?’ Or to the ‘real Schottensteins?’” Cathy says.
Being a Schottenstein cuts two ways. “There are benefits—there’s no question,” says Bill Schottenstein, co-founder of Arshot Investment Corp., a real estate development company. “You have access to certain things that would be much more difficult to get access to otherwise. But by the same token, you have these certain expectations that come with it.” Those expectations depend on the person. For some, it means being exceptional, living up to your forebears and keeping up with the other branches of the family.
Cathy Schottenstein says this environment can be unhealthy, with power and wealth breeding resentment if some feel they’re not getting their rightful share. “I think this current generation has grown up with a sense of entitlement, with the availability of money,” says Morris Schottenstein, a retired Urbana College professor, who wrote a two-volume history of the Schottenstein family. He’s concerned that some “might not have the same commitment to tough, hard, daily work”—the main reason, he says, for all of the success the family has enjoyed over the past century. Morris also worries about younger folks losing their sense of “modesty and honesty and middle-of-the-roadness.”
“When there’s a lot of money and a lot of power and a lot of feelings that one has been slighted, it can lead to problems,” says Cathy, 39. “And I think that right now, particularly in my generation, you’re seeing some of those problems play out.”
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The Unforgettable Jerome Schottenstein
The legacy of Jerome Schottenstein still looms large at the retail and real estate empire he once led. In October 2018, his son, Jay, granted me a rare interview for an article that appeared in Giving, an annual ancillary publication of Columbus Monthly and Columbus CEO. Sitting in a conference room with his wife, Jeanie, beside him, Jay spoke reverently of his father, who along with his uncles taught him the importance of charity, or tzedakah, as it’s called in the Jewish faith.
Following the interview, Jay gave me a quick tour of the photos, artworks and other mementoes that decorate his company’s corporate offices on East Fifth Avenue. Just off the conference room was a large, framed photo portrait of his father. On the bottom of the frame was a small plaque that read, “The Unforgettable Jerome Schottenstein.”
Indeed, Jerry, as most people called him, was a giant of business. But that didn’t make him an easy person to be around. When Columbus Monthly did a cover story about “The Toughest SOBs in Town” in 1984, probably few were surprised to see Jerry’s name on the list. It couldn’t have been easy for Jay to grow up as his only son—and then, at the age of 38, take over his leadership role after his father died of cancer in 1992. But Jay, who declined to be interviewed for this story, persevered. In fact, he did more than that. Under Jerry, the business grew from a regional to national power. Under Jay, it’s even more successful, thanks to the rise of Aerie, American Eagle and Designer Brands (formerly DSW). Yet Jay remains committed to preserving his father’s memory. “Jay talks emotionally and fondly about his father,” says a former Schottenstein business insider. “It’s a touchpoint for him. It’s always part of the story.”
The story, however, has expanded. Jay’s children are in the picture, too. During the office tour, he pointed out some photos of a 2012 event in MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. At the gathering, Jay read a prayer before some 90,000 fellow Orthodox Jews in honor of his father. The event commemorated the completion of a 7.5-year, page-a-day study of the Talmud Bavli, which has become more accessible to everyday folks thanks to a massive translation project supported by Jay and his family. A photo on the wall showed Jay at the event, with his sons Jonathan and Jeffrey, wrapping their arms around their father.
This togetherness is important. During the interview, Jay and Jeanie said their sons and their daughters-in-law offer input on charitable causes to support. And in fact, their youngest son, Jeffrey, played a starring role in the family’s most recent philanthropic endeavor. When his family gave $10.5 million to the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center in November to create a mental health resilience program for students, Jeffrey served as the face of the initiative, sharing his struggles with anxiety and depression.
All three sons also work at the family business. For the past 13 years, Jonathan, the middle child, has led the furniture brand American Signature. Jeffrey, meanwhile, runs his own sportswear brand, TACKMA, and holds several roles with various Schottenstein affiliates. They’re following the path trod by their father, grandfather and great-uncles.
Jay’s oldest son, Joey, has been the subject of some unflattering attention of late. Federal authorities didn’t name the executive with the Schottenstein Property Group and Schottenstein Realty in court filings, but Joey matches the description of David Schottenstein’s inside source for confidential corporate information (“Individual 1” in the charging documents and “Insider 1” in an accompanying Securities and Exchange Commission civil complaint).
For two years, court records reveal, David successfully pumped Joey for information related to his roles as a member of the then-DSW board, his access to privileged information from his father and his role as a board adviser to the now-defunct Green Growth Brands, the Schottenstein-backed cannabis startup. The second cousins were often in contact: multiple phone calls and texts a day, vacations together, meetings at Joey’s Miami Beach home. Federal authorities allege David used Joey’s confidential information to make more than $600,000 in profits from sales of stocks belonging to DSW, Rite Aid and Aphria, a Canadian cannabis company that Green Growth Brands wanted to acquire. David then tipped off his two co-defendants, Kris Bortnovsky and Ryan Shapiro, both of whom also profited off the information, prosecutors allege. While David has pleaded guilty, lawyers for both Bortnovsky and Shapiro have said their clients plan to fight the charges.
In June, David faces sentencing. He’s already pleaded guilty to a single count of securities fraud, which holds a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison. The U.S. attorney’s office in Boston, the location of the financial services firm that handled the stock deals, is recommending a penalty on the low end of the federal sentencing guidelines.
“I take full and sole responsibility for my actions,” David says in an interview. “I deeply regret them, and I apologize to my family and my friends and all my colleagues.” A spokesman for Jay and Joey Schottenstein said they were “shocked and saddened by the illegal conduct and the breach of confidences” described in the court proceedings.
After this story appeared online, David told me he realized on his own that the trades were improper and stopped doing them in January 2019. Two years later, he says, government authorities approached him about his practices. "Over the coming years, I hope to work hard and do enough good in the world to make up for any damage I may have done to the family name," David wrote in a text.
While the insider trading case was developing, another Schottenstein drama was playing out just up the road from Miami Beach. In December 2018, Cathy Schottenstein was visiting her grandmother Beverley at her Bal Harbour condo over the Christmas holiday. Beverley asked Cathy and a cousin, Alexis Gordin, to open an unusual package that had arrived in the mail. Inside were documents pertaining to a company based in the Cayman Islands. Even though Beverley knew nothing about it, she apparently was investing $5 million with the business, Cathy says. It was the first major clue that something was seriously amiss with her grandmother’s finances.
That discovery launched a three-year battle that culminated in February 2021, when a FINRA regulatory panel awarded Beverley $19 million in damages. Arbitrators ruled that her grandsons, Evan and Avi Schottenstein, and their employer, JPMorgan Chase, were liable for fraud, misrepresentation, elder abuse and breach of fiduciary duty. A few days after the decision, Bloomberg published a long story about the case, featuring a slew of bizarre and tantalizing details: missing jewelry, a faked email address, exotic investments, bullying behavior and a desperate phone call to JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon.
JPMorgan Chase paid the $9 million judgment, but Evan and Avi are continuing to fight the case in federal court in Florida. Neither responded to a request for comment left through their lawyer.
The Future of the Schottensteins
In the Beverley Schottenstein saga, some of the drama is shifting to the page—and maybe the screen. Cathy is writing a book—part memoir, part true crime—about her immediate family and her grandmother’s story. A former journalist with BusinessWeek and CNN, Cathy has a book contract with boutique publisher BenBella Books. What’s more, she says HBO has optioned the rights to the book. Cathy says no publication date has been set, because the release may need to coordinate with a possible HBO version of the story.
Cathy hopes the book shines a light on elder abuse, as well as the resentments and generational conflict that took hold in her branch of the family. “I think it turned a number of people into victims and a number of people into abusers,” Cathy says, “and the ramifications of that ended up exploding with my grandmother’s case.”
Cathy emphasizes that her book is not a broad look at the Schottensteins, just her immediate family. But some relatives appear worried. Cathy says she received a letter from a lawyer representing an anonymous group of Schottenstein family members in Columbus. The letter expressed concerns that her book might give the Schottensteins a bad name, a similar message to the one David Schottenstein delivered in his face-to-face encounter with her.
The truth is, it could. If readers decide to view the family as a monolith, as so often happens, then they could come away with the wrong idea. “It’s important to me to have a good name,” says Gary L. Schottenstein, the CEO of apartment developer Schottenstein Real Estate Group. “If someone embarrasses you or does something wrong, it’s shameful what they did. But you don’t want to hold everybody responsible.”
In reality, there are plenty of ambitious, younger-generation Schottensteins in Columbus. Many were in the recent lavish wedding of Brian Schottenstein, Gary’s son. In December, Brian, president of SRE, married Toria Aronoff, former Ohio Senate President Stan Aronoff’s granddaughter, at Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s Palm Beach club. Brian’s best men were his brother Corey Schottenstein, the managing partner of SRE, and his half-brother Brett Kaufman, the CEO of Kaufman Development. His groomsmen included Brian’s distant cousin Zach Ruben, co-founder and president of concert promoter Prime Social Group.
These emerging leaders are having an impact in sports, real estate development, civic affairs and music, among other things. In addition to his leadership role at SRE, Brian and his friend Cardale Jones, the former Ohio State quarterback, are launching a charitable name, image and likeness fund to benefit OSU. In May, Corey sold a $49 million Palm Beach spec mansion, a first-of-its-kind project for SRE, to Milwaukee Bucks owner James Dinan. Kaufman, a member of the powerful Columbus Partnership, is the mastermind behind several high-profile, urban mixed-use developments, including the art-infused and wellness-themed Gravity mega-project in Franklinton, while Ruben is the co-founder of the Breakaway Festival, the annual EDM extravaganza at Historic Crew Stadium. Ruben says his extended family’s entrepreneurial history inspires him. “That’s been an underlying foundation,” he says. “To be entrepreneurial means you have to have a lot of confidence, and I think the family in general is a very confident family.”
Ruben is a fighter. In 2013, the first Breakaway Festival was a musical triumph but an economic disaster. The failure almost killed the nascent company, but Ruben and partner Adam Lynn returned to small club gigs, then regrouped in 2016 to relaunch Breakaway on a less ambitious scale. They were steadily growing their festival business until COVID hit in 2020 and once again pushed the business to the precipice. This time, a new idea saved it: drive-in concerts. From August to October 2020, Ruben and his team produced about a dozen shows in the parking lot at Westland Mall. Ruben’s father, real estate maven Larry Ruben of Plaza Properties, owns the parking lot, so Prime Social didn’t need to pay rent. “That got us through to the other side,” he says.
Michael Schottenstein draws inspiration from his extended family’s long history of community leadership. A board member of JewishColumbus and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus, the attorney with Kegler Brown Hill + Ritter has many role models, including his father, Howard, an active member of the Bexley and the Jewish communities. Other exemplars are his great-aunt Miriam Yenkin (former Jewish Federation of Columbus president), Bobby Schottenstein (former Ohio State University board chair) and the late lawyer and civic leader Mel Schottenstein (Columbus Chamber chair, Community Shelter Board founder, Agudas Achim synagogue chair, Columbus College of Art & Design board chair and on and on).
“I wanted to be part of that legacy,” he says.
This story is from the March 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.
The Schottensteins, by the Numbers
1888 is the year Jacob Schottenstein arrived in Columbus. He’s the first member of the family to immigrate from Lithuania.
$62 million in philanthropic gifts to Ohio State from the families of Bobby* and Jay Schottenstein and organizations associated with them
$294 million in estimated annual economic impact on Columbus from companies led by Jay Schottenstein
127,000 homes sold by M/I Homes since it was founded by Irving and Mel Schottenstein in 1976
976,301 square feet of leasable space in 10 shopping centers owned by the Schottenstein Property Group in the Columbus area
$300 million paid in 2021 by Allstate to acquire SafeAuto Insurance, the Columbus-based company co-founded by Ari Deshe and Jon Diamond, Jay Schottenstein’s brothers-in-law
71 people named Schottenstein returned from a Columbus search of switchboard.com
*Bobby Schottenstein is married to Jeri Block, whose family founded the Block Memorial Tournament, a popular fundraiser for the Ohio State cancer program.
Sources: The Schottensteins: A Family Biographical Essay, OSU; SEC; Schottenstein Stores