Champion of charity

Rubin "Ruby" Josephs at RJCC

Ruby Josephs affixes a mezuzah to the front door of the Rockland Jewish Community Campus in December 2007, with then JCC President Steve Gold, center, and past-President Barry Kantrowitz.

Rubin Josephs, philanthropist and developer, dies at 82

by Marla Cohen

Rubin “Ruby” Josephs, philanthropist, developer and Holocaust survivor, known in equal measure for his generosity, his determination in business and the inability to accept the word “no” for an answer, died on Feb. 27 at his home in Piermont where he had lived since 2006. He was 82.

He died following a four-and-a-half year battle with multiple myeloma.

Having survived World War II in a Nazi labor camp, engineering the survival of his parents and brother, who was deaf, Josephs came to this country with little more than determination and a positive outlook that he could and would succeed.

And he did, as a builder, real estate developer and investor in many Rockland properties. Among his projects were the Blueberry Hill Apartments, Blueberry Hill Recreation Center, shopping centers and Sport O Rama in Monsey.

A love of Judaism and for Israel guided his giving. He gave generously, both in time and dollars, inspired by an uncle in Poland who was always doing good deeds for others, and another relative in America who gave him a no-interest loan to purchase a chicken farm in Rockland County that gave him a foothold here. Many Jewish causes in Rockland County bore his imprint. He supported the Yeshiva of Spring Valley, the former Rockland Hebrew Day School, and Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School. He helped found and build the Holocaust Museum and Study Center in Spring Valley. He supported the State of Israel Bonds, UJA Federation, the Jewish Federation of Rockland County and the JCC. He was a major donor to the new Rockland Jewish Community Campus on West Nyack Road, a founder of the former Monsey Jewish Center, and built the Gates of Zion Cemetery Chapel, where his funeral service was held.

Among his proudest achievements was the creation of the Israel Tennis Center in Ramat HaSharon, a non-profit program he co-founded in 1976 to give children an opportunity to learn and play a sport. Today there are 14 centers in the country, mostly in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The program is the largest children’s tennis program in the world, having served more than 350,000 families. His desire to build the centers grew from his love for the game. His manner of play could stand in as a metaphor for his life, perhaps lacking finesse and style, according to family members, but always with strategy, at full throttle, and to win.

Rubin Josephs was born on June 26, 1925 to Harry Josephs and Bella Langner in Czestochowa, Poland. When he was 14, the Germans decided to liquidate the Jewish ghetto, where Josephs and his family were living. Josephs was selected to work in a factory, run by HASAG, an industrial company that operated four labor camps outside of Czestochowa, while his family hid in an attic in the empty ghetto.

Prior to this, Josephs had followed around a family friend, an electrician, learning that trade, thus obtaining skills that would help make him invaluable in the work camp, and later give him his start wiring and building homes in Rockland County.

He was able to get his family into the work camp eventually, by having them march with a column of prisoners coming into HASAG. There the four survived the war, though at one point Josephs’ brother was selected for transport to a concentration camp. Seeing his brother on the truck leaving the labor camp, Josephs, confident that he was a valuable worker, told the German in charge that they would have to take him if they were going to take his brother. The two brothers remained in the labor camp.

In Bremen, after the war, he met his future wife, Judy Finkelstein. She was having trouble with her papers and arranging passage to the United States. Josephs was having difficulty getting papers for his brother because of his disability. It was Josephs desire to move forward and not look back that first attracted Judy to her husband-to-be.

“I was so down; life had very little meaning for me,” Judy said. “I lost everyone. He had his family and that helped, and he was up, always looking to the future. And he was always, always, always planning things.”

They lived in Brooklyn until Judy became pregnant with their first child, Ruth. Living in a small house, with two other families, she wanted to move away from the city. They borrowed money from a cousin and bought a chicken farm in Rockland County. Judy figured she could tend to the chickens and children, while her husband continued to work as an electrician. Eventually he teamed with another Rockland electrician, Sam Weinberger, and the two began wiring and then building homes in the area.

Because he wanted his children to have a Jewish education he got involved with the building of the Yeshiva of Spring Valley when it was looking to move from Old Nyack Turnpike to the corner of Maple Avenue and Route 306 in Monsey. Rabbi Dov Greenbaum, then in charge, came to the Josephs to ask for a pledge.

“We could not even commit ourselves,” said Judy, explaining how financially tight things were for the young family. “But the rabbi said, ‘Just commit yourself and God will help you.’ So that was how he [Ruby] learned to be a fundraiser. Because you can’t go to someone asking for money unless you give first.”

It was a lesson that Josephs learned well, and message that he spread over and over again during his life.

“When Ruby came to you and asked you to do something, you knew your were going to do it, whatever it was,” said Stuart Salkin, a former president of Monsey Jewish Center. “You couldn’t say ‘no’ to him. I think he was probably one of the most influential assets to the Jewish community. Not just in Rockland, but worldwide.”

Josephs figured there was always a way to achieve a goal, or surmount a problem. When he wanted to move his family to a property he owned on Route 306, Judy did not want to go because there was not a synagogue within walking distance of the proposed house.
“So he said, ‘I’m going to build you a shul that’s within walking distance of our property.’ It took him ten years, but he did,” she said.

That synagogue was Monsey Jewish Center, of which he was the last surviving founding member.

The inability to accept that something couldn’t be done served Josephs well as he developed land in Rockland, and embarked on the creating the tennis centers in Israel. Impatient to get started, wanting to see a project through, Josephs saw permits and regulations as roadblocks to getting the job done. Blueberry Hill Recreation was built without a permit and received on the day it opened. Many other projects followed suit.
“Ruby built the first tennis center and then built 14 others,” said Dr. Bill Lippy, a co-founder of the Israel Tennis Centers, who flew in from Florida to speak at Joseph’s funeral. “Twelve of them still don’t have building permits.”

Josephs was devoted to Jewish causes, whether in Israel, where he lived part of each year, or in Rockland. He devoted time, money and energy to them all. In 1988, he became one of the founders of the Holocaust Museum and Study Center in Spring Valley, wanting to make sure there was a living memorial to the survivors of the Shoah.

“When Ruby asked me to become president of the Museum and Study Center it felt like he was reaching out to me across a generation, to pass the torch,” Jeff Weinberger, president of the center and a close, family friend, said at Josephs’ funeral.

“He said it was now up to me and my generation to continue the work he started as a founder, director, chairman and driving force for what was now our museum, that it was up to me and my generation to take it to the next level to insure that the world would not forget, that the message would not be lost and more important, that it would happen never, never again,” Weinberger said.

Josephs worked behind the scenes as well, making sure that there were opportunities for Jewish education for all children. “He was one of those private angels who, when a child needed an extra boost in scholarship, or we had a program that he knew was important and essential here, he would support it and bring friends with him,” said Rabbi Scott Bolton, head of school at Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School, where Joseph’s grandchildren attend.

After 9/11, the Gittelman eighth grade trip to Israel was nearly cancelled because the school could not get insurance to cover the children, according to Marty Goldstein, a friend of 39 years and former Monsey Jewish Center president. “Ruby was in Israel. We called him and reached him there. He said, ‘What do you want me to give you ? ‘I said, ‘$5,000.’ He said, ‘Pick the check up tomorrow morning.'”

Even when diagnosed with the cancer the ultimately killed him, Josephs was undaunted. He continued to travel, play tennis and dedicate himself to his projects.

“It’s not too often you tell a person they have a fatal illness and they laugh it off as, ‘Is this the worst you can throw at me?'” said Dr. David Siegel, Josephs’ oncologist at Hackensack University Medical Center. “Nothing was scary to him because he had been through the worst. I’ll miss him more like you miss a friend than like you miss a patient.”
Even as the disease began to take its toll, Josephs remained active. One of the last projects he gave to was the building of the Rockland Jewish Community Campus. He was so insistent in participating that he had his daughter, Ruth, who handled his medical care, schedule his treatments around the early morning construction meetings.

“It was his tenacity,” said Allan Eisenkraft, a cofounder of the Rockland JCC, past president and member of the board of trustees. “Ruby got up from his sickbed and always came for the 8 a.m. construction meeting at the new building.”

“He was a complex person,” said his wife, Judy. “He had a vision that exceeded everyone else’s. When he decided to do something, there was no stopping him.”

A longtime Monsey resident until two years ago when he moved to Piermont, Josephs is survived by his wife, Judy, his children, Ruth, Howard, Eli and wife Brenda, and his grandchildren, Emily, Benjamin, Dylan, Sarah, Matthew and Lily.

Donations in Joseph’s name may be made to the Holocaust Museum and Study Center, 17 South Madison Ave.; Spring Valley, N.Y. 10977 or to a charity of choice.

Lauren Mikalov contributed to this report.

March 2008

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