The Great Depression marked the children born during its terrible hold on the United States economy in different ways.
Some grew up to be hoarders, holding onto pieces of refolded aluminum foil and bits of bakery-box string.
Some became cheap, and others spendthrift.
And then there are those people, like Bernie Koster of Tenafly, who never have forgotten the lessons about tzedakah, about looking out for the less fortunate, about mending and sharing and helping and fixing.
|Bernie Koster matches his considerable ability to solicit funds for a variety of organizations with a genuine commitment to tzedakah.|
That’s why Mr. Koster is being honored by the Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson on Sunday.
Although he sits on the JFS’s board and is active as a volunteer there, the organization is one of many to which he devotes time, energy, care, and love. The kind of personal and organizational care he lavishes on a wide range of organizations is his birthright.
Mr. Koster was born in East New York, Brooklyn, in 1938. His parents, both of whom had emigrated from Poland, owned a kosher butcher shop, and “at an early age I learned what it meant to help people in need,” he said. “I would listen to Mama. If a customer didn’t have money to pay for meat, she would say ‘Take it. When you have money you’ll pay me, but the kinderlach – they have to eat.’
“I heard that as part of my growing up, and it has stayed with me until today.'”
Another experience that pushed him toward a life of tzedakah came from school. “I went to the Yeshiva Toras Chaim in East New York,” he said; he stayed there through ninth grade and then graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School. “They gave us the blue and white JNF boxes, and so I would go into the subway station and stand there and have people donate to the box.
“There were one or two incidents where kids wanted to take it away from me, but I resisted. I protected that box with my life.”
Those two sets of memories – his mother’s kindness and the tzedakah boxes – provided him with the impetus to live his life as he has done, supporting all sorts of causes, religious and secular, Jewish and general, including science, medicine, and the arts. “It’s always been part of my DNA,” he said.
Mr. Koster knew from childhood that he was not particularly good at the tasks a butcher must master. “Mama and Papa worked side by side,” he said. “And I used to pluck chickens. I’d pull the feathers out. You’d pretty much pull them out one at a time – use hot water to help get them out – but I would end up tearing the skin – I really wasn’t very good at it – and people would want to pay me not to pluck their chickens.
“That career did not last long.”
Mr. Koster was the third of four children, and the only one to go to college. That was Brooklyn College, where he majored in accounting. After graduation, he worked as an accountant while he put himself through Brooklyn Law School at night. He practiced law until 1980, when he let his entrepreneurial side take over; he began to work in real estate.
When he was married the first time, he lived in Syosset, on Long Island, where he was active in the Midway Jewish Center. “And I chaired the March of Dimes campaign, I was on the board of the federation, and president of the Nassau County Solomon Schechter school,” he said. After his divorce, he moved to Manhattan; 29 years ago, he moved to Bergen County, where he now lives with his wife, jewelry designer Norma Wellington. They have been married for 27 years.
“When I got divorced, I said never again will I ever live in suburbia,” he recalled. “When Norma and I got serious, I said that we had to work something out, because I was not going to commute. Then we got married, and I am happy to say that now you can’t take Bergen County out of me.
“I just love this community, and I feel a part of it. I know that I made two right decisions – to marry Norma, and to go to a community that I could become part of.”
It’s a “live Jewish community,” he said. “It’s growing, with all the denominations, all the way from Reform to Chabad. We get a lot done here.
“I have three lives – my family, my charities, and my profession,” Mr. Koster continued. “I am still involved with a construction company. The word ‘retirement’ is not in my vocabulary.” He now works for McGowan Builders in East Rutherford from his home office.
“Usually I start my day with breakfast meetings – mainly charity meetings, so I get a good start to the day. I do that at least two or three times a week.
“I am there to help people – I meet with people who have lost their jobs, to see if I can help them. I do what I can to make people’s lives better.”
The always exquisitely dressed Mr. Koster, who invariably sports a perfectly folded handkerchief in his jacket’s breast pocket, now is active in a range of organizations; among the non-Jewish groups are Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, the Adler Aphasia Center in Maywood, Youth Consultant Services, and bergenPAC.
His Jewish commitments include board seats at JFS, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, Temple Emanu-El, the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, the Jewish Home Foundation, the regional council of Israel Bonds, the Bergen County region of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the Anti-Defamation League. He also has been on the boards of Gilda’s Club and the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.
He has chaired 45 journals for nine organizations, and he has raised more than $19 million.
Mr. Koster also takes pleasure in matching out-of-work people with jobs. “It’s within the mission of the JFS to strengthen and preserve the well-being of individuals and families,” he said. “I try to adhere to that.”
He sees some of those groups as playing an important role in building community. “bergenPAC, for example, teaches kids dance, music, and the arts. There is a need for that to improve the community, and to improve what it is that the community can offer to its young people. With an organization like bergenPAC, or YCS, I know that if we don’t help them they are never going to be able to grow up to be able to have good life.
“I want to do my share to help them.”
Mr. Koster’s desire to help, and his ability to spend the time that it takes to do so, led to his close friendship with Sid Schonfeld. Until Mr. Schonfeld died three years ago at 87, the two men were nearly inseparable. Mr. Schonfeld, a successful food importer and the inventor of tuna packed in water, grew weak toward the end of his life, so “I made it my business to see Sid every day, because when I was there he smiled,” Mr. Koster said. “And I benefited from it. It was a pleasure to be with him.”
He is also active in his shul, Temple Emanu-El of Closter, where he is a gabbai, greeting everyone who enters the sanctuary just about every Shabbat.
Dr. Sandra Gold of Englewood, who is, among very many other things, a former JCC president, president of the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, and a JFS honorary trustee, sits on many boards with Mr. Koster.
“Bernie is a very singular individual,” Dr. Gold said.
“He has the passion and the will to actively help many diverse organizations fulfill their missions by fundraising. That isn’t something that a lot of volunteers like to do, or are any good at doing.
“He’s always so pleasant and generally makes the solicitation of a gift – another gift – an experience that’s not pressured. I think that’s why he’s so successful.”
Mr. Koster really is so good a soliciting funds, she continued, that “I always look forward to getting a call from Bernie, even though I know what it’s about.
“And Bernie is so dependable,” she concluded. “Volunteers serve at the convenience of their own schedules, but Bernie always meets his deadlines.
“He’s really the ideal volunteer,” Dr. Gold said.
Jay Nadel, the chairman of the board of trustees of Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, said that Mr. Koster “is a great guy. He is a wonderful man, and when it comes to giving the world is his community.”
He takes good care of the Jewish community, Mr. Nadel continued. “He has been involved in helping us raise money for the hospital.
“In New Jersey, there are two types of hospitals,” he said. “There are the ones that have a culture of philanthropy, and the ones that don’t.
“Bernie broke the record with our gala journal in 2011,” he concluded.
Bernie Koster is “one of a kind,” his rabbi, Emanu-El’s David-Seth Kirshner, said. “He greets you when you walk into the shul, with a hug and a kiss.
“He was kind of effervescent that way. There is not one organization in town that did not benefit from him.”
And he is omnipresent, Rabbi Kirshner added. “I go to the JCC at 6:30, and he’s there on a treadmill. At 8 I’m at Angelique’s for coffee and he’s there, he’s at a meeting at noon, and at minyan in the evening. If there is a gala dinner for an organization, he’s there.
“That’s Bernie. He’s tireless. He’s always present. He’s always giving his heart.”