As a youngster in Brooklyn, Bernard Koster used to stand at the entrance to the subway, jingling an iconic blue-and-white box to solicit coins for the Jewish National Fund.
That early commitment to worthy causes mushroomed over the years, and today Koster raises millions of dollars for about a dozen Jewish and civic causes.
On May 9, the Tenafly resident will be honored at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center’s annual Black Tie Gala at the Rockleigh Country Club. Elected to the board of the hospital’s foundation in 2000, he immediately volunteered to take on the task of ad journal chairman for the gala, a role he has reprised each year since then.
An active member of the Lifeline to Tomorrow Campaign Leadership Committee, he’s also assisting in the effort to build The Kaplen Pavilion, which will house a 37,000-square-foot emergency care center and special unit for patients recovering from neurosurgery or orthopedic surgery.
“Bernie Koster embodies the kind of partnership between the community and the hospital that has made it strong today and will ensure its bright future,” said Medical Center President and CEO Douglas A. Duchak. “Without the Bernie Kosters of this world, we would not be the outstanding organization that we are.”
Koster credits his parents with teaching by example. “Mom and Pop lived a very charitable and ethical life,” he told The Jewish Standard. “I remember Mama in the kosher butcher store where my parents worked, telling customers without cash that they could pay when they had the money.”
After moving to Tenafly when he married Norma Wellington 22 years ago, Koster plunged into the Bergen County charitable world. Over the years he has been actively involved in Gilda’s Club, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford, Temple Emanu-El of Closter, Bergen PAC, the Adler Aphasia Center, the Arnold Gold Foundation, and Jewish Family Service, in addition to the Anti-Defamation League, Israel Bonds, Youth Consultation Service, and the New Jersey-Israel Commission. He’s also part of a new county government leadership project for concerned citizens.
“I was born with a talent for raising money and gathering people to a cause, and I am humbled to use it,” said Koster. “I feel every aspect of the community is important and that’s why I’m spread over many different organizations.”
Koster said his favorite volunteer job is being a “greeter” at the door of Temple Emanu-El in Closter. “I get a fringe benefit of kisses from the women,” he joked. “Everybody’s got to go past me to get in.”
The congregation’s Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner said Koster “has a special ability to make everyone feel as though they are coming home. That’s what he’s all about. He has spent countless hours tending to the needs of our members and strengthening the Jewish community in general.”
Jay C. Nadel, the medical center’s board chairman, first met Koster in 1998. Koster had come to Nadel’s home with the rabbi and president of the congregation to ask for a substantial donation.
“I was particularly impressed by the fact that he was the one to verbalize the request,” said Nadel. “Since then, I’ve seen Bernie’s magic work time and time again, a powerful force for good and positive change. It’s impossible to ascertain how many people have benefited from his humanitarian efforts and community service.”
Koster said his affinity for the hospital stems from its “important role in saving and bringing in life, so it ties in to my whole feeling for people.” Last year, he chaired not only its ad journal but also those of four other organizations.
“I’ve chaired 32 journals over nine years and raised in excess of $9.5 million from these journals,” he related. Amy and David Albalah are ad journal co-chairs for this year’s hospital gala.
In the current economic climate, it’s not as easy to approach people for charitable dollars, Koster conceded.
“For the past two or three months, I have found it very emotional when I call people and they tell me about their economic troubles. The responses are very upsetting, and it bothers me, although it doesn’t stop me from making the calls,” he said. “I always hope I didn’t embarrass them or make them feel worse about their situation.”
With donors giving less and needs growing greater, Koster said there is an imperative to try “out of the box” methods and approaches to fund-raising. But this strong Obama supporter predicts the slump will “work itself out like everything else.”
Having grown up in a modest apartment behind his parents’ shop, he worked hard to achieve his own successes, first as an attorney and now as a real-estate consultant.
“As corny as it may sound, God has given me the strength and ability to do what I do,” he said. “It just seems to get done. I’m very lucky, because I have a supportive wife who tolerates my being on the phone many a Sunday and out at meetings many evenings.”
Koster still finds time to indulge an interest in books. He is in the middle of “Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson and plans next to read “The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life” by Alice Schroeder.
He starts his days at 6 at the gym in the JCC on the Palisades, where he also attends Bible study classes with Rabbi Reuven Kimelman. “It gives me great satisfaction when people call me the ‘mayor of the JCC.’ I love to be with people and treat them with decency and courtesy, from the doorman to the wealthiest man,” he said. “They’re all the same to me.”
Koster said that, ironically, he was at one time unwilling to live outside New York City. “I resisted suburbia, but it’s interesting how life switches – you can’t take me out of Bergen County now. I’m here for as many days and years as God gives me.”
Also at the gala, a volunteer youth ensemble called Voices of Hope, led by Debbie Slevin, an occasional contributor to this newspaper, will perform.