‘And then here comes George’

‘And then here comes George’

George Hantgan, institution-builder extraordinaire, looks back at the local community's growth

George Hantgan Skypes with a class at the Yavneh Academy.

It would be hard to come within a week of your 98th birthday, as George Hantgan has done, without having a store of stories.

But Mr. Hantgan’s well of stories seems to be bottomless, and many of them have to do with the way that this community has grown to become the powerhouse of Jewish philanthropy and creativity it is today.

As the first executive director of what today is the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly and the founder and first executive director of what today is the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, Mr. Hantgan first imagined and then created some of the area’s most foundational institutions.

But do not get the idea that he was some faceless bureaucrat, pushing papers, developing accounting systems for the donations that somehow mysteriously rolled in as if pulled by gravity.

No. The growth in the Jewish community in northern New Jersey was driven by the postwar boom, of course; it was pushed by the same forces that moved Jews – and their non-Jewish peers – out of cities and into suburbs across the country. But the growth and development of the Jewish infrastructure in this part of New Jersey was directly influenced by George Hantgan, the JCC’s executive director emeritus.

One of the many lessons Mr. Hantgan taught the community – perhaps the most important of them all – was the importance of giving. He elevated the act of philanthropy into the art of giving, and he taught the joy inherent in that act to generations of wealthy eventual philanthropists.

Mr. Hantgan – who is now ensconced in the Jewish Home in Rockleigh but for decades before that lived in Englewood – was born in Brooklyn on March 29, 1916; World War I already was raging in Europe, but the United States did not enter it for more than a year.

The Hantgans’ walls are covered with some of the plaques given in their honor.

One of the artifacts of that long-gone world was a newspaper called the Brooklyn Eagle, and another was the job of newsboy. Mr. Hantgan was a newsboy, hawking the Eagle; his drive was so strong that he won a newspaper-sponsored contest that sent the boys who sold the most papers to the White House to meet the president, Herbert Hoover. There are doubtless few people alive today who can recall meeting President Hoover on the White House lawn, but that was only the first of three White House meetings with presidents that have marked Mr. Hantgan’s life.

The next meeting also represents Mr. Hantgan clearly. He was a college student during the Great Depression; to understate, jobs were at a premium. New York City’s great public colleges were tuition-free then, but students still had to eat, so Mr. Hantgan worked many jobs and studied at night. “I was pretty broke back then,” he said. Still, he was the president of the student body, and in that capacity he wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, asking for her help in creating jobs for them. (This was less crazy than it sounded, given that it was during the New Deal, when jobs were made so they could be filled.)

It must have been an unusual letter, because not only did Mrs. Roosevelt write back, saying that she had asked Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia for his help – “I got a letter from LaGuardia, saying that she had been in touch with him and that he would provide some jobs, but we didn’t get much,” Mr. Hantgan said – but she invited the young man to lunch at the White House. Times were different then. “It was just the three of us,” he said.

So how was lunch? The surreal answer surprises. “The White House is an old house,” Mr. Hantgan said. “It has a lot of vermin that they weren’t able to clean out.

“There, right across the table from me, was a big cockroach. I had a big napkin on my lap, with the seal of the United States on it. I got up and got the cockroach and killed it and put it under the table.

“We didn’t mention it, but of course they watched me do it. I felt very virtuous, killing it with that napkin with the official seal.”

Then they went on talking about jobs.

His last White House encounter was much later, during Jimmy Carter’s administration, and although it was not marred by vermin, it was far more sour. Mr. Hantgan, by then a highly successful Jewish leader, was at a briefing where an assistant secretary of state said that the only problem in the Middle East basically was Israel; which “should give up the mountaintops.” “I told him, ‘You’re no better than Hitler,'” Mr. Hantgan said.

“Then I got a call from the White House, to meet with Carter,” he continued. “He asked me why I said what I said, and he listened to me briefly and then cut me off.

“He didn’t like me – and I thought that he belonged back in his peanut company.”

But the story has gotten ahead of itself.

It’s now World War II. Mr. Hantgan, by then a trained social worker, had a perforated eardrum, so despite trying to enlist he was rejected by all the armed forces. Instead, he joined the United Service Organization, where he helped soldiers deal with the conflicts their unexpected new lives brought them. He traveled extensively on that job – that was the start of a lifelong love of travel.

Once the war was over, he began to travel the country as a social worker, eventually settling in Boston, in “a lovely apartment on Beacon Hill, just behind the Statehouse.” He was director of activities and then assistant director of the Hecht House in Dorchester. “It was a Jewish settlement house,” he said. “It was in a slum neighborhood, and I was the first real professional they hired.” Back then, he said, social welfare agencies tended to hire board members’ relatives “if they needed the job.” The executive director – his boss -had been hired in that way, “and he took a vacation the day I arrived. When I got there, I didn’t know anything about the building or the staff. I walked around, and I said ‘Who are you?’ ‘Who are you?’ ‘Who are you?’ to everyone I met.

“He came back a week and a half later, and he was introduced to me at that time.”

This is the template that Mr. Hantgan broke. It was not the way he worked.

“It was my dream job,” he said.

It was during his tenure in Boston that Mr. Hantgan met his wife, Ida Sarah Mayer – or Hon, as everyone calls her. She was a student, in Boston for a graduate degree in medical social work. He had joined a local yacht club, taken courses that allowed him to pilot a sailboat on the Charles River, bought the right sort of clothing to look right on that boat, and taken Miss Mayer, as she was then, out for a ride. He was too smitten with her to pay attention to sailing. “I turned left instead of right, the boat overturned, and we both fell into the river and had to swim,” he said. “She married me anyway.”

A few years into their marriage, the two went to Atlantic City for a National Jewish Welfare Board convention, and there they heard about a new Jewish community center planned for Englewood.

“The community was brand new,” Mr. Hantgan said. “They wanted a building where teenagers would have a place to play basketball, and to need one another.” They liked their lives in Boston, but they had driven down from Boston, and Englewood was more or less on their way home. Why not stop by and see?

There were then two synagogues in Englewood – Congregation Ahavath Torah, which was then Orthodox, as it is today, and Temple Emanu-El, which “was not affiliated with a national organization,” Mr. Hantgan said. “The rabbi then, Rabbi Margolies” – that was civil rights advocate Rabbi Israel Raphael Margolies – “came in as an Orthodox rabbi, became Conservative, and left 13 years later as Reform.”

The rabbi at Ahavath Torah was Isaac Swift, and the rabbi who came to Emanu-El soon after Mr. Hantgan did and affiliated it with the Conservative movement – and who became a friend and ally of Mr. Hantgan’s – was Arthur Hertzberg. Both men were formidable and charismatic presences.

Both shuls were small then, both built around old houses.

“The idea originally was that Emanu-El and Ahavath Torah would build a joint community center,” Mr. Hantgan said. “They would raise funds jointly, and the community center would serve both the Orthodox and the Conservatives.”

The idea of moving there was attractive. “This was a perfect opportunity to build a community that had nothing yet,” he said. “It would take a lot of work – but there also was New York City, and all its universities, only a few miles away.” Teaching seemed like an attractive way to moonlight, the Hantgans thought. So they said yes.

That was in 1949. By 1950, the Hantgans moved to Englewood, where George Hantgan became the first executive director of the Englewood Jewish Community Center.

Soon, the first JCC building rose, next to Emanu-El.

When he started, Mr. Hantgan first had to manage his new employers’ expectations. “They thought that as the executive director, I would run everything,” he said. “I would run the basketball courts, I would run all the programs, I would do everything.

“The biggest problem was with our finances. They had never really thought about it. They just thought that the money would come in – and that I would raise it. That I would do everything.

“I had to let them know that no, that wasn’t the way it was going to be.

“When I got there, they were three quarters of the way finished with the building, so when I decided that I would take the job, I set up several committees in Englewood, when I was still in Boston. We would talk by phone or letter, and I would tell the various committee chairs what they had to do prior to my coming to set up different programs, at least in title.

“The two Jewish organizations in existence when I got there were the National Council of Jewish Women and Hadassah. I went to them, and I said, ‘We will need a lot of volunteers. Can we have some from you? And we also will need some money.’

“They agreed.

“So when I came here, we started to analyze what programs we needed. I said that if this is going to be a Jewish community center, we have to serve everyone. We will need a nursery school, programs for preteens, teens, young adults, adults, and then seniors. This will require a lot of programs and a lot of money and staff, and a lot of volunteers.”

He began by hiring a basketball coach, a nursery school director, and two nursery school assistant teachers. Volunteers did a great deal of programmatic work.

He also redefined membership in the JCC. “They used to have memberships for people of different ages – teenagers, seniors, whatever – but there was no family membership.

“I said that this is to be a family institution, so we will have one fee that includes everyone in the family.”

Mr. Hantgan set the annual cost for a family then, almost three quarters of a century ago, at a jaw-dropping $35.

So where was the real money to come from?

“The building cost $250,000″ – a much bigger sum then than it is now – “and it had a mortgage of $125,000. And there were other expenses – particularly the staff. I said, ‘Where do you think the money is going to come from?’

“They said, ‘What do you mean?’

“I said, ‘Do you think that it is going to come from heaven? Or from me? Oh no! It will not. It will come from you.’

“They didn’t like that idea,” he added. But “fortunately we had three or four families who were interested in the wider picture, and receptive to the idea. I told them that not only do they have to be receptive, they have to give some money.”

They did, but then the next question was how to solicit, gather, and allocate funds. “In 1951, I said that we have to be organized to raise money,” Mr. Hantgan said.

“Until then, there was a guy, Dr. Greenwald, a dentist” – that was Dr. Louis Greenwald of Englewood – “who would go to Jewish storekeepers and say that we need money for itinerant Jews who could come by for a meal. So he’d collect maybe $20 from the community – $5, $4, $2 from different merchants. He had an adding machine, and he would add the money up on the machine and then write the names in on the paper next to them. That was the bookkeeping.

“I said, ‘No, this can’t be. We can’t do it like this. We have to be organized. If we want to build Jewish institutions here, we have to set up a Jewish federation.'”

Again, many of the people he approached objected. “Who is going to pay for it?” they asked. “You are,” he told them. He found some people – wealthy, far-sighted, and generous – who opened their wallets, and in 1951 the United Jewish Fund of Englewood and Surrounded Communities opened its doors.

“We raised about $40,000 the second year, which was better than the $20 we raised the first year. And by the third year, we raised about $2.5 million.” The federation had the biggest per-capita donor base in the country.

The community was thriving. The federation, a year younger than the JCC, was the parent organization, allocating funds it raised depending on the needs it saw.

“By the third year, we paid off our mortgage at the JCC,” Mr. Hantgan said.

At the same time that he was executive director of the JCC, Mr. Hantgan held the same position at the federation. For ten years, he refused a salary for the federation job, as part of his gift to the community; finally, in 1961, he was paid. He stayed at the JCC until 1973, and at the federation until 1983. He also was the fieldwork director at Columbia’s social work school during that time. Later, he did the same thing at Wurzweiler, Yeshiva University’s social work school.

In the late 1970s, the JCC, which long since had outgrown its Englewood building, prepared to move. “When I first came here, there were 23 Jewish families in Tenafly,” Mr. Hantgan said. “There was a gentleman’s code to keep people from renting or selling to Jews. This was an anti-Semitic town; it was German Bund country.

“That code was broken by us later, when we bought the property where the center is now.

“Charlie Klatskin” – a local philanthropist and former JCC president – “went to the town of Tenafly, which had wanted to get involved in a state program called Green Acres. In that program, a town could declare that some of its land would be preserved. No building would be allowed there. The state would have to raise half, the town the other half.”

JCC officials had identified the land they wanted; it would cost $16 million. Meanwhile, the town had raised most of what it needed; it was just $1 million short. “Charlie Klatskin went to them and said that the JCC or the federation would give them $1 million in return for 29 acres of the land,” Mr. Hantgan said.

“Charlie did this without knowing exactly how we’d raise it – but we raised it!”

The land the JCC bought is on East Clinton Avenue, the home of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades.

His legacy, Mr. Hantgan said, is “we took a community that was not very Jewish, and we developed a Jewish community that people moved to because of what we at the JCC were doing. The more people came, the more we expanded. They got their friends, the friends became involved, and it just kept growing. I think that the JCC now is probably the biggest in the country, in terms of both the activities and the budget.

“We are a great example of what a Jewish community should be.”

Once he retired from the JCC and the federation, “I decided that time was hanging on me,” Mr. Hantgan said. “So I did consulting work all around the country.” He and Hon would pack up and go – the communities hosting him “would have to give me housing, feed me, give me a car, and I’d spend seven months in a dozen different places.” They were as diverse as Norwalk, Conn., Massachusetts, Florida, and Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

“Each time I came into a different environment with different problems, but most of the problems centered around money,” Mr. Hantgan said. “The community’s approach usually was that I was the professional coming in, the consultant, who knew more than the local people.

“There was a lot of respect. I got invited to a lot of homes, and had some great experiences.”

He told a story that stuck with him forcefully. “I came into a community where the leadership had not paid their own dues for three years,” he said. “They hired me to see what I could do for them.

“I looked over the books the first day, and the second day the federation president said to me, ‘George, I’m glad you’re here. Welcome! Is there anything I can do for you?’

“And I said, ‘Yes. I have a request. I want you to resign.’

“She said, ‘What do you mean?’

“I said, ‘You set a terrible example. You haven’t paid your pledges for three years. How the hell do you expect to lead your community?’

“‘No one on the board is paying,’ she said. “I said, ‘Yes, it’s tough, but you have to resign.’

“‘I told you before you hired me that you might not like what I tell you. But either listen to me, or forget it. So either you resign – or I resign. You’re the one who’s blocking up the whole organization!'”

The president, seeing that she was beaten, started haggling over terms – finally they agreed that she would pay one third of her pledge immediately, one third in a month, and the last third in six months. Moreover, she was to make no more pledges to anyone until this one was paid in full.

“‘Then I said, ‘You will have to tell the board, and I will come with you. I will tell them the same thing I told you – either they pay their pledges or they resign from the board.'”

The meeting was “a big calamity,” Mr. Hantgan said. “Everyone was shouting at me and at each other.” But eventually the board caved, and paid, and the community turned around.

During his years at the JCC and federation, Mr. Hantgan honed his skills in asking for funds, as well as the clear philosophy behind it. He believes that people with much to give have a moral responsibility to give it, and that the act of giving it elevates them spiritually as much as it elevates the recipients materially.

“I have learned that if you need money, you do your research,” he said. “When you find a family that has a lot of money and isn’t giving any of it to any charity, you have to interpret to them their responsibility to their community. When you ask for a large sum of money, some people might become antagonistic. Some say that while they are very proud that they are being asked for such amounts, they have no intention of giving it to you.

“Then you have to tell them about their responsibility to the community.”

When Mr. Hantgan tells them, they listen.

Charles Berkowitz, the president and CEO of the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, where George and Hon Hantgan now live, was a protégée of Mr. Hantgan, and has spent many decades as both his colleague and his friend.

He is awed by Mr. Hantgan’s fundraising prowess. “How did he do it? He had the respect of everyone,” Mr. Berkowitz said.

“Everyone liked him. He was firm in his opinions, and people respected him because of his years of experience, and his means of communicating them. He wasn’t cocky. He was firm. He had strong opinions, but he listened to what you were saying to him, and he made a decision based on what he heard, and then he was strongly committed to his decisions after he made them.

“He taught many of the major givers in the community how to give. They were wealthy, but not major donors, and he taught them, brought them along. They were glad he taught them to give.

“And he’s also very bright. That helps – people respect you if you have a strong opinion, but they respect you even more if you’re usually right.”

George, he said, usually was right.

Sunni Herman is the Jewish Home’s executive vice president. She is awed by Mr. Hantgan’s knowledge, as well as his love of sharing it. “George leads a discussion group with the residents about twice a month,” she said. “He has lectured about advocacy for people with disabilities. He has participated in a Skype panel discussion with Yavneh eight-graders about bullying, about what bullying was like when he was a kid, and about how it was dealt with then.”

She also appreciates Mr. Hantgan personally. “George meets with me twice a week to mentor me about what it means to be an executive in the not-for-profit Jewish world,” she said. “He provides clarity and focus, and his advice truly is priceless.”

Mr. Hantgan so loves talking to people, and gets such great pleasure from meeting new ones, that she suggests that anyone who is interested should come to the Jewish Home, at 10 Link Drive in Rockleigh, to talk to him. He would love visitors after dinner, from 6:30 to about 9. For more information, call the home at (201) 784-1414.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner is rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, now in Closter, the shul to which George and Hon Hantgan have belonged for 64 years now.

“He is our resident kohen,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “He almost always gets the kohen aliyah.

“We also usually have an interactive part of the service, where we talk about the Torah portion. George is in his late 90s, ticking toward 100, and his hearing is challenged, but his hand is always the first one up in the discussion. And he has the most thoughtful, erudite, reflective answers. His lucidity is unquestionable.”

Rabbi Kirshner, who came to Emanu-El with a background in development from the Jewish Theological Seminary, knows good fundraising when he sees it, and he recognizes it in Mr. Hantgan. He tells of seeing Mr. Hantgan working the phones on Super Sunday, raising money for the federation. Everyone else would walk around, schmooze, take breaks, but not Mr. Hantgan. Instead, he would make call after call, introducing himself, making his pitch, thanking the person on the other end, even if there was no donation coming from the call, and then unsentimentally moving on. “There is no nonsense about it, and there is nothing disingenuous,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “He does it surgically, with a certain purity. It was clear that this was someone who made a living out of being a fundraiser. And he did it because it was the right thing to do.”

A few years ago, the shul celebrated George Hantgan. Hon and their whole family – three children, four grandchildren, and great grandchildren – were there. “His grandkids got up, and they were in tears, realizing how much he was loved,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “They said that we love him very much, because he is our grandfather, but all these other people love him because they know him.”

Avi Lewinson, the JCC’s executive director, also is a member of Emanu-El, and he remembers the shul’s celebration of Mr. Hantgan.

“Rabbi Kirshner always speaks beautifully – he did then as always – and when he finishes, I see him lean down and whisper something to George,” Mr. Lewinson reported. “George answers, and you can see that the rabbi is laughing. Really laughing hard. Then he stops, and says to everyone, ‘I know that we are running a little late, but I just have to tell you what George just said.’

“‘I just asked George what is the best thing about being 97, and he answered immediately. ‘There is no peer pressure,’ he said.”

More seriously, Mr. Lewinson said, “at the beginning, here is a guy who comes here when there is really no JCC, and he not only starts the JCC but pulls a community together.

“There were not a lot of Jews here. It was a time when they had to start Jewish institutions because Jews were not welcomed here. And then here comes George, and George built the Jewish community.

“He was a master fundraiser, and he was the one who said to his board members that he needed all three Ws – work, wealth, and wisdom.

“Now, as executive director emeritus, George has attended board meetings until last year. He would be the historian, so when somebody would say something like, ‘This is the first time we have ever done something like this,’ George would say, ‘I would like to correct you. In 1951…'”

It often is hard to recognize your founders when they still are among you. George Hantgan was a founder, a true builder, and next week he will celebrate his 98th birthday, closing in on the end of his first century.

Happy birthday, George Hantgan!

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