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Beyond rubies

Philanthropist Syril Rubin remembered as an extraordinary person

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Syril Rubin in August. photo provided by family

It might have been something in the water. Surely it was something in the air. There was something that made the generation of north Jersey Jews born in the first few decades of the twentieth century into extraordinary philanthropists.

Syril Rubin of Fort Lee, who died on Monday, was one of them.

She and her late husband, Leonard, were among the builders and then the pillars of the community – particularly the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly and the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, along with a host of other local groups – as well as organizations across the country and around the world, including the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Their partnership was cast in the traditional mold – he did most of the public work, and she supplied the warmth and grace that backed him up.

As her oldest child, Daniel Rubin, who lives in Englewood and like his father is a former JCC president, said, “She did all the things that people don’t read about in newspapers, and don’t get their names on buildings or rooms for.”

The Rubins were among the founders of the JCC, and Syril Rubin launched many programs there; her interest in culture, arts, and public affairs secured such speakers as Bruno Bettelheim, George McGovern, and Arthur Schlesinger. They were formative in creating the JCC’s Judaic scholar in residence program, which was the first program of its kind in the country. For 30 years, the Rubin Run has encouraged people to be healthy, challenge themselves, and enjoy doing it. Her care for the elderly ensured that handicapped-accessible transportation would make it possible for people to get to the JCC so they could benefit from the many programs it offers them. Her support of the JCC Adult Reach Center helps people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. At the other end of life, her commitment to the JCC’s nursery school, which bears her family’s name, and to special needs children, has helped many children grow, develop, learn, and laugh.

And she did not only give money; her work was hands-on.

“She had a personal touch with people,” her son said. “She would have lunch with the residents of the Jewish Home, or with the citizens at the JCC.” Last summer, she “invited a dozen or 15 of the Jewish Home residents to her house for lunch. She did things quietly; she did them because they were the right thing to do. She never looked for anything in return – no recognition, no thanks. She just did them because they were the right thing to do.”

Syril Nelkin was born in West New York in 1928, the daughter of Russian immigrants. Her father worked in the diamond district in Manhattan brokering raw diamonds. “He had a way about him,” said Syril’s daughter, Leslie Weinberg of Tenafly. “He would buy a diamond for, say, $100, and he’d turn around and sell it for $80, and he’d say, ‘That’s okay. He’s a good guy.’ He wanted to give everyone a good deal.”

Still, “somehow I guess he figured out how to make a little profit. They had a very nice apartment, a nice car, and they were able to do nice things. She always had nice clothes.”

Syril Nelkin and Lenny Rubin knew each other since Syril was 12, “but the truth is that she didn’t really like him then,” Weinberg said. “He was a little skinny, and just not for her. But he was very bright, and he’d skipped several grades, and then he was drafted into the navy during the war” – World War II – “and when he came home, he went to the JCC in West New York, wearing his uniform, and that did it.” They got married – Syril, who had studied at NYU for about a year and a half, was 19. “They really had a quite a love affair,” their daughter said.

Lenny Rubin grew up in a “very typical immigrant home, with three siblings, multiple aunts and uncles; they all shared beds and shared rooms,” Weinberg said. “And it was a kosher home, with traditional Jewish values.” On the other hand, “my mother grew up with only some very very basic traditions. She knew she was Jewish, but beyond that she didn’t know that much.”

These two different microcultures clashed at their wedding.

“My mother was all excited, a very happy bride-to-be, and she and her parents planned everything. It was going to be at a beautiful hotel. They had already sent out the invitations. And then somehow the conversation came up with my father’s parents about the food being kosher.

“I don’t think that at that point my mother knew what kosher was. My father didn’t know what to do. My mother went to her father and told him. He threw his arms up and said ‘Kosher? You want kosher?’ They ended up having a small dinner – I think it was at Lou G. Siegel – because that was the way my father’s family was going to be comfortable.”

Her mother, Weinberg said, always wanted other people to be comfortable.

Except for her brief stint at NYU, Rubin always lived in New Jersey, moving from West New York to Leonia to Englewood to Tenafly and then finally to Fort Lee.

Lenny Rubin owned Carolace Embroidery in Edgewater, which grew to be a large and very profitable enterprise. They had three children – Daniel, Robert, who lives in San Francisco, and Leslie.

When they moved to Bergen County, they joined the JCC, which then was at Temple Emanu-El of Englewood (which since has moved north and become Emanu-El of Closter). “It was at that point that the seeds of philanthropy began to germinate. My father originally joined the JCC because he wanted to play basketball, and then he started coaching.” But then their interest in philanthropy “just grew and was nurtured over many years by the many wonderful people they came in contact with, and from their own feelings, starting at a very early point in their relationship, that they were blessed.

“They felt that they were so fortunate that my father had a business that allowed them to do it. There were so many people who were less fortunate. They wanted to give back.”

The culture in which they found themselves “really was a culture of genuine philanthropy,” Weinberg added. “It was not just give back to the community, it was give back to everyone in every way. It was not just support one type of organization, it was support those who can’t help themselves; teach those who can’t help themselves so that they can.

“My mother was the support system and the force behind my father,” she said. When the time came to move the JCC from Englewood to Tenafly, where it is today, “his involvement was about building an important community center. It was about raising the money for it. For her, it was about bringing the best cultural programs to the center, which would then bring the people.” In other words, he built the structure, and she filled it with life.

Syril Rubin was “a very proper person,” her daughter added. “Everything should be done the right way, the appropriate way.” That was one of the lessons she taught her children. Another was “to appreciate beauty in nature; to be excited in anticipation of thunder and lightning. She would take me to the Philharmonic and the ballet. As a little girl I liked it, but I might have been a little edgy in my seat, but when I was an adult we’d look at each other and laugh and remember how many times we’d seen each ballet, and how we’d see something different in it each time.”

Daniel Rubin concurs. “She made my brother and sister and me play the piano and go to concerts and eat healthy food and read poetry. All of which we hated. But the seeds were planted; as adults these are things we really enjoy today because of her example.”

At the end of her life, she taught her children and the community another lesson – how to die with grace. As soon as she was diagnosed, in August, her daughter remembers, her mother said, “‘Everyone should know that I’ve lived the most wonderful life, with the most wonderful friends and the most loving and caring family. And it’s okay. I’m ready to go. Nobody should be sad. Death is part of life. This is okay.’

“I said to her, at the very end, ‘Mom, you kind of set the bar very high,'” Weinberg said.

The Rubins belonged to many synagogues, including Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, where Daniel Rubin and his family belong, and Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly, Leslie Weinberg’s family synagogue. They used to belong to Temple Emanuel when it was in Englewood, and a few years ago Syril Rubin rejoined it in Closter.

“She really was an extraordinary lady,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Ahavath Torah. “She came to her Jewish identity through her association with Leonard, but she really embraced it so that it became absolutely natural to her. She had a love affair with Israel” – her daughter estimated that her parents had gone to Israel more than 40 times. “She had strong opinions and she did not hesitate to express them, but she wanted always to do the right thing and make others comfortable.

“When someone is ill, that strips away all superficialities. When I went to visit her toward the end, she was so grateful and started talking to me about me. She insisted on getting up and walking me to the door. And there were no pretenses left by then. This was very real. It was who she was.

“She was a very good person.”

Rabbi David Seth Kirshner of Emanu-El echoed Goldin. “She was a gem of a human being,” he said. “She was very regal, but she was also very approachable. Very warm, and also very demanding of herself. She was incredibly positive and loving, so even as she got sick I would go to her home and she would thank me and hug me and kiss me and ask me about my children.

“It was in her DNA.”

Charles Berkowitz, the president of the Jewish Home, agrees. He’d known both Rubins since 1964, when he did his fieldwork for his social work degree at the JCC. “They were a very special couple,” he said.

The Jewish Standard’s publisher, James Janoff, also remembers Syril Rubin with great fondness. He had known both Syril and Lenny Rubin for most of his life. “During our last conversation – and we had many – Syril reminded me of the uniqueness of our community and how important it was for it to remain vibrant for future generations,” he said. “She said the Standard had a shared obligation in chronicling the progress and I assured her we would.

“There was lots to learn from Syril Rubin. My ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ partner? Maybe, but I came away from each phone call with a renewed sense of purpose. Syril knew what was important in life and there were times when I needed that reminder.

“Lenny sure picked a winner. I am forever grateful to have known them both.”

Dr. Sandra Gold, another former JCC president, told a story that she said was typical of her friend Syril. “Shortly after I met her, she called me to ask me to come to a meeting. I told her that I couldn’t, because I was having a meeting at my house and I needed to bake a cake. Within three hours a cake that she had baked for me was at my house. And I’d known her maybe three weeks.

“This was typical of her; reaching out to people, seeing what they needed. You didn’t have to ask her. She knew.

“If you look at the array of endowments that she and Lenny implemented throughout our community, you will see populations that need an extra hand. That’s who she chose to help – the frail elderly, people with disabilities. Those are areas that are not popular.

“She was a gute neshuma,” Gold concluded. “A good soul.”

Syril Rubin is survived by her sister, Helen Nelkin, three children and their spouses – Daniel and Eileen Rubin, Robert and Toby Rubin, and Leslie and Mark Weinberg – 12 grandchildren, and 10 great grandchildren.

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