Stanlee Stahl of West Orange, the executive vice president of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, has received the Polish order of merit from President Andrzej Duda.
The presidential award is bestowed to a foreigner who has rendered a great service to Poland.
Ms. Stahl, 78, was commended for her West Orange organization’s financial support of aged and needy Poles who had rescued Jews during the Holocaust. She is the first American Jewish leader to receive the medal.
Mr. Duda was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly when he presented the award to Ms. Stahl in mid-September.
“It is a privilege for me to represent the JFR and the important work that we have been doing over the last 31 years,” Ms. Stahl said in response to the award.
Since 1992, the JFR has supported more than 3,600 Righteous Gentiles living in Poland; it has sent them more than $37 million. Those Righteous Gentiles are recognized by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust authority.
Though JFR funds reach Righteous Gentiles in many countries, Poland has the largest number of recognized rescuers.
“They chose not to be bystanders,” said Ms. Stahl, who belongs to Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange. “They had both the courage to care and the courage to act.”
The organization was founded by the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis to repay a debt of gratitude to non-Jews who risked their lives and the lives of their families to save Jewish lives. The organization perpetuates that legacy with a national Holocaust education program for teachers.
“We teach the history of the Holocaust, but we also teach about the rescued and the rescuers,” Ms. Stahl said. “They are real role models for our students as to what somebody can do when things are really bad.”
At its height, JFR was sending money to 1,850 people. Many of them have died, and now 100 people still are receiving aid. “They chose not to be bystanders,” Ms. Stahl said. “They had both the courage to care and the courage to act.”
Recipients get monthly checks; funds also have been sent for other, specific reasons, including home renovations. A Krakow woman with a leg injury had her bathtub made into an accessible walk-in shower. Another Pole living in 20 square meters had a tiny bathroom installed.
The JFR has covered part of the expense for cataract surgery for another righteous gentile. A rabbi in Poland who runs a kosher food pantry receives JFR funds so the Righteous Gentiles can get food packages in Warsaw. “Our commitment is to send them money until the day they pass away,” Ms. Stahl said.
A financial contribution has gone to a family who hid a Jewish mother, father, and their two sons throughout the war. One of the sons went to Israel, became very religious, and had 12 sons. The other son went to Brooklyn and also had many children.
The Brief family, including children and grandchildren, met their aging rescuers in Poland. “There are almost 400 Jews alive today because this family saved a mother, a father, and two boys,” Ms. Stahl said.
Ms. Stahl went to JFR from 20 years of public service in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “I was influenced by John F. Kennedy saying, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,’” she said.
Her uncle, Stanley Goldblum, for whom she is named, was killed in World War 11. “In my family there’s always been a Holocaust and World War 11 component,” she said.
Before joining the JFR as its executive vice president, Ms. Stahl established Extra Helping, an organization in New Jersey that fights hunger. She has consulted for non-profits, speaks on fundraising and proposal writing, and teaches a grant-writing course. She has lived in Israel, where she worked for Magen David Adom, Israel’s emergency medical services program.
In July, Ms. Stahl received a governmental award from the veterans administration in Poland, the first American Jewish person to be honored.
The Righteous Gentiles are now mostly in their nineties. “Our beloved survivors are passing on as are our rescuers,” she said. “This award is shared with the rescuers and with members of my board, who do the fundraising and make it possible for us to keep our commitments to these people.”