What do the middle school at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, the administrative wing at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, and summer camp scholarships for children who belong to Congregation Knesset Israel in Pittsfield, Mass., have in common?
Each was funded by Henry Voremberg, and none bear his name.
Voremberg, who died on Monday at 90, was the kind of philanthropist who took seriously Maimonides’ advice about giving. According to his friends, his generosity was cloaked by unusual modesty. His humility, they say, was real.
Henry Voremberg was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in January 1922. His early life was sunny – he was the child of a salesman and “a very talented seamstress,” said his son, David. “It was a very normal middle-class German-Jewish life – until he was thrown out of school in 1933 for being Jewish.” Next he enrolled in a Jewish school, played soccer, and according to David reported that “his life was exciting and fun until 1938.” That’s when the Nazis came to his apartment and took Voremberg’s father, a decorated World War I veteran, to a concentration camp.
Months later, his father was released – this was still early, when such things still could happen – but Nov. 9, 1938, was Kristallnacht. The day after, with the sounds of destruction still in his ears and broken glass and broken hearts still on the ground, the 16-year-old, at his parents’ urging, went to the United States embassy alone to apply for a visa.
The following year, the visa was granted. By that time, both of his parents were out of work, because they were Jews. His mother eked out a living for the family by running a school in her home for seamstresses, teaching them to make foundation garments.
Henry Voremberg came to the United States by himself – his parents “gave him a kiss and what little money they had” – David said. He settled in Pawtucket, R.I, where “he was taken in by working women and got his first job,” his dear friend Sy Sadinoff reports. The job – perhaps ironically, given his mother’s job- was in a brassiere factory.
Voremberg scrimped, saved, and plotted to get his parents out of Germany. Eventually, he borrowed $2,000 – $32,000 in today’s money, David Voremberg said – and somehow they obtained a visa and escaped. Once the family was reunited, Henry wanted a car, but his father said no. Not until the debt was repaid. And it was. Those basic values – do not be ruled by your desires, pay your debts, help other people – guided his life.
In 1942, Henry Voremberg enlisted in the U.S. Army; he was sent to Guam, was wounded, came back home, and settled in New York City, where he became active in the German-Jewish Ã©migrÃ© community in Washington Heights.
He met Beate Goldman, who was from a small town in Germany and whose parents had died in the Shoah, on a skiing trip. They married, he got a job in the food business, and they moved to Kew Gardens Hills, where they had two children, David and Leslie.
Soon the food business became Swissrose International, a huge cheese importing company. Voremberg sold it to Beatrice Foods International in 1985, and devoted the rest of his life, much of the fortune he made, and great portions of his huge energy and intellect to making the world better. (And he never stopped loving cheese.)
David and Leslie Voremberg grew up in Jamaica Estates, Queens; once Leslie went to college, in 1975, Henry and Beate moved to Fort Lee, and immediately they plunged into the Jewish community in Bergen County.
Henry Voremberg also went back to school. He never had the chance to graduate high school, much less go to college, although he had earned a GED. Before he retired, he had taken some classes at the New School, and later, when he had more free time, he enrolled at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work, an institution that he also supported financially.
Voremberg was one of the group of extraordinary local philanthropists – mainly about his age, mainly born either in Europe or in New York to immigrant parents – whose genuine passion for giving not only money – and they give huge sums of money – but also time, wisdom, and energy has so influenced local Jewish culture.
Voremberg’s Bergen County Jewish work involved – but was not limited to – what was then UJA Federation of Bergen County (as a board member and treasurer), the federation’s endowment foundation (as its first chair), the JCC (as a board member and treasurer), and the Jewish Home at Rockleigh (as a board member). Out of the county, he also was a strong supporter of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the New Israel Fund, among other organizations.
One of his deepest loves was the Solomon Schechter School of Bergen County. He was instrumental in moving it from its shabby small home in Temple Emanu-El of Englewood’s bedraggled Hebrew school building to its current campus in New Milford, and once that was done he was a constant and beloved presence there.
“He was a remarkable man,” Ruth Gafni, the Schechter school’s director, said. Every year, he would commemorate Kristallnacht by telling his story at the school. “He put what he saw in terms that the children could relate to,” she said. “He was an eyewitness to Jewish history at one of its darkest hours, and he wanted to talk about it not only because it was important, but because it was so instrumental in the rebirth of the Jewish people.”
He did not try to build himself up as a heroic figure. “What he would say is that he remembered the fear,” Gafni said. “He remembered the noise on the street, the shatter of the glass, the burning books. Because his father was a war vet, until then he had never feared for anything, but he remembered the fear.
“He always responded to the kids’ questions with such dignity and pride,” she continued. “Even difficult questions – like how come you didn’t resist, how come you didn’t fight back, how come your friends didn’t help you. He always tried to explain it from a human nature point of view. He wanted them to understand that horrible things can happen, but to see how strong he was when he came out of them.”
“He really wanted to have a direct impact on people’s lives,” his dear friend Dr. Sandra Gold said. “He played soccer with the kids at Schechter, and he talked to them personally. People at Schechter say that the kids really knew Henry. They have integrated him into their lives. The graduates remember him. He was a real person to them, and that also made his story real.”
“He had no title or official position at the school,” Gafni concluded, “but the title should have been Chief Keeper of the Rebuilt Jewish People.”
Henry and Beate Voremberg wintered in Florida, where they were active in the Jewish community. About 20 years ago, they moved from Bergen County to Lenox, Mass.
“He loved hiking and skiing,” Gold said. “And he loved music” – and Lenox, of course, is home to Tanglewood.
Gold said that Voremberg’s behavior at Tanglewood was typical of him. “He gave a lot of money to Tanglewood, and he got a lot of other people to give a lot of money to Tanglewood, but he would always sit outside on the grass.”
Tanglewood has more expensive seats inside the Shed, an open-sided building, but it also invites people to buy more afforable tickets that allow them to sit on the lawn, picnic, relax, and listen. “Even when the weather was bad, Henry would sit on the grass,” she said, even as his wife and their friends went inside.
About five years ago, the Vorembergs moved back to Bergen County, and their philanthropic life here resumed.
Voremberg was a strong and committed Jew. “He understood the text and he knew the score,” Gold said. “And I mean that literally, too. He had a beautiful voice.” Both in Florida and here, he would lead services, particularly in nursing homes, where shut-ins had been deprived of them. Until the very end, he led Kabbalat Shabbat services in the nursing home where he lived.
“He would come to shul every Shabbat morning for the last five years,” Rabbi David-Seth Kirschner of Temple Emanu-El of Closter said. (The Vorembergs had belonged to the shul before their move, when it was in Englewood, and rejoined it in Closter on their return.)
“He would sit in the same seat every week. He loved to daven from his seat, and occasionally from the amud,” the pulpit. “Even when he could no longer walk easily, he would walk up the stairs without assistance, and then he would sing in a booming, beautiful voice. He would look frail going up the stairs, but he sounded strong and beautiful.
“He had one of the firmest handshakes around, and he made great jokes,” Kirschner continued “He was short in stature, but he looked intimidating until he took your hand.
“He was a very generous man. “I would come to him wearing different yarmulkes, both when I worked at JTS” – in its development department – “and now at the synagogue, and he was very generous.
“He was a real giant.”
And he was an optimist.
“In one of my last visits, he told me that he was 90 and a half,” Gold said. “He was very proud to say it. That told me that he cherished every minute of his life. He had a lot of friends, and many of them were younger than he was. People were attracted to his optimism.”
Gold said that Eli Spielman of Teaneck, another of Voremberg’s close friends, often thinks of a Shaw quote usually attributed to Robert F. Kennedy when he thinks of Voremberg: “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not?”
A good epitaph for a good man.
Henry Voremberg’s wife, Beate, died in 2010. He is survived by his son and daughter-in-law, David Voremberg and Fran Snyder; his daughter and son-in-law, Leslie and Roy Kozupsky, and four grandchildren.