Community mourns ‘lion of a man’

Community mourns ‘lion of a man’

Charles J. Rothschild Jr., 86, a national and local leader in the Reform movement, died Sunday at his Teaneck home.

Described by his daughter Carol Kaufman of Ridgewood as a highly charismatic and principled individual, he had a long list of accomplishments in Jewish life, including top leadership roles at the Union for Reform Judaism and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He was a past president of the United Jewish Community of Bergen County (now the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey), the Teaneck Jewish Community Council, and Temple Emeth in Teaneck. In addition, he was a former chairman of the board at Hackensack University Medical Center. At one time, he was on the editorial advisory board of The Jewish Standard.

This 1986 photograph of Charles Rothschild "is the way everybody remembers him," says his daughter, Carol Kaufman.

"He was a lion of a man — strong willed, direct, and above all, kind," said Rabbi Daniel Freelander of Ridgewood, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Rothschild was chairman of the board of the URJ when it was called Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and remained an honorary board member for life. As regional director for the organization in the 1980s, Freelander met and befriended Rothschild and his wife, Margery, who was killed in an automobile accident almost exactly 14 years ago. She was 7′. The Jewish Standard’s editorial on April ‘9, 1994 began, "The Jewish community is still in shock over the tragic news," and the front-page headline was "An entire community is bereft." That was a quote from Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the UAHC, in his eulogy for Margery Rothschild. (The editorial noted that his presence at her funeral was "an indication of the regard in which this family is held.")

Charles Rothschild was badly injured in the accident and never resumed his active communal work, but among his many lasting contributions is the system by which URJ member congregations fund the organization and Hebrew Union College.

"He was an architect of that system," said Freelander. "He was responsible for revitalizing it through his aggressive leadership, clarity of vision, and commitment to the cause."

Rabbi Steven Sirbu of Temple Emeth was to officiate at Rothschild’s funeral at the synagogue on Thursday, along with Cantor Ellen Tilem. From there, the body will be flown for interment to Rothschild’s hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind.

After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1943 and serving as a pilot for 40 combat missions over Europe during World War II, the newlywed Rothschild relocated to this area to open the New York sales office of Campus Sweater and Sportswear. He eventually became president and CEO of the company, which was later renamed Megastar Apparel Group.

He and his wife became involved with Temple Emeth from the start of their East Coast lives. Margery Rothschild served as sisterhood president, among her many Jewish communal roles.

"He was one of the most respected members of the congregation," said Sirbu. The rabbi noted that Rothschild — affectionately known as "Chuck" — attended the synagogue’s 60th anniversary service in December.

"We asked all past presidents to line up on the bimah and pass the Torah one to another, and he was our oldest living past president there. It made the service so heart-warming to have him present that evening."

Mimi Sigel of Hackensack recalled that the Rothschilds had invited her and her late husband, Rabbi Louis Sigel, to dinner the night they moved to this township in 1960. Louis Sigel became Temple Emeth’s spiritual leader at that time and served in that post for 3′ years.

"Chuck was the outgoing president as we were arriving," she said. "Over the years … he became an elder statesman, and I think that his regional and national positions brought great prestige to Temple Emeth."

Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, chancellor of Hebrew Union College, knew Rothschild for some two decades. "He was a member of our long-range planning and executive committees, and was very involved in the development of our school," said Gottschalk. "He was a very outspoken and articulate man who … endeared himself to faculty and students. He loved rabbis and felt that good ones are essential to the future of the Jewish people and the Reform movement."

Gottschalk described Rothschild as positive and forward-looking. "Some people make their reputations by being against things. But not him. He was always supportive."

The Rothschilds’ children — in addition to Kaufman, Charles III (Charlie) of California, and Judy Christensen of Massachusetts — gave them six grandsons, who range in age from ‘0 to 31. The oldest grandson, Spencer Christensen, is to be married next week, said his aunt. Charlie Rothschild and his wife, Susan, are active in the Reform movement on the West Coast and nationally, just as the elder Rothschilds were.

Kaufman remembers her father as devoted and fun-loving. "He would come up with crazy nicknames and silly sayings," she said with a laugh. "And he was like a bad little boy; when Mom wasn’t looking he would take his mashed potatoes and smile and squish them through his teeth, and we’d all laugh and Mom would yell at him."

She noted that his religious and civic devotion garnered him not only many awards and public accolades, but also the respect of all who knew him. "He had a community that he cherished and that cherished him," Kaufman said.

Rebecca Kaplan Boroson contributed to this report.

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