How do you address a puzzle master, longtime Mensa member, licensed psychologist, and university professor?
Clearly, precisely, and hopefully without too much stammering.
When that formidable woman also is a philanthropist, the intimidation factor is even greater. But so too is your admiration for her dedication to the cause of education.
“Education is the path to success,” said Dr. Abbie Salny of Wayne, 93, a member of the town’s Shomrei Torah, who recently made a large contribution to the synagogue. A woman of considerable knowledge, Dr. Salny wants to ensure that the next generation is equally well prepared. To that end, she has asked that her donation be used for education.
“Her generosity will allow us to do the kinds of things we only dreamed about,” Shomrei Torah’s rabbi, Randall Mark, said. “Her gift will help the synagogue provide scholarships for our members’ children and enable us to do programs that in the past we would have skipped because of the costs involved. It also will help to bolster the synagogue’s adult education program, covering costs of speakers who previously would have been beyond our capacity.”
In speaking with Dr. Salny — an honorary president emerita of Mensa international, who still is consulted on Mensa Foundation matters — this writer’s first mistake was in volunteering the information that I, too, love crossword puzzles.
“I don’t do crossword puzzles,” Dr. Salny said. “I do math, logic, and English. Fewer people do that.” Her puzzle career began when a friend, fellow Mensa officer Marvin Grosswith, suggested that she co-write a book with him, “since you know about IQ testing and other testing.” She knew quite a bit more than that. She held a doctorate in education and was a full professor and psychology department chair at Montclair State University.
In an article on the history of the university’s psychology department, Professor Thomas B. Perera documented Dr. Salny’s contribution: “In 1970, a School Psychology Certification Program was created by Professor Herbert Hauer with the assistance of Dr. Abbie Salny…. During the years that Abbie Salny (nee Shapiro) was at the helm of the School Psychology program, Montclair State graduated dozens of students who went on to become the psychologists of school systems throughout all the counties of the state of New Jersey as well as out of state. Dr. Salny was particularly active in recruiting Hispanic students, and Montclair graduated an impressive number of Hispanic school psychologists.”
Dr. Salny also found time to write puzzle books, including “The Mensa Genius Quiz a Day Book,” “The True Cognoscente’s Culture Test: You Know Your I.Q.—Now Learn Your C.Q. (Culture Quotient),” “The Mensa Book of Words, Word Games, Puzzles, & Oddities,” and several other works designed to challenge the mind.
The daughter of Carl and Edith Cooperman Feinstein of Elmwood Park (despite the Perera article, she was not nee Shapiro — that was her first husband’s last name), Abbie, born on July 3, 1925, graduated from New York University and received her master’s and doctoral degrees from Montclair State and Rutgers University, respectively.
She married Jerome (Jerry) Salny in 1973 — the wedding was performed by the late Rabbi Jerome Blass, longtime religious leader of Congregation Beth Israel of Northern Valley in Bergenfield, family counselor, and former columnist for this newspaper — and was forced to put down her pencil when her husband died, in 2005. “I’m legally blind,” Dr. Salny said. “I relied on my husband,” who was her proofreader.
Jerry Salny, a graduate of MIT, “was an engineer,” his wife said. “He sold foreign car parts.” Before they married, he served in the Air Force, she added; she clearly is proud of her husband’s military record. “He went in July 1941 as a second lieutenant and was discharged in October 1945 as a lieutenant colonel, with a Bronze Star.”
While Dr. Salny did not lose family members in the Holocaust, many of her husband’s relatives were murdered. The youngest of 15 children, Jerry Salny came to the United States on his 13th birthday. He never could trace exactly what happened to many of his relatives who stayed in Europe, Dr. Salny said.
Rabbi Mark recalled that the Salnys used to go to Paris for the High Holidays. Although Dr. Salny no longer travels, she would return to Paris if she could, she said. She’s fluent in French, and she loves the food, art, and culture of that European city.
Dr. Salny is very matter of fact about joining Mensa. “I took the exam,” she said. “They had a record of my IQ.” Describing her work with the organization, she said that she was very active in the Mensa Foundation, “which is committed to education and scholarship,” awarding scholarships and research grants and holding social events.
“They do a lot of educational work,” she said. Through the organization, “I’ve met some very interesting people.” She has donated the copyrights for her books to the foundation.
Asked if anything has particularly pleased her over her almost 94 years, Dr. Salny said she has had “a reasonably happy life and a wonderful husband. That pleased me.” What bothers her now is the rise of hate crimes.
She believes strongly in the power of education and said she wanted to ensure that her estate would be used to perpetuate that goal. She brought up the idea of the donation during a Purim visit from Rabbi Mark.
“They were longtime members,” Rabbi Mark said, noting that the Salnys joined the shul in 1990, soon after they moved to Wayne. Before that, they lived in Paterson and Elmwood Park. Each Purim, it is the rabbi’s custom to check in on homebound seniors in the congregation and bring them mishloach manot. After delivering his Purim basket, “We were sitting and chatting and she said that, with the change in tax laws, rather than leave her money as a bequest, she wanted to give it to us now.”
As a result of the gift, “In the coming year, members won’t have to pay tuition on top of dues,” Rabbi Mark said. “The board also voted to open our religious school to nonmembers of the shul.” And while this is wonderful news for the synagogue, “If her generosity inspires others to give, we’ll be in a much better place.”