Giving, getting, and remembering

Giving, getting, and remembering

The life, death, and many kindnesses of Robert Miller

Robert Miller received a kidney years after he donated blood marrow. (Photos courtesy Sara Lee Kessler)
Robert Miller received a kidney years after he donated blood marrow. (Photos courtesy Sara Lee Kessler)

We’ve all been taught about the importance of giving to others, and how the more selflessly you give, the better the act of giving is.

We’ve all been taught of the Rambam’s levels of tzedakah, and how the sanctity of the act of giving rises with the lack of selfishness, and even of self-awareness, in the gift. We all know how hard that is, and we have some idea that it comes more easily to some than to others of us.

We also know, from popular culture, about the idea of what goes around comes around, about how sometimes you get back what you give, particularly if that isn’t why you gave in the first place.

Theology is complicated, and this isn’t in any way theology. It’s just what we pick up from the cultural ether.

Rarely to we come across a story like Robert Miller’s. Mr. Miller, who lived in Englewood and died on October 12, had acted out of extraordinary generosity when he gave bone marrow to a young man he did not know. That was in 1999; it happened about 10 years after he’d let his cheek be scraped to enter his DNA information into the National Marrow Donor program in Minneapolis.

Because bone marrow has to be donated by someone who matches the recipient closely, it is unusual for people who are not related to each other to be able to donate to each other. But Ashkenazi Jews are a genetically closely bound community, and sometimes it works. Mr. Miller matched with a young man in Skokie, Illinois. It turns out that their families came from the same Eastern European town. “They were a perfect match, 10 antigens out of 10,” Mr. Miller’s wife, the journalist Sara Lee Kessler, said.

So Mr. Miller became what is called an altruistic donor, a term that is not complimentary but instead is straightforward and literal.

The man from Skokie, Matthew Paul, had leukemia and would have died without Mr. Miller’s bone marrow; he is thriving cancer-free today.

It was the best thing I have ever done in my life,” Mr. Miller told me, a few years ago. “It was very humbling.”

The two men met years later, in a public ceremony in Twins Field of Dreams in Minnesota. It was a deeply moving experience for both of them and gave the National Marrow Donor program many new potential donors.

“As long as Matt is alive, Bob is alive,” Ms. Kessler said.

That was the going around part. The coming around side happened when Mr. Miller learned that his kidneys were failing. Although he resisted the idea, eventually he realized that dialysis could not save him.

Working with a Jewish organization called Renewal, which matches chains of donors so that people can donate on behalf of people even if they do not match them well enough to be able to give them organs directly, instead giving where they can and getting credit for their own recipient, Mr. Miller got a donated kidney.

That was in 2019, and “it gave him three and a half more years life,” Ms. Kessler said.

Mr. Miller was a very well-loved man — his bone marrow donation was typical for him, and the outpouring of offers for kidney donations was typical of the reactions he inspired in others.

A few weeks after he died, during Sukkot, sitting in her house, filled with pictures of them, their children, their parents, and their community, filled with sunlight and sadness and love, Ms. Kessler, who is a news anchor, correspondent, and podcaster for IHeartRadio and WNBC radio, talked about her husband.

Robert Miller was born in Manhattan in 1950 and grew up in Port Chester, in Westchester County. He and his younger sister, now Debbie Miller Koutz, went to public school, “and became religious when he was 15.” His family already was Conservative; their home was kosher, and they put up a sukkah. But when he was 15, “family lore says, he saw a documentary on the Holocaust on TV that really moved him.” That’s when he became more observant. “That’s why he chose to go to YU, starting in a mechinah — a preparatory program called the James Striar School of General Jewish Studies.”

His degree was in communications, like his wife’s, and when he graduated, he started a small ad agency.

His mother, Gertrude, was born in Russia and came to this country when she was 12; she became a stay-at-home mom. His American-born father, Jules, made ladies’ coats at a company called Jules Miller; when Bob’s ad agency failed to launch, he joined his father and the firm became Jules Miller and Sons. The showroom was on Seventh Avenue, but the workshop was in Passaic.

Clockwise from left, Sara Lee Kessler, Robert and Jonathan Miller, and Jamie, Joshua, Elizabeth, and Rebecca Levine.

“The coats were really beautiful,” Ms. Kessler said. “They were fashion-forward but affordable. His biggest customer was Nordstrom, and the next biggest was Macy’s.”

“The company was very successful in business for 52 years,” Ms. Kessler said, with some bitterness. “It shut down in 1999, after the huge sucking sound of NAFTA,” the North American Free Trade Agreement. “They only wanted to manufacture in the U.S., and NAFTA made that impossible.”

Some of the company’s coats still are available online, which in itself is a testament to their durability. They’re well-tailored and brightly colored, many of them the kind of period pieces that have become classics.

“And then they launched a second line, Sara Roberts,” Ms. Kessler continued. “It was fantastic. A lot of beautiful coats. At some point early on, I expressed a desire for ladies’ suits. I was anchoring the news on Channel 9, and I didn’t want the standard colors. I didn’t want black, navy, or red to be my only choices. I said, ‘How about turquoise? Or cobalt blue? Or purple? Or fuchsia?’

“They sold so well! And I had the most beautiful wardrobe.”

During his time at Jules Miller and Sons, “Bob was senior vice president, and he was a concept person,” Ms. Kessler said. ‘He selected the fabrics. He traveled extensively in Wales, Ireland, Scotland, England, Germany, Italy — any place where there were beautiful fabrics. He came back with great ideas.

“He was very creative.”

Before he went back to the coat business, Bob met Sara Lee.

She’s a native Texan; her father, Dr. Edward Kessler, was a captain in the Army Medical Corps, who was doing his residency at the VA hospital in Dallas. Later, the Kessler family moved to Albany, then to Morristown, and then to Youngstown, Ohio, where Dr. Kessler became chief of nephrology. Ms. Kessler graduated from high school in Ohio, but she went back to the University of Texas at Austin for college, and then for a master’s degree in journalism.

They met when she was 30 and he was 31; she was a thoroughly secular Jew but decided that she wanted to marry someone appropriate and do it fairly soon. Appropriate, she decided, meant Jewish. She was living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side but was so busy that when she developed an urge for a bagel and lox, she didn’t know where Zabar’s was. She decided to ask — “and who should I ask, the roly-poly doorman or this tall handsome stranger” who just happened to be walking by? That tall handsome stranger, but of course, was Robert Miller.

As their relationship deepened, so did Ms. Kessler’s relationship to Judaism, and eventually she decided to take on the obligations of Orthodoxy. She and Mr. Miller married in 1983. Their wedding was in the courtyard of the Helmsley Palace Hotel; she had to get special permission from Leona Helmsley, Ms. Kessler recalled. “My wedding aired on TV, and the co-anchor, Tom Dunn, said, ‘We want to give big congratulations to Sara Lee Kessler and Robert Miller, who got married yesterday.’ The clip they showed was under the chuppah, when Robert broke the glass.

“I got about a thousand letters from people saying things like ‘I always knew you were Jewish!’ or ‘I am so proud that you are Jewish!’ Viewers were so invested.”

They moved to Englewood and had two children, two grandchildren, and 39 happy years together.

“We became part of the modern Orthodox community in Englewood, and at Ahavath Torah,” Ms. Kessler said. “We have deep roots in the community. The love and support from the community are amazing. Our friends here are like family. We really always felt so supported. We have so many close friends.” Their children both went to Moriah, and then their daughter, Rebecca, went to Ramaz, and their son, Jonathan, went to Frisch.

Meanwhile, Mr. Miller kept reinventing himself. “In 1999, after the coat business went under, he said that he thought it would be really cool to work for the U.S. Census.” (The Constitution mandates a census every decade, so there was a counting underway in 2000.)

“He worked for the Census Bureau that year, counting people, going door to door,” Ms. Kessler said. “He was a team leader, and he had so much fun.

“The team would meet in Starbucks in Englewood. He would take one of our golden retrievers, named Dakota. He called her Census Dog.”

Next, Mr. Miller worked through Kessler Communications, Ms. Kessler’s marketing and PR firm. He worked for causes in which he believed; he organized two major rallies that brought American Jews to Israel in 2001 and 2002. In particular the 2002 rally “brought hundreds of Jews and Christians from what turned out to be six continents to Israel to fight terrorism with tourism,” Ms. Kessler said. “At the height of the Second Intifada, Bob organized it and got Shmuel Goldin,” the rabbi of Ahavath Torah who since has made aliyah -– and who, to bring everything around full circle, stressed the importance of kidney donation at the shul, and whose wife, Barbara, donated her kidney — “to spearhead it.

“It was just phenomenal.”

Mr. Miller did a great deal of work for the Coptic Christian community in Jersey City, particularly when it was targeted by a murderer who never has been caught. He worked for American war veterans who had been on the Bataan death march in the Philippines and were forced into slave labor by their Japanese captors. The veterans who survived those horrors were “not getting any restitution.” Many died young. “They decided to go after the Japanese companies, and Bob organized a news conference for them. It was covered by all the major news organizations.”

As a result of his social action work, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey recruited Mr. Miller. “He was involved with the doctors and dentists division in fundraising, and he organized Jersey to Jerusalem, another highly successful mission to Israel,” Ms. Kessler said.

Next, he reinvented himself again, this time as the owner and operator of Silver Streak Limousine, a highly successful company that “won the Readers’ Choice award in the Jewish Standard in 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021,” Ms. Kessler said.

When Mr. Miller and Ms. Kessler realized that he would need a kidney donor, they told their rabbi, Chaim Poupko, who took over Ahavath Torah after Rabbi Goldin moved to Israel. “Rabbi Poupko wrote a letter about Bob, and a pre-Yom Kippur appeal, and the next day people were flooding the switchboard,” Ms. Kessler said. “There were two dozen calls. Rabbi Poupko started this process.”

Their children are flourishing, she reported. Their son, Jonathan, “made aliyah to serve in Israeli naval intelligence. He was a sergeant first class.” Now, back in New Jersey after two years in the navy, he is an executive chef in a ghost kitchen, and he’s known as Kosher Chef Jonny. Their daughter, Rebecca, is a lawyer, although she has chosen not to practice, but instead to stay home with her two children, Jamie, 10, and Elizabeth, 7, and to work at a craft business called “Elizabeth’s Closet.” Her husband, Joshua Levine, is an MD/Ph.D. endocrinologist who works for Eli Lilly. They had been living in Chicago but moved back east when they learned how sick Rebecca’s father was. “They bought a house in Scarsdale over chol hamoed Pesach, and they were with him here at what was Bob’s last seder, with cooking by Kosher Chef Jonny,” Ms. Kessler said.

She’s glad for that memory, as she is for the many other joyous ones she has about the very good man she married nearly four decades ago, Ms. Kessler said.

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