Sometimes it’s necessary to use superlatives to describe someone. Charles Klatskin, who died on September 29, was such a person.
The phrases used to remember him include such absolutes as “a leader of profound significance,” “an unbelievable businessman,” “a passionate, outspoken guy,” and “a great guy who’d always go the extra mile.”
At the very least, in the words of community leader Sandra Gold of Englewood — who, with her late husband, Dr. Arnold Gold, were very close to Lynne and Charles Klatskin, both personally and in communal activities — “He was involved in everything good. He made a really big difference in the community.”
Described by the leadership of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades as “a visionary founder” of that institution, in 1975 Mr. Klatskin identified the 29-acre tract of land that would become home to the JCC. He negotiated with the town of Tenafly for approval to develop the land, and directly oversaw the design, development, construction, and opening of the facility. Nor did his help end there. In the years since, he “consistently provided expertise and guidance to ensure the facility was maintained and renovated when needed,” Dr. Gold said.
“Charlie and Lynne understood the critical importance of Jewish space and the need for building local Jewish institutions,” she continued. “They believed architectural structures were essential to the creation of a sustainable Jewish community. With his Wharton business degree, a career in real estate, and extensive knowledge of construction, Charlie had the background, skills, and knowledge to ‘build’ our Jewish community.”
But he did more than build. As president of the JCC board from 1984 to 1988, he “focused on expanding programs and services for seniors, individuals with special needs, and Jewish educational programs,” Dr. Gold said. He also helped launch the Jewish Scholar-in-Residence program, which “served as a national model that dozens of other JCCs emulated.”
In 1989, the Klatskins’ 29-year-old son, Neil, died. The Neil Klatskin Summer Camps at the JCC are named in his memory.
In an interview marked by the raw emotion of losing a longtime friend, past JCC executive director Avi Lewinson called Charles Klatskin “a great man. I knew him for 30 years. He was one of the first people I met when I came for my interview.
“They didn’t come any tougher, but he always had your back. If you or your family had a problem, he’d go the extra mile.”
Mr. Lewinson, who maintained an ongoing relationship with Mr. Klatskin, recalls going often to his home for dinner. “He was some cook,” Mr. Lewinson said. “And he was a wine connoisseur. He had thousands of bottles.” Mr. Klatskin also was outspoken, Mr. Lewinson added. “He knew how he felt, and he made his views known. He was one of the proponents of keeping the JCC doors closed on Shabbat because he believed it was important. He was an unbelievable guy.
“I loved the man.”
The JCC was only one of the organizations the Klatskins supported. They also were active with the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, Temple Emanu-El in Closter, and Englewood Health.
Melanie Cohen, the executive director of the Jewish Home Foundation, described Mr. Klatskin as “a longtime and devoted supporter.” She knew him since 1998, when construction on the Jewish Home at Rockleigh began. “Being very active in commercial real estate, he was the person who initially led us to the property in Rockleigh,” she said. “He found out it was in bank receivership and we could buy it at an attractive price. It was due to his hard work that we found this property.”
He became a member of the board, and remained on the board until he died. “He was a very valuable member, with great insight into real estate and property values as well as the running of a Jewish communal organization,” Ms. Cohen said. “He had a great depth of knowledge and understanding. When he sat on a board, he made his opinion clearly known. I think that’s a good attribute.”
Abe Barzelay of Paramus, a longtime friend of Mr. Klatskin’s, bonded with him during the building of the Eric Brown Theater at the JCC 27 years ago. “He was a special guy,” Mr. Barzelay said. “I met him the first time when he called about building the theater.” The architect who designed the theater already had shaped the structure but did not know anything about acoustics, so he and the Klatskins needed the guidance of someone well versed in acoustic design. Mr. Barzelay, who also consults for the high-tech industry, was an expert in that field.
“Of course, I was already doing the sound systems at the JCC because my wife was head of the Israeli club there,” he said. And of course, he added, it was pro bono. He also was involved with the JCC’s music school, which sought a space to perform classical and chamber concerts. “I said I would do it, but I didn’t like some of the things the architect did, and we needed to change the architect’s design.”
As it happened, Mr. Klatskin had been working with the architect for years, and he told Mr. Barzelay that he didn’t want to criticize him. “It’s simple,” Mr. Barzelay said. “Find someone who will agree with the architect.
“After a few days, he called and said, ‘Let’s get to work.’ We worked together and became friends.
“There’s one event I remember like it was yesterday,” Mr. Barzelay said. “It was a Friday afternoon.” He had finished his work — it scored 100 percent on every test he ran — so he called Mr. Klatskin and told him he had to come over. The architect had said that he didn’t think Mr. Barzelay’s plan would work, but the acoustics expert was going to demonstrate otherwise.
“He came and I gave him a small nail. I told him to go to different places in the theater. I said, I will drop the nail on the stage and you go to different places to see if you can hear it from anywhere. It took him 15 minutes. When he was finished, he came and hugged and kissed me. Then he told me to listen, took his phone, and called the architect, telling him it was the last project they would ever do together.”
Mr. Barzelay recalled that after Mr. Klatskin’s son Neil died, he bought another house and stored his extensive wine collection in the basement. He continually offered his most expensive wines to his friend. “I told him that for me, a $50,000 bottle of wine is the same as $1 wine. I don’t touch alcohol.
“He did a lot for the community, donating a lot of money every year, millions,” said Mr. Barzelay. Known as a “really tough guy, the JCC staff vibrated when he came,” he said. “If they wanted something from him, they asked me to talk with him.” Mr. Barzelay last spoke with Mr. Klatskin, who had already moved from Englewood to the Atrium in Fort Lee, about three months ago. “He said we had to get together. I should come and see him.” But the coronavirus pandemic had struck by then, so a visit was not possible.
Sandra Gold has known the Klatskins for more than 50 years. “Lynne and I were born one day apart,” she said. “We celebrated a lot of birthdays and anniversaries together.” They also spent a great deal of time working together on communal projects. “Charlie was president of the JCC just before I was,” she said. “He found the property for the new center, and we went to many court dates together.
“He was a passionate outspoken guy, and a genius at his business. He and Lynne were very generous with what they had.” Dr. Gold got to know Lynne when she co-chaired the JCC’s Forum Series, and Lynne joined the committee.
“Charlie was very unusual,” Dr. Gold said. He was born in 1934; “he started out as a poor boy from Roosevelt, New Jersey,” she said. “He’s buried there, along with his son. He was the youngest in a large family, but in many ways he was the backbone of the family. He very quickly became an outspoken leader in the community and did a lot of good in his life.”
Ms. Gold noted that Mr. Klatskin also had been generous to Ohio State University, where he has established a program in Neil’s name. “He gave back by building infrastructure for new generations here and in Israel,” she said. “He was involved in anything that’s good.
“He was also a great, serious cook and a wine collector. People would pay money to come to his house for dinner,” she continued, explaining that the payment was in the form of a donation to charity. “It was always wonderful to get an invitation to a worthwhile charity event and have a great meal as well. He was always quick to use his home and wherewithal for the benefit of others.”
Dr. Gold recalled that Mr. Klatskin made “an amazing dinner” when a group of fellow community activists turned 70 in the same year. She also recalls that “Russ Berrie crashed it,” eager to share in the good food.
Charles Klatskin is survived by his wife, Lynne, their children, Debbie and Burt, Alex and Erin, and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.