Remembering Jerry Chazen

Remembering Jerry Chazen

Businessman, philanthropist, and supporter of Rockland’s Jewish community dies at 94

Jerry Chazen
Jerry Chazen

Jerome Chazen of Nyack, who died on February 6 at 94, was a giant in the women’s fashion industry.

He was one of the four partners in the Liz Claiborne Company. That business changed working women’s lives by providing them with clothing that didn’t make them look like baby dolls or weirdly shaped men, made it possible for them to wear pants at work, and it also provided a role model in the form of a woman — Liz Claiborne — who could lead a company.

The company was wildly successful.

Mr. Chazen also was a generous supporter of the Jewish community, both local and around the world. That was an obligation he took seriously.

He was also, according to his friend Bob Silverman, a former president of the Jewish Federation & Foundation of Rockland County, a very nice man.

Jerry Chazen, who was born in New York City in 1927, went to the University of Michigan as an undergraduate. That’s where he met his wife, Simona Chivian; as he often told the story, that’s also where he met Arthur Ortenberg, his college roommate, who later became Liz Claiborne’s husband. Next, Jerry and Simona headed to New York, where Jerry earned a master’s in business at Columbia.

His supreme talent was in marketing; he understood how department stores worked, and how to work with them.

Both he and the company prospered; he retired in 1996.

That’s the business side. Mr. Silverman — whose kosher pizza bagel business grew into Macabee Foods, and who is a founder of the Rockland federation — knew Mr. Chazen from his philanthropy and volunteer work in the Jewish community.

“I met him at least 35 years ago,” Mr. Silverman said. “I was involved with the federation campaign, and I heard that Jerry Chazen was coming from Liz Claiborne to help with the soliciting. I had never bought a dress, so I never knew what Liz Claiborne was.

“Jerry sat through the solicitor training, and at the end we were asked to make telephone calls, and Jerry went straight to the phones and made telephone calls.

“I was amazed that he was running a very large corporation and he still came in to make those calls.

“Jerry had been giving gifts to the federation, and eventually I asked him if we could do a major gift affair at his home. He and Simona were gracious enough to open up their home to us, and it was wonderful and amazing, stepping into his home and his world. There were gorgeous pieces of art, and a spectacular river view. He and Simona were just so gracious.”

Mr. Silverman would visit Mr. Chazen every year to talk about the federation, “and he said that a lot of what he did stemmed from his father, who was the president of a shul in the south Bronx, where he grew up.

“He was very supportive of his synagogue in Rockland — first Beth Sholom in New City, when they lived there, and then Temple Beth Torah, which merged with Temple Beth El and is now the Reformed Temple of Rockland.”

Mr. Chazen “was among the first to give a major gift to the campaign to build the Rockland Jewish community campus on Route 45 in New Hempstead,” Mr. Silverman said. About 20 years later, he supported the new campus, in West Nyack. The Chazen Senior Center there shows that support.

Mr. Chazen once asked him for help, Mr. Silverman said. “Jerry said there was a cemetery that belonged to the synagogue that his father ran in the South Bronx, and since his father’s death it was Jerry’s responsibility. Jerry said that he didn’t think that there were any more surviving members of that shul, and he wanted that responsibility off his hands.

“So we did take it off his hands, and we sold the remaining cemetery plots, in Saddle Brook, for the benefit of the federation.

“That cemetery is where Jerry is buried,” he added.

“He really was a big-picture guy,” Mr. Silverman said. He cared a great deal about Ethiopian Jews, he supported Operations Exodus and Solomon. “And he was a strong supporter of Israel.” He also supported the University of Michigan and Columbia — he gave Columbia $10 million, and now the school has the Jerome A. Chazen Institute for Global Studies — among many other organizations.

Mr. Chazen was someone you could trust, Mr. Silverman said. “He worked on a handshake, if he trusted you. If he didn’t trust you, that would be it. It would be over.”

Mr. Chazen’s survivors include his wife, Simona — the couple was married for 72 years — their son, David, their daughters, Kathy Chazen and Louise Chazen Banon, seven grandchildren, and a great-grandson.

Mr. Silverman summed up his friend. “Jerry was the best,” he said. “He was a mensch. If you have ever met someone who was pure, that was Jerry.”

read more: