When we lose someone who is beloved and admired in the community, we hear only words of praise. Sometimes that paints a picture of someone who was, frankly, too good to be true. But sometimes, it’s because the person was so truly special. Because that person accomplished so very much.
That is the case with Perry Rosenstein, who died last week at 94.
If how we raise our children is one index of integrity and the truth of our commitment, then Perry — a longtime Teaneck civic leader, businessman, philanthropist, and social activist, as well as founder of the Teaneck Creek Conservancy and the Puffin Foundation — certainly was successful. All three of his children, Neal, Judy, and Carl, are educators and social activists.
“Born to Polish émigrés, Toby and Hyman, his parents were members of the Jewish Labor Bund in Poland,” Neal said. They were not a religious family. “They saw their identity in culture, values, blood, and history.” (Still, a tie to Poland clearly remained. Perry helped restore the Jewish graveyard in Zuromin, Poland.)
Neal has been an organizer for 36 years, working part-time for his father at Puffin in Teaneck and now working in New York, where he lives, on the issue of electoral reform. Carl directed a nonprofit art gallery on Broome Street in Soho, the Puffin Room, which featured exhibits raising social awareness. Judith Kitrick set up a Puffin Foundation in Columbus, Ohio.
And then there are the cousins. “Our family values extended to our extended family as well,” Neal said. “Union organizers abound. You should have seen Thanksgiving at our house. Arguments weren’t partisan, Democrats vs. Republicans. It was liberals vs. progressives vs. radicals,” with Perry and his brothers yelling at each other. “It was an important part of us growing up.”
In a 2010 Jewish Standard interview with the Rosensteins, Perry said, talking about himself and his wife, Gladys Miller-Rosenstein, “We were both influenced by our parents. Some people come out of the womb with a sign saying ‘I protest.’” Not surprising, the couple funded an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York dedicated to the history of social activism, exploring events such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and civil rights marches.
Gladys, who survives her husband, was his steadfast partner in all his endeavors. Neal described her as an extraordinary woman. While the couple did not always live in Teaneck, the township housed the headquarters for his industrial fasteners business, Brighton-Best Socket Screw Manufacturing Inc., for some 40 years. Born in the Bronx and raised in Manhattan, he funded the Puffin through a family trust. Gladys, also from Manhattan, was an elementary school teacher and administrator before becoming the full-time operations director of the foundation.
Neal said that what took most of his father’s time were the artists’ grants — hundreds every year awarded by the Puffin Foundation “to individuals and organizations trying to make important statements,” though they often held unpopular opinions. Founded in 1983, the Puffin Foundation has grown exponentially, awarding millions of dollars in grants to thousands of people over the course of its history.
Puffin also has become a showcase for artists, musicians, photographers, and educators. “If there’s no art, there’s no life,” Perry said in in the 2010 interview. “People who live here today would find a tremendous void in their life without the Puffin. Art is important because it is the spirit of humanity; the voice of what you want to get across to people. It’s a humanistic message, not a political one.”
In that same interview, he said that the Puffin Foundation was seeking to “open the doors of artistic expression by providing grants to artists and art organizations that are often excluded from mainstream opportunities due to their race, gender, or social philosophy.”
Perry also loved the Teaneck community, Neal said, noting that another activity that kept his father busy was “meeting with people in Teaneck, funding afterschool programs, creating the Teaneck Cultural Forum, working on the Teaneck Film Festival, and supporting the Teaneck Creek Conservancy.” Puffin helps fund an after-school program called Super Strides, offering experimental programs for local children. The center also provides scholarships for children who need them.
And all this, Neal said, while his father — at least in his later years — contended with Parkinson’s disease, affecting his lower extremities. His arms, however, remained strong. “His hands were steady as a rock. Even at age 94, I still wouldn’t want to arm wrestle,” Neal joked. Not surprising, since his father served in World War II and had been a Navy boxer, an avid tennis player, and a member of a football team. It took the coronavirus to lay him low.
“My father acted globally as well as locally,” said Neal. “He had a deep love and concern for the community, understanding that this offered the best chance for educating and enriching people’s lives.” His global focus was on peace and understanding, particularly as it related to the Middle East.
“He felt very strongly about Givat Haviva,” the Center for a Shared Society, which, says its website, “aims to build an inclusive, socially cohesive society in Israel by engaging divided communities in collective action towards the advancement of a sustainable, thriving Israeli democracy based on mutual responsibility, civic equality and a shared vision of the future.”
He also delighted in hosting photographic exhibits produced by Israeli teens as part of “Through Others’ Eyes,” a photography exhibition featuring works by Arab and Jewish Israeli teenagers, run by Givat Haviva. During the summer, participants go to New York for three weeks, where they participate in Peace Camp at Camp Shomria, as well as special programming in the New York City area. “My father loved to visit the children at camp” Neal said. “It made him so happy and proud. It made him feel like he was helping the teens to share and have a better understanding of society.”
While Neal believes he knew his father well, “some of the emails I’m getting from people who knew him when he was young, or have stories to tell about something he did, have been wonderful. Sometimes it’s hard not to cry.” Some of those emails are from former employees. “He gave a large chunk of his company to his employees,” Neal said. “He also provided scholarships for their children to go to school.
“He had a love of family, a love of Teaneck, and a love for the world that he demonstrated every day of his life.”
Paul Ostrow, who heads community outreach and public relations efforts at Holy Name Hospital, remembers Perry Rosenstein as “a soft-spoken man. He was a lover of culture and had the ability to quietly bring people of different backgrounds together for different functions.
“I remember various events when he started the Teaneck Creek Conservancy. He worked with private groups, with the town, with volunteers.” Perry Rosenstein founded the Teaneck Creek Conservancy in 2001, dedicated to the reclamation and protection of the environmental, cultural, and historical legacy of the Teaneck Creek watershed, where the Puffin Foundation is headquartered.
“When I saw surveyors at the site of what is now the Teaneck Creek Conservancy, I decided that it should not be sold to realtors but should be preserved as an open space,” Perry told the Standard several years ago. “I met with community leaders and politicians to find out what they would like to see there.”
He wanted the conservancy to appeal to all age groups, Mr. Ostrow said. When he began to put up sculptures at the top of the creek area, he was no doubt aware that two schools were in the vicinity of Fyke Lane, which borders the park on one side. “He wanted it to be inviting to young children.”
Jackie Kates, who lives in Fort Lee now but lived in Teaneck for decades and is a past township mayor, said, “I can’t think of a couple who exerted a greater influence so quickly as Perry and Gladys.” From the time they moved to the town, she said, they demonstrated a commitment to social justice, providing “a voice for those who might not have a voice.” Puffin, she said, “really quickly became a very important place in the community.”
She remembers working with Puffin on an initiative to create a Teaneck Festival of the Arts to give talented Teaneck people, or even just people interested in the arts, the opportunity to see a live performance. (It lasted one season since there was no appropriate venue for the entertainment.) “They liked to plant seeds to start things for other people to take over. That was their approach. They couldn’t run and fund everything, but they could help people get started.”
When she worked at Holy Name, she said, the hospital worked closely with the Rosensteins on the creation of the Teaneck Creek Conservancy, since both parties were interested in preserving the environment. The hospital’s Center for Healthy Living held some classes there, as well as “meditative walks through the labyrinth. There was real collaboration.” She also recalls the couple’s ultimately unsuccessful efforts to save the ancient oak tree on the corner of Cedar Lane and Palisade Ave.
“Puffin has so many arms,” she said. “If they saw a need, they would try to fill it. Perry was very tuned in, active, and held strong beliefs and opinions.”
Teaneck’s deputy mayor, Elie Katz, also is a former township mayor; it was under his watch that a street name was changed to Puffin Way. “We had a great relationship,” he said. “He was a good friend,” stepping in when help was needed. Mr. Katz recalled the time when “there was a driving desire to have a Starbucks in Teaneck.” Starbucks had its eye on a Cedar Lane location but they could not come to a mutually agreeable financial arrangement. “Perry said he’d pay the difference to help the community.”
He also was helpful when Mr. Katz was looking for suggestions about rehabbing the PAL building on Route 4. An email Mr. Rosenstein sent to the then mayor focused on “programs for kids led by community educators,” to include bird watching, gardening, environmental sciences, book review club, hiking and trail walking, and photography.”
“He was a quiet giant,” Mr. Katz said. “I’ll remember him as someone who had a heart of gold.”