Remembering Shirley Gralla

Remembering Shirley Gralla

Bergen County philanthropist dead at 87

Milton and Shirley Gralla in 1991.
Milton and Shirley Gralla in 1991.

There were so many big gifts, of course, and they mattered tremendously. Shirley Gralla, who died last week at 87, and her husband, Milton, who died in 2012, gave very big gifts.

The Grallas were among that generation of Bergen County donors whose generosity shaped the Jewish community, and whose legacy is visible not only in the institutions they created, but also in the density of the Jewish population they attracted. There are, of course, many forces that have gone into creating this area’s unique and flourishing Jewish community, but those philanthropists are prominent among them.

Much of the Grallas’ philanthropy went to young people, across the country, in Israel, around the world, and locally. They were major supporters of Birthright Israel, and the prime underwriters of the Genesis program at Brandeis. They supported Boys Town Jerusalem, and the Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford.

But they certainly did not neglect adults. They supported — as in very heavily subsidized — a UJA Federation trip to Israel. (That was in 2004, before the organization now known as the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey took on that name.) And the Shirley Gralla Rehabilitation Center has been a vital part of the Jewish Home at Rockleigh for more than a decade now.

That’s far from an exhaustive list of the organizations the Grallas supported, and that kind of list doesn’t provide a full picture of Ms. Gralla’s instinct for philanthropy, her children say.

“My mother was a giver,” Dennis Gralla of Mahwah said. “If my father came to my mother and said that he wanted to give to something, my mother would say, ‘That’s great, but give more.’ She always would give more. The word no did not exist in her vocabulary when it came to helping people out.

“If she could give a dollar tip, she’d give a five dollar tip,” he added. She tipped wait staff and people who supplied personal services lavishly; it made the recipients feel valued and happy, and Ms. Gralla, in turn, valued that and was made happy by it.

Ms. Gralla’s instinctive understanding of how it feels to have very little, to need more, came from her childhood. “She was poor,” her daughter, Karen Gralla Galinko of Mahwah, said. Shirley Edelson grew up in East New York, Brooklyn; the daughter of eastern European immigrants. She was the second of four, and the oldest girl, so it was her job to take care of her siblings.

She also learned about anti-Semitism in a way that made her later support of Jewish organizations, in the service of Jewish identity, logical.

Her father, Morris Edelman, was a union glazier, and when Shirley was a teenager the whole family moved to Essex, Connecticut, where he got a job at a glider factory. “They moved to a place where people didn’t know what a Jew was, and they were asked where their horns were,” Ms. Galinko said. There were some Jews in town, she added, but those were the merchants, who were far wealthier than the Edelmans and did not welcome them into their social circle. So Shirley and her family were isolated and unhappy.

Morris and Molly Edelman approached Judaism very differently. Morris was “very much a socialist,” Dennis Gralla said. “He did not relate to Judaism or any other religion,” although of course being a socialist in Brooklyn in those years was expressing the Jewish impulse to improve the world. Molly, on the other hand “kept a kosher home.” In fact, Ms. Galinko added, “she actually had carp swimming around in her bathtub before she made gefilte fish. She was a total balabuste.” So Shirley grew up feeling deeply Jewish, and with the knowledge that there were many ways to live that Jewishness out

Shirley and Milton Gralla sponsored a flight that took Soviet Jews from Bucharest to Israel; the Grallas joined the flight.
Shirley and Milton Gralla sponsored a flight that took Soviet Jews from Bucharest to Israel; the Grallas joined the flight.

The Edelmans came back to Brooklyn after a year, but Shirley did not go back to high school. It was too complicated, after a year in a very different academic setting, to return. So she went to work as a bookkeeper.

That always rankled, though, her daughter said. “When Yeshiva University gave her an honorary degree” — it was in 1998, and the degree was a an honorary doctorate in humane letters — “she was overwhelmed. She told me what a special night it was for her.”

But life was going to surprise the young Brooklyn office worker. Milton Gralla, who grew up the son of bakery owners in Williamsburg — “my father’s family was poor, but not as poor as my mother’s family,” Ms. Galinko said. “Because of the bakery, they were never hungry during the Depression” — Milton Gralla, an aspiring journalist, had gone to Oklahoma, moving from the Duncan Banner to the big time — the Tulsa World. (There, he covered the quickly rising career of the young Mickey Mantle.)

Mr. Gralla often would drive home to see his parents; the trip from Oklahoma to Brooklyn was grueling, but he was dutiful. And he was looking to meet the right girl, his children — including Ed, the oldest, who lives in Check, Virginia — said. “He was looking for a poor Jewish girl,” Ms. Galinko said. “In Oklahoma, he had been set up with girls from rich families, and he didn’t like it. So he found a very poor Jewish girl.”

Poor but beautiful; and they met so cute that Cinderella comes to mind. “He was cruising around, and he saw a girl kind of hobbling to the corner,” Dennis Gralla said. “The story changes a little here — either she had lost the heel to her shoe, or it got stuck in the mud. He pulled over and gave her a ride.

“They were married less than a month later.

“He had to go back to Oklahoma during that time, and they had spent less than four days together.” And, the brothers and sister added, their father had asked their mother, by phone, to go meet his parents by herself. She did.

And the marriage worked.

Shirley and Milton Gralla’s first child was born about a year after they married. They lived in Brooklyn, with Mr. Gralla’s family, as Mr. Gralla and his brother pursued the ambitions and dreams that would eventually become Gralla Publications, a huge enterprise that produced 19 magazines, and made him and his family a fortune.

When Ms. Gralla became pregnant with her second child, she and her husband realized that their living arrangements had to change, but they did not yet have the kind of money that would allow them to live comfortably. They bought a small, one-bathroom house in Spring Valley, N.Y., and moved there with a brother, sister-in-law, and their children. As soon as they could, they moved out.

The Grallas established a school at Boys Town Jerusalem in 1971, at the request of Israel’s ministry of education. It’s for both day and boarding students.
The Grallas established a school at Boys Town Jerusalem in 1971, at the request of Israel’s ministry of education. It’s for both day and boarding students.

Their next stop — and the place the adult Grallas stayed until their children grew up, when they bought a pied-a-terre in Fort Lee and moved fulltime to Florida — was Teaneck. That was in 1954; the house cost $19,000, and the family was right there as the Jewish community in Teaneck changed and grew.

“My father wanted us to be involved in Ethical Culture, and mom said absolutely not,” Ms. Galinko said. “My kids will be raised Jewish.” She won that argument.

There was just one synagogue in town then — the Jewish Center of Teaneck. The Grallas joined it, and soon it became one of the centers of the family’s life. The children went to Hebrew school there. Later, when the Grallas became more prosperous, they moved from their smaller house to a bigger one on the other side of town.

“Dad always said that the hardest donation he ever made was to the Teaneck Jewish Center,” his children said. “That’s because they couldn’t afford it, but they did it anyway.”

Over the years, as the business grew, giving became easier. The Grallas gave more and more to the causes they supported. “Our parents realized that they had more money than they needed,” Ms. Galinko said. “They weren’t flashy. They still drove Chevrolets. They were financially very conservative.” And Shirley Gralla, who had joined Jewish organizations and had seen from the inside how hard it could be to raise money, knew that she could help.

She also gave to friends — money, but also time, attention, and love. One of her grandchildren, Laura, reported that once she brought a friend to her grandparents’ house in Florida. The friend was distraught because she’d just broken up with her boyfriend, so Shirley Gralla “sent her to a spa for a full day. And she barely knew her!” Similarly, but on a much larger scale, when the parents of a 17-year-old boy Ms. Gralla knew died, his mother “took him in and treated him like one of her own,” Mr. Gralla said.

There are too many of Ms. Gralla’s beneficiaries to list here, but strikingly among them are the daughters of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer, Ilsa and Lisa. Leon Klinghoffer was the man who went on vacation on a cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, in 1985, when he was 69. Members of the Palestine Liberation Front invaded the ship, killed Mr. Klinghoffer, who had been in a wheelchair, and then threw his body, still strapped into the chair, overboard.

Marilyn Klinghoffer, who had cancer, died four months later.

“Our mother worked for Milton Gralla,” the sisters said; she’d started out in circulation but quickly rose to head human resources. By the time she boarded the Achille Lauro, Ms. Klinghoffer had worked for Gralla Publications for more than a decade, and had become close to both Shirley and Milton.

“When all this happened, Milt immediately reached out to us, and he stayed with us throughout the whole thing,” Ilsa and Lisa said. “We had the opportunity to hear from our mother — she was able to get off the boat and tell us the sad news. She didn’t know that we knew. She didn’t know that the whole world knew.

“She kept telling us that she had sad news, and we kept trying to say ‘We know. We know,’” they continued. “She said ‘Please call Milt to tell him I won’t be able to come to work,’ and I said ‘Milt is standing right here, next to me.’”

When their mother got home, Shirley and Milt Gralla were there; “our mother’s mission was to educate the world about what happened,” and they helped. They set up a foundation that later merged into the Anti-Defamation League.

“Shirley embraced us both,” Ilsa and Lisa said. “She included us in so many family events and simchas. She was always so warm. There was a bond between her and us that never changed. That was 31 years ago, and that bond is still there. It always feels like family.

“Shirley always just wanted to do more for us. Just to do more.”

“Shirley was like a thread that held the quilt of our family together,” Susan Gralla, Dennis’s wife, said. “And that includes extended family. It’s like the immediate family are squares, and then also the extended family, and then all the lives she touched, all the people who come over to you to share a Shirley story.

“We all became part of the patchwork — my parents and my sister and her family,” she added. “She emanated goodness and light and love, and we were all its beneficiaries.”

read more: