Howard Charish has been head of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey for eight years. It would be fair to say he’s pretty well known in the organized Jewish community and even beyond. But that’s the public Howard. There’s another Howard: the 50 Eisenhower Drive Howard. He’s the one who reads – not just the letters, memos, and assorted other pieces that cross his desk, not just erudite works of Judaic literature and philosophy, business and philanthropic how-tos, or obscure and boring tomes of great learning (which he does read). This Howard likes the juicy, best-seller stuff – the books of Daniel Silva, especially anything to do with Gabriel Allon, Israeli spy extraordinaire. The more bad guys Gabriel kills, the bloodier it is, the more buildings he blows up, the more mayhem Gabriel inflicts on whoever gets in his way, the better Howard likes it. He also loves Alan Furst and his dark stories so evocative of Europe in the 1930s. And James Patterson.
An appreciation The Eisenhower Drive Howard is also an amazing gardener. And he shares with staffers. From May to October you’ll see a bloom, sometimes plump, sometimes slender – usually something unusual you can’t identify by name – but always sublime, in a vase on someone’s desk. There’s nothing like getting a flower from the boss to make you feel special.
But there’s one thing that about Howard that will come as a complete shocker, especially if you’ve never been at federation offices after 5 p.m. and heard the music emanating from behind the closed door of his office. It’s not the music you would expect the very serious executive vice president of UJA Federation to gravitate toward â€¦ like the treacle of Lite-FM or maybe classical WQXR. No, Howard likes The Dark Side of the Moon. I mean Pink Floyd â€¦ and the Stones. Howard is a Jagger aficionado! Who knew?
There are other little-known things about Howard – things that matter in a big way. The first occurred in a shop in Ben-Gurion Airport, with both of us standing in line to pay for snacks just before we were to board a plane to return to the States. I bought mine. He put his back. It didn’t have the right hechsher. He didn’t have to do that. I wouldn’t have known the difference.
The second occurred just weeks ago. During his last full staff meeting, Howard told us he had decided that a special fund endowed in his name by UJA Federation’s presidents, past and present, was to be used to recognize a staff person at the federation or its agencies with a grant to be used as he or she saw fit. What expectation was there that he would do something like that? None. But he did it, because this is the real Howard of Eisenhower Drive, just as it is the rocker, the gardener, and the man who reads about murder and mayhem.
Howard will leave an excellent public legacy at the federation. But that’s not the Howard Charish I’ll miss. The Howard I’ll miss is all of the above: a man of wide and varied interests, a man of honor, of principle – and a man with the weirdest, most explosive, most infectious whoop-of-a-crane laugh I have ever heard in my life. Maybe we can get a recording of it so we don’t miss him too much.