On Saturday, George Hantgan died.
Mr. Hantgan lived a long and full life. He was 98; he was a husband, father, and grandfather.
He also was the founder of the institutions that shaped Jewish life in northern New Jersey – and in fact far beyond our borders – and he created the culture of giving that has allowed this community to flourish.
We wrote a cover story about Mr. Hantgan in the March 21 issue of the Jewish Standard. There, we described how the boy from Brooklyn, born during World War I, ended up meeting three presidents. The first one he met, for having been a particularly enterprising newsboy, was Herbert Hoover – we marveled at that then, as we do now.
His second was Franklin Roosevelt – he sat in the White House for lunch with FDR and Eleanor, and he ended up killing a cockroach that crawled under the table.
His third was Jimmy Carter, a dour man whom Mr. Hantgan disliked. “You’re no better than Hitler,” Mr. Hantgan recalled telling the man from Plains.
Just those three stories tell a great deal about Mr. Hantgan. He was very smart, he worked hard, he had great drive, he perservered, he was lucky, he was plucky, he was principled, and he saw everything around him with great clarity.
Using those talents and skills, and his training as a social worker, Mr. Hantgan began to work in the Jewish community. In 1950, George and his beloved wife, Hon, who was as much a part of George as his heart or his lungs or his soul were, moved to Englewood, and he became the first director of the Englewood Jewish Community Center.
He presided over the building of the new JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. Concurrently, for many years, he also was the executive director of the United Jewish Fund of Englewood and Surrounding Communities (which now, many name changes and mergers later, is the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey).
He built both those institutions, and many others. He trained people to give money, time, energy, and love to them, and to the community. He established the world view that said that if you have more than you need, you give some of it away. Doing that will make the world better, it will help other people – and it will make you better too.
George and Hon Hantgan have lived at the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, another institution that most likely would not have existed had he not created the ethos that caused it to be created. Mr. Hantgan made use of all the time he had there, working with students, sharing his wisdom until the very end.
Crowds came to his funeral, held in the auditorium of the JCC, the house he built. He was eulogized by representatives of some of the institutions that he grew or inspired – Avi Lewinson of the JCC, Sunni Herman of the Jewish Home – by philanthropist/volunteers like Dr. Sandra Gold, who is part of the network of people influenced by his ethos of giving, and by Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner and Rabbi Alex Freedman, who had seen his goodness, strength, and intellect at work.
He was a giant. He created the world we live in now. We were lucky to have had him, we were lucky to have known him. We trust that his legacy is strong and will endure. And we will miss him.