Elaine Adler, who died last week at 95, has been the subject of an extraordinary number of obituaries, notices, and remembrances. Her long life was full of accomplishments, and both public and private, even secret, acts of kindness and generosity. Many of them were creative in their focus and scope.
But it might be Dr. Sandra Gold who was the most straightforwardly eloquent about her beloved friend. “If you did an MRI of Elaine Adler, you would not find a single mean cell in her body,” Dr. Gold said. “That’s very unusual. I don’t know another human being like that.”
Ms. Adler was born in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, in 1927. Her oldest child, William, said that her father, Harry Finkel, had gone to MIT for two years, but dropped out. He and his wife, Elaine’s mother, Lena, opened a candy store in Bay Ridge; the family, including Elaine’s brothers Jerome and Bruce, lived on top of the store.
“Bay Ridge was extremely antisemitic at the time, and when my mother was growing up, she had almost no friends,” her son Bill said; friendlessness was not a condition that came easily to Elaine, as the rest of her life showed. “I remember her mentioning that when she was little, she really enjoyed being at the store. She learned about commerce, and she always was interested in people.”
Harry Finkel was an inventor, an inveterate tinkerer, and an entrepreneur. He opened a lampshade factory, invented some of the machinery it used — “a machine that bent the metal,” Bill Adler said — and became successful. “One of his clients was Woolworth’s,” he said. That was a real coup. The family moved to Chelsea, in lower Manhattan, where Elaine graduated from Washington Irving High School. “It was an all-girls school, you had to test in, and getting in was an extremely big deal,” Mr. Adler said. “She was always a good student, and a very, very smart kid.”
When she was in high school, Ms. Adler was very involved with selling war bonds to support the United States in World War II. Her family believes that her commitment to service for a goal far greater than herself was nurtured there.
So she already had the ingrained entrepreneurship, the interest in people, and the desire to help make the world a better place — a very Jewish desire — by the time she went to NYU.
When she was at college, she met Myron Adler — everyone called him Mike — through one of her brothers. (Mike had graduated from Stuyvesant High School, the all-boys Washington Irving counterpart.) Elaine and Mike married in 1949, when she was 22.
“My grandfather wanted my dad to be a doctor,” Mr. Adler said. “His father was a doctor.” Mike Adler had no interest in being a doctor. He’d fought in World War II, and wanted to start his life when he got home. Parenthetically, Bill Adler told one of his father’s war stories. “He was in Patton’s army,” he said. “He saw Patton. Patton looked at my father” — who was young, low level, and probably at that point pretty ordinary looking — “and he said, ‘You clean my f***ing truck now!’ That was my father’s major encounter with General Patton.”
Once Elaine and Mike met, they knew they’d be partners in business and in life. “They started their business together before they got married, and they were 50/50 partners,” Bill Adler said. “They started the business on February 14, Valentine’s Day, and they got married on June 12 that year.” The business was Myron Manufacturing. The year was 1949.
“My mother was very good with ideas and concepts and people,” Mr. Adler continued. “She was fearless.”
The first big product Myron Manufacturing made was policy wallets. Back then, Mr. Adler said, insurance policies were big, thick, heavy documents. “They had tons of pages,” he said. So the Adlers created wallets of leather or vinyl to fit them. They went on to make other business-to-business objects in a small factory in downtown Manhattan. “My dad would go out and sell, and my mother ran the factory and came up with the ideas.”
Elaine and Mike Adler moved their factory to Bergen County in 1953; soon the family, which included four children — Bill, Ricky, Jim, and Marie — followed the business to New Jersey. “My mother was both a mother and a business partner,” Mr. Adler said.
“They didn’t really have a lot of money then, but because of my mother’s charitable bent, they started getting involved,” he continued. Involved in philanthropy — then still small-dollar — and in charitable causes. “If they had a dollar for charity, they’d give a dollar fifty,” he said. “If they had an hour, they’d give two hours.
“And the thing about her is that she’d never ask for anything back.
“My mother always felt very lucky. She felt lucky to have gotten out of Bay Ridge. Lucky to have her own business.
“If it was me, I would have felt entitled. But she didn’t. And I’m not saying that because she died. She always was like that.
“She always was very generous with her time. She mentored a lot of young women. She was very involved with Jewish causes. She was very involved with Ramapo College nursing programs. “She knew that there were two kinds of medical treatment,” the kind that people who can afford it get, and the kind that the people who can’t get. “And she knew that even if you got a very good doctor, you needed more nurses. Better trained nurses.” So she took care of that. Eventually, she joined the Ramapo College Board of Governors, and she also supported the college’s Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
It’s hard to list all the organizations to which the Adlers donated money and Elaine Adler gave time; they include the Arnold Gold Foundation, the Center for Interreligious Understanding, the Jewish Home Family, Hadassah, Gilda’s Club, Bergen County Children’s Aid and Family Services, USA Toy Library, and the Fortune Society. That’s a wide-ranging group of charities that address a spectrum of causes; it takes a searching mind and caring heart to become involved in all of them.
Most of the time that their children were growing up, the Adlers lived in Paramus. “They moved to Franklin Lakes when they were older,” Mr. Adler said. True, it’s fancier farther north in Bergen County, “but we had a very nice house in Paramus,” and even more importantly, “why would you want to move when all your friends are in Paramus?” The Adlers were active in the JCC of Paramus, the local Conservative shul.
“There are people who are great, but they are not very good,” Mr. Adler said. “She was never like that. She was always heimishe. She had the same friends she had while she was growing up — Ethel was one of them — and Jenny from Paramus. She also was friends with billionaires. She was friends with anyone she liked.
“She never changed in that way, and I learned a lot from that.”
Perhaps Ms. Adler’s biggest challenge and most creative contribution to the world around her grew out of something terrible. In 1993, Mike Adler had a heart attack and a stroke; he recovered from it, but his power of speech was gone. He was aphasic. Living hell for someone who loved to talk. “My dad had been super chatty, super verbal, super energetic,” Mr. Adler said. “When he got aphasia, it almost killed him. I thought he wasn’t going to make it.” He was isolated, depressed, despondent.
To Elaine, Mike not making it was not an option.
She decided to do what she could to help.
“First, they went all over to see what was around. They went to Toronto, and to California, where there were centers. She got hold of Audrey Holland,” who was expert in treating people with aphasia with compassion and care and research, and who coincidentally died the day after Elaine Adler did. Together, Ms. Adler and Dr. Holland started the Adler Aphasia Center, which grew from one building in Maywood to three centers in New Jersey — in Maywood, West Orange, and Toms River — and one in Jerusalem, as well as many satellite programs.
It’s also become a research hub for scientists, Mr. Adler said. “Audiologists, psychologists, psychiatrists — you name the field, someone from it has come and watched and studied and written reports. It’s become a leading center for aphasia.”
Mike Adler was able to live a far better life — he died in 2015 — because of the center. And so are many others. “My mother didn’t want other people to feel as isolated as Mike felt,” Mr. Adler said. “She didn’t want other people to go through what he went through.”
Elaine Adler was “never a good hider of stuff,” her son said. “Some people keep secrets. She was the exact opposite. If she had an idea and it was legitimate, she’d share it. She was an open source. If she thought something, you’d know about it.”
But on the other hand, “if you told her a secret, she would never reveal it. If you said it was important, she’d take it with her to the grave.
“I can’t say anything not nice about my mother,” he concluded. “And that is coming from my heart.”
Sandra Gold of Englewood was a close friend of Elaine Adler’s for more than four decades. Dr. Gold — no slouch in the philanthropy department herself, and the co-creator of the white coat ceremony that helps nascent doctors remember that humanity and compassion are necessary components of their vocation — said that her friend “had a spirit that was so extraordinary. She was a person with a lot of love inside her.
“She loves her family, she loves her friends, she loves her community, she loves people she knows — and she loves people she hasn’t met yet.
“She never took herself seriously, but she took herself with confidence.”
Also, “she was a great equalizer,” Dr. Gold continued. “One of her charities, the Fortune Society, is for recently released prisoners; another that she was very fond of is the USA Toy Library, and it’s a library for toys for kids whose parents can’t afford them.
“A lot of people avert their eyes when they’re approached for money or help or food or anything. Elaine never did that. No one was invisible to Elaine.”
Dr. Gold talked about the houses that J-ADD, Bergen County’s Jewish Association for Developmental Disabilities, started to buy and furnish to turn into group homes for some of its clients. “When we started it” — we, in this case, was her, aided by many “good helpers,” — “I never asked Elaine for money.” She did get help from the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, and from the state, among other groups, governmental and otherwise. “We were working very hard on this project,” Dr. Gold said. “We all felt that these homes should be wonderful. They should have new stuff, not broken-down furniture. We felt that everything should be new.
“Elaine heard about these group homes, and she came to me and said, ‘You didn’t tell me.’ I said, ‘You do so much.’ And she said, ‘I am giving the beds.’
“And she did, first to that first home, and then to all the others. She just came forward. That’s just the way she is.
“She felt so fortunate. And her philanthropy was so diverse.”
Ms. Adler was instrumental in convincing Governor Phil Murphy to create the Mike Adler Aphasia Task Force, which began in 2017. The bill ensures that the estimated 50,000 to 70,000 people in New Jersey who have been diagnosed with aphasia will not be overlooked. Instead, their needs will be attended to, and the latest research on their condition will be considered. They will get some of the support they need.
Dr. Gold said that she and Carrie Sanchez, Ms. Adler’s longtime secretary, organizer, and all-around right hand, looked at a list of charitable causes to which their friend had donated in 2019. “There were 50 of them,” Dr. Gold marveled. “And that’s not counting charities that got more than one gift, like Ramapo College.” Ms. Adler had donated to Ramapo’s Gross Center and to scholarships that year, and that doesn’t count the Ramapo College Adler Center for Nursing Excellence, which opened in 2012 and she continued to support.
“What a friend she was,” Dr. Gold said. “What a friend.”
Angelica Berrie of Englewood was another of Elaine Adler’s dear friends. Like Ms. Adler and Dr. Gold a philanthropist — an uncommonly thoughtful and strategic one — Ms. Berrie gloried in her friend’s sense of adventure and fun, as well as her goodness.
She was a dynamo, Ms. Berrie said. She’d talk to everyone, do everything herself — including plowing through her junk mail, and donating to the random causes that struck her as righteous — give gifts with wild but considered abandon, dressing snappily, dancing until everyone else already had collapsed with exhaustion.
“She always was in a rush to get somewhere,” Ms. Berrie wrote in her eulogy for Ms. Adler. She’d say “Hurry, hurry, tempus is fugiting!” Time’s passing! There’s no time to waste!
She also was a thoughtful friend. “After I was widowed, she and Mike would faithfully take me out to dinner, making sure I never felt alone, calling at late hours to chat, sharing hotel rooms when we traveled together,” Ms. Berrie added.
When Ms. Adler was widowed, “she never lost her spark, although it dimmed after she lost Mike,” Ms. Berrie continued. “She pushed herself and others to keep his legacy alive at the Adler Aphasia Center. Heaven help any politician whom she set her sights on to advance the cause of the aphasia center.
“She invariably got what she needed from them, and all to the good of people with aphasia.”
Elaine and Mike “were made for each other,” she said. “A woman ahead of her time, she took pride in the fact that she knew how to earn her own money, and equally proud of their partnership as a couple in all things that mattered. She always praised Mike’s inventive mind, while claiming the inventors were really from her side of the family.”
Elaine Adler is survived by her four children and their spouses — William and Leslie Adler of Ramsey, Richard and Haekyung Adler, James and Dana Adler, and Marie and Saul Kravecas. She also is survived by 11 grandchildren — Bill and Leslie’s children, Russell, Max, Michaela, and Lucas; Rick and Haekyung’s children, Edison and Hanna; Jim and Dana’s children, Eliana, Harrison, and Caroline, and Marie and Saul’s children, David and Alex — and by one great-grandchild, Alex’s son, Henry.