‘Father of the Jewish community’

‘Father of the Jewish community’

This occasional column — based on material from the archives of the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest — profiles individuals or institutions that figure prominently in the history of the NJ Jewish community. JHS is located on the Alex Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany.

Michael A. Stavitsky was a prominent Jewish communal leader and successful businessman whose service to the community spanned 50 years.

A contemporary of department store owners and philanthropists Louis Bamberger and Felix Fuld, Stavitsky served as president of Temple B’nai Abraham for 10 years and was responsible for bringing the renowned Rabbi Joachim Prinz to the congregation. Stavitsky first made his mark as director of field work and fund-raising for the National Jewish Welfare Board in New York City from 1916 to 1922 before he left social work to enter the real estate and insurance fields, forming his own firm and achieving success.

As a community-oriented person, Stavitsky devoted a major part of his time and energy to Jewish causes and became one of the most effective Jewish community leaders in Newark’s history. According to Sidney M. Weinstein, now living in Brookline, Mass., who was president of the Jewish Community Council of Essex County during Stavitsky’s communal career, “He laid the foundation for the developments in our community. His wise counsel, broad vision, and warm compassion will be living and dynamic realities for us for many years to come.”

What motivated the unassuming Stavitsky to face formidable challenges? Born in Russia, he was brought to this country when he was eight and lost no time in developing an unabashed love for the United States. His personality and abilities flourish in his new country’s uniquely hospitable environment.

Stavitsky possessed an unusual combination of credentials — he earned an accounting degree from New York University and undertook graduate studies in social work. This gave him the ability to deal with both financial and social issues in the Jewish community. He also developed a disciplined approach to issues that were probably influenced to some degree by his stint in the army as a second lieutenant (he attended officers’ training school at Yale).

‘An extraordinary life’

The onset of the Depression played a major role in the development of Jewish organizational life in Newark. The German-Jewish families that had led the Conference of Jewish Charities retreated from active involvement, unwilling and/or unable to make the necessary financial and time commitments. This paved the way for a new group of leaders, of whom the two most prominent were Stavitsky and Samuel L. Kessler.

Stavitsky served as president of the Essex County Council of Jewish Agencies (1936-38) and of the Jewish Education Association and chairman of the NJ Federation of YM-YWHA Camps and of Newark’s United Jewish Appeal. He also served as president of the Conference of Jewish Charities (1931-35) during one of its most critical periods. Without his guidance, it is doubtful that the conference could have survived.

In 1933, when rallies were organized in Newark to protest Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany, Stavitsky supported the city’s boycotts and agreed to take a leadership role in the creation of a Central Jewish Committee. His reign was short-lived as the enormous responsibilities of serving as president of the Newark Conference of Jewish Charities compelled him to resign.

Stavitsky rose to national prominence serving leadership roles with the World Federation of YMHAs, United Synagogue Council of America, and National Jewish Welfare Board Committee Funds. He was also a member of the National Committee of Sponsors for the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University.

As a member of the UJA National Campaign Cabinet and a member of the national board and executive committee of State of Israel Bonds, Stavitsky was a member of several overseas study missions. He understood the problems arising from the fragmentation of Jewish life and brought Jews together on behalf of important issues at home, in Palestine, and elsewhere. Letters signed by Dr. Chaim Weizmann and Albert Einstein (which are stored in Stavitsky’s personal archive at the Jewish Historical Society) thanked him for his support of such educational institutions as The Hebrew University and the Weizmann Institute of Science and Technology.

On the home front, President Harry Truman wrote to Stavitsky in 1950 regarding his activities as president of the American Association for Jewish Education. Essex County’s Jewish Education Association, now the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, was started by Stavitsky. He felt the future of Jewish life was through educating youngsters and will always be remembered for his role in promoting a nationwide observance of Jewish Education Year.

Although short in stature, Stavitsky was a giant, according to Rabbi Prinz, who officiated and delivered the eulogy at Stavitsky’s funeral service in 1967. “The life of Mike Stavitsky was a very extraordinary life,” said the rabbi. “He became the father of the Jewish community in Essex County, for the motto of his life was ‘either community or death.’”

For information or to see the Stavitsky collection, contact Linda Forgosh at 973-929-2994 or lforgosh@jhsmw.org.

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