Meet Josh Weston

Meet Josh Weston

Montclair philanthropist talks about business, friendship, stories, and life

Kosh Weston
Kosh Weston

Even before Josh Weston opens the door to his house in Montclair, you get the idea that there are stories in there.

The house is big but not immense, inviting instead of imposing, lived-in rather than pristine. It doesn’t appear to be fully logical, with rooms and staircases exactly where you’d like them to be instead of where they perhaps should be.

And the big number over the door says 1916; that’s not the address but the year when it was built.

Mr. Weston, a trim, hospitable, energetic man, is younger than his house — but not much. He was born in 1928. He’s a retired businessman — the job from which he retired was CEO of ADP, which he took over from its founder, Frank Lautenberg, when Mr. Lautenberg left to represent New Jersey in the Senate — and he’s an active philanthropist, who gives not only money but also time, attention, care, oversight, foresight, and — this sounds over-the-top, but it’s true — love to his many causes.

He’s been on the board of 39 organizations, he said; he’s sat on up to 10 at a time, and he’s been chair or president of many of them. They include — although they are not limited to, and in fact are chosen almost at random — the Liberty State Science Center, the International Rescue Committee, Boys Town Jerusalem, NJPAC, America-Israel Friendship League, First Robotics, and the Weston Science Scholars program. He has not given anything to any program that he has not learned about first.

Here are some of Mr. Weston’s stories.

Josh Weisstein was born in Brooklyn; his first home was a cold-water flat near Eastern Parkway. As the older of two children, he slept in the hall, he said.

Wait. What about his name? “Everybody called me Weinstein, so I changed it to Weston,” Mr. Weston said.

His father, Samuel Weisstein, was born in a small shtetl, called Bhutan, in Belarus, in 1893. “My father was in the czar’s army,” he said. “He was captured by the Germans in World War I; they captured 800 of them and put them in a coal mine.

“He spoke Yiddish, and the Germans didn’t speak Russian.” Sam did, and Yiddish was close enough to German. “So instead of mining coal, my father became their translator.”

In 1922, Samuel Weisstein came to America. “He had $20, and he was on the boat alone.” But he’d gotten a visa because an uncle in Brooklyn whom he’d never met — Uncle E. — had sponsored him. When he met his uncle, “he tells him that his business was lending money to manufacturers. He’d lent to a business in Philadelphia that made artificial teeth, and it went bankrupt.

“So my uncle inherited all the teeth. And he tells my father to take the teeth, go visit dental labs, and sell them.”

Josh Weston, left, talks with Paul Hoffman, the Liberty Science Center’s executive director.

Sam, armed with the teeth, did so. Soon, “he started a dental supply company that became the biggest in Brooklyn,” Mr. Weston said. “Kings County Dental.”

Meanwhile, Florence Kossovky, Mr. Weston’s mother, who was about five years younger than his father, came to Brooklyn from Warsaw with her parents and an older sister. She married Sam Weisstein in 1925. Soon, the Weissteins moved to Flatbush, where Josh and his sister grew up.

Josh went to public school and would have gone to the local high school, Midwood, but “everyone says that there is a high school in Brooklyn that you have to take a test to get into.” Never one to pass up a challenge, Josh took the test, “and I got in. I went to Brooklyn Tech” — one of New York’s elite schools, like the perhaps better-known but not better Stuyvesant and Bronx Science — “for four years.”

And oh, by the way, he was valedictorian.

He applied to Columbia and Johns Hopkins and was rejected by both — “I found out only later that it was because I was Jewish,” he said — so he went to City College, the choice of most of New York’s Jewish intelligentsia (although that’s not why he went there). “My tuition was $25 a year,” he said. He’d won a Regents award, which gave him $100 a year, “so I made a profit,” he added. He majored in economics.

While he was at City, he signed up for the Navy Reserves. “Its headquarters was in an 1898 battleship on the Hudson,” he said. “They told us that if we sign up, once every month we’d go to that ship, for what they called training. They gave us $20 a month, and all we did is play volleyball once a month.”

That was in 1948. In 1950, the United States joined the Korean conflict. “The whole Naval Reserve was called up,” Mr. Weston said.

He was still in college, though, so his service was postponed. And another adventure intervened.

“When I was a senior at City College, the dean called to tell me that I was one credit short,” he said. “I asked what I could take for one credit, and he said golf. In the gym.” So Mr. Weston took golf. (In the gym.)

“Outside the dean’s office that day, I saw a sign that said Fulbright,” he continued. “I didn’t know what that was, and he explained it.” Mr. Weston decided to apply for a Fulbright scholarship, “and the dean said, ‘Don’t bother applying for England or France. Everyone wants to go there.’” Instead, he suggested that Mr. Weston apply for a scholarship to New Zealand. “So I went to the library and read about New Zealand. I saw that it was the second country, after Britain, to have single-payer healthcare, so I wrote my application saying that I want to study single-payer healthcare, because one day it will come to the U.S.

“Which it has not.”

Mr. Weston had to go to Montreal; from there, Fulbright sent him on a train to Vancouver, and then on a ship to New Zealand. “They booked me first class,” he said. “I am 22. I get there, and there’s a knock at the door, and there’s a guy there in a tuxedo, and he said, ‘I’m your butler. When do you want your bath drawn?’

A scene from the Weston Family Lab for Earth and Space Exploration at the center.

“Alex the butler drew my bath every morning for two and a half weeks.”

Once he was in New Zealand, enjoying the British-style education that demands not that students show up in class — that’s up to them — but that they read the entire hefty syllabus and pass a test on all of it. He did. He also had to write a thesis; he had to submit two copies, so he used carbon paper. He still remembers the challenges that that task provided.

He graduated from the one-year program with a master’s degree. “Fulbright pays for your transportation back home, so I went the other way,” through Europe, he said. “I hit 26 countries on the way back from New Zealand,” disembarking, exploring, and then taking the next ship. It took him a few months to get home.

Once he returned home, Mr. Weston had to fulfill his obligation to the Navy. “I’m about to report for active duty when a friend told me about a situation at Floyd Bennett Field” in Brooklyn, he said. He learned that the payroll department there was understaffed and the woman in charge was “beside herself, doing all the payroll herself,” he said. “So I went to see her, and she said I could ask them to assign me there.” He did, and spent two years living at home and working on the Navy’s payroll.

Meanwhile, he saw “a help-wanted ad for management training for the Popular Club Plan,” he said; he applied for it and got it. He was a management trainee two days a week — he worked for that business on Saturdays and Sundays, and was at the base the rest of the week. “Yes, I worked seven days a week,” he said.

After two years, when his obligation to the Navy was over, Mr. Weston worked fulltime for Popular Club Plan. “It was a small, disorganized company” then, he said; later, it became J. Crew.

“We were the predecessor to Amazon,” he said. Instead of an online presence — something 30 or 40 years in the future and genuinely unimaginable at the time — “we had a catalogue, and 100,000 salespeople who carried it around with them.” Most sales were to friends. “The agents would send us the orders.”

The company had a huge warehouse in Passaic, huge numbers of small orders — for clothing and home furnishings — and a massive logistics problem. “And it 80 percent looks like Amazon now,” Mr. Weston said. Orders that had to be filled, goods that occupied an enormous amount of space and had to be put together. “We had conveyor belts. It was a whole complicated process. When you have a big warehouse, you can’t let someone just walk around and get your four items.”

By the mid 1960s, Mr. Weston was the company’s CEO. “It was no big deal,” he said dismissively. “The whole company was worth $30 million.

“Then IBM came to me, and said, ‘We know that you are running a distribution center. We are coming out with a new computer.’ They asked me to be a beta testing site.”

He said yes.

Mr. Weston is a wholehearted supporter of Boys Town Jerusalem, which honored him. From left, Mr. Weston’s good friend Sen. Frank Lautenberg; Boys Town Jerusalem’s founder, Rabbi Alexander Linchner; Josh Weston, and his father, Samuel Weisstein.

“So, with their help, we put in this computer-driven system in Passaic.”

Soon, Mr. Weston started getting calls from Frank Lautenberg, who then was the CEO of ADP and later became a United States senator; he was a Democrat who represented New Jersey from 1982 to 2001, was out of office for two years, returned in 2003, and stayed there until he died, in 2013. Mr. Lautenberg kept asking Mr. Weston to meet him for lunch; Mr. Weston recalls telling Mr. Lautenberg that a lunch might be pleasant, but it would be “a stupid waste of your time.”

But that lunch turned into a friendship and a business relationship; Mr. Weston joined ADP as COO, and became CEO in 1982, when Mr. Lautenberg left for Washington.

Meanwhile, on the home front, Mr. Weston and his wife, Judy, who had gotten married in 1954, moved to Montclair in 1956.

Their apartment in Hudson Heights, in Union City, was too small when the second of their four children was born. “We were going to a lake near Denville,” Mr. Weston said. “It was a Sunday, Judy was driving, and I had the Times. I see an interesting real estate ad in a place called Montclair. I said that we’d be passing through Montclair on the way home, and I don’t know what it’s like, but do you want to stop there?”

They did, they saw the house, they liked it, “and we bought it for 25 grand.

“The real estate agent said ‘Do you know that there are only four Jews in the town?’ And I said that I didn’t care. I wanted to live in that house.”

They lived in that house happily until one of the Weston’s daughters told him that a bigger, older house was on the market; one of her friends lived there, and the family was moving out of state. He went to see it — and bought it immediately. On the spot. That’s the house with 1916 over the porch. The children all went to public school.

The Westons have four children, eight grandchildren, and so far there are three great-grandchildren.

A short side story — Mr. Weston made his children’s diapers. This was well before disposable ones; he analyzed the problem of too-thin cloth diapers, figured out how to put four-ply fabric in the middle and one ply on the sides, making it both more absorbent and easier to pin, and used Judy’s sewing machine to make them. The diaper service cleaned them. It worked.

Mr. Weston is not conventionally religious. He belongs to Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, where he used to go dutifully (although it’s easy to imagine not uncomplainingly) on Yom Kippur. But he’s very Jewish, and his connection to Israel is soul-deep.

“My father, who came from the old Soviet Union, wanted to be one of the chalutzim,” the early waves of Jewish pioneers who moved to Palestine. “He was always talking about Palestine. When I was about 7, he gave me a blue JNF pushka, and every Sunday I would go up and down Ocean Parkway, collecting quarters.

Outside Liberty Science Center’s Weston Family Art and Science Pavilion.

“A long time later, in 1967, I told him that I was going to take him there. The Six-Day War happened the day before we were supposed to get on the plane — the flight was canceled and we rebooked — and I took him to Israel.”

He went back to Israel maybe four times, he said, until 1992, when Malcolm Hoenlein, the longtime executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, called. “He said the Israeli economic minister would like you to bring American business leaders to Israel, and I said that I wouldn’t do it until I got a letter from Netanyahu that I can send to my friends, saying that the Prime Minister of Israel has asked me to ask you, on his behalf, to join me on a trip to Israel.”

It worked. “The CEO of Johnson & Johnson came, and the CEO of AT&T, and the AT&T guy took us on his plane. It was four intense days there.”

Since then, Mr. Weston has taken business leaders and politicians on that trip, through the America Israel Friendship League, 19 times; it ended only with the onset of the pandemic.

Judy and Josh Weston were involved with more organizations than we possibly could list here — if we did, this newspaper would look like the Yellow Pages. Judy Weston, who died in 2020, was a social worker at Jewish Vocational Services. She was on the board of the American Museum of Natural History — to which the family donated the Weston Pavilion, which was demolished in 2016 when the museum embarked on a major renovation — and the National Dance Institute. Ms. Weston was known for her extraordinary kindness, her openness to people, and her willingness to donate not only money but also time, attention and, yes, love.

Together, the Westons started the Weston Science Scholars Program at Montclair High School, which has grown enormously. It’s just one of the many local programs that they have supported.

“I did pretty well at ADP,” Mr. Weston understated. “So when I was 80, 85, I decided that it was stupid to do planned giving. Why should I put something in my will? If I want to give something, why don’t I give it now?

“So I decided to give away everything that I have, except for a safety net. I do have a safety net.

“What would I do with that money otherwise?” he asked. “Stay home and count it?

“Mostly it went to the places where I am on the board. To WNET, to the food bank, to City College. To the FIRST Robotics competition.” He learned about that project from its founder, Dean Kamen, “and I brought it to high school.” That’s the one in Montclair. His kids’ school. “Now it’s around the world, in probably about 100,000 high schools.” He’s also deeply involved in the FIRST Lego competitions, for elementary and middle-school students. “Technology is important to America’s future,” he said.

He’s a founding board member of the new iteration of the Liberty Science Center, Mr. Weston said. “I put the mayor of Jersey City as an ex officio board member in the new bylaws. And then this young whippersnapper” — that’s Mayor Steve Fulop — “comes to the first meeting, and he said that Jersey City owns about 10 acres, ‘and if you give me a good reason, we will give you 10 acres for a dollar.’”

Inside the Liberty Science Center’s Weston Family Art and Science Pavilion.

That will result in ScyTech city, “with four pillars. A magnet STEM high school for the best students in Jersey City; an eight-story incubator for 60 startups; subsidized housing for people working in the city, like schoolteachers; and a presentation center.”

Mr. Weston has strong feelings about the system that’s made him so successful. Capitalism’s fine, but “if you don’t have empathetic capitalism, you are terrible,” he said. “You need empathy.”

“I have known Josh for a little more than a decade,” Steve Fulop said; Liberty Science Center “has seen renewed life in the last decade, because of Josh and its director, Paul Hoffman.

“Josh has been hugely generous. Today, the center is one of the fastest-growing museums in the country, and that wouldn’t have happened without Josh.”

He also talked about how “Josh’s work with Israel, and his advocacy around educating people about the importance of the U.S./Israel relationship, is not just donating money or talking about it. It’s about organizing the trips,” which, the mayor added, his friend Josh has been urging him to join for years, but he’s still not been able to do.

“Every time, he tells me that this will be his last trip — but every year, like clockwork, I get an email about it,” he said.

“Josh has been a great friend to Jersey City, a great friend to the Liberty Science Center, and a great friend to Israel.”

And there’s one more thing — a trait of Mr. Weston’s that all his friends mention. “He is very, very, very opinionated,” Mr. Fulop said. “And he has very high convictions around his opinions. So it’s always worth a conversation with him, and it’s good to use him as a sounding board for thoughtful and sound opinion.

“Josh is great,” he concluded.

Josh Weston sits with Israeli Pesident Shimon Peres.

Paul Hoffman, a writer, scientist, science educator, storyteller, and all-around public intellectual, has been the Liberty Science Center’s executive director for 11 years.

“Josh was not part of the search committee and interview process” that brought him to Jersey City, Mr. Hoffman said. “When he showed up for my first day of work, in 2011, there was this man camped outside my office, just sitting there. Even before I could get the new keys to the door to my office, Josh is following me in. I didn’t know who he was. He introduced himself, and he said to me, ‘At my age, there is not a lot of time for foreplay or warmup, so I will get right to the point, and hopefully you can deal with that. And you need to get right to the point too. And if I am going off on a tangent, please tell me, “Josh, shut up.”’

“And then he said, ‘The fact that Judy can tell me to shut up is why we have been married for so many decades.’ And I never need to tell him to shut up. Just once, when he was going off on a tangent, I said, ‘Josh, remember why your marriage lasted.’”

It worked.

“Josh is one of the most emotionally generous and available human beings on the planet,” he continued. “When I started here, I had only been in the for-profit sector. I had never run a nonprofit. I had been responsible for promoting science to non-scientists, but I had never run a nonprofit. He was the principal person who educated me about that.

“For my first years here, we spoke three or four times a week. He is a very sage man. And he is a very generous donor. He’s donated at least $10 million to us, and ADP donated $4 million or so. And that money has enabled us to do so many things.

“When I joined the Liberty Science Center, it was not doing well financially, and it was not connecting with its visitors or donors. Shortly into my tenure, Sandy happened, and although our building was okay, we had boat masts up against it, and the parking lots were flooded. Visitors couldn’t get in.

“Josh called me up and said, ‘Paul, I was going on a walk, and I started to think about your challenge in making Liberty Science Center work. It was a great challenge before Sandy, and now you are going to be distracted by how to make it work financially.’

“‘So I want to gift you with what was going to be my bequest. I want you to use it now.’

Josh and Judy, right, are joined by Israeli cousins as they traveled to Ukraine to search for their roots. They’re leaning on a toppled statue
of Stalin.

“It was incredibly generous. Plus he can see what he’s done with it. He can enjoy the visitors.” In fact, it’s like Tom Sawyer’s funeral; because he wasn’t actually dead, he was able to relish it.

Alexander Smukler of Montclair is well-known to readers of this paper because he’s our Ukraine war analyst. Sasha, as he’s called, and his wife, Alla Shtraks, came to this country in 1991, just months before the Soviet Union collapsed. Like many other Russian Jewish emigres, they found a home in MetroWest, and their assimilation was greatly aided by Josh and Judy Weston.

“He was our adopted father,” Mr. Smukler said. “When we got here, we were like Crocodile Dundee,” amazed by the wonders of the modern world. “We had no idea about anything.” He’d been able to travel a bit, so he’d seen something of the outside world, but “Alla hadn’t ever been in a supermarket.”

Hundreds of families were settled in New Jersey. Judy Weston was volunteering at Jewish Family Service, and became almost the family’s Sherpa, shepherding them through their new life. They were able to move into an apartment in Montclair with help from the Jewish Federation of MetroWest, “And the first day, someone rang the bell, and it was Judy. She brought packages of food. She spent a few hours explaining what she’d brought. We were like newborns. What is Tylenol? How do you make hot chocolate. She taught us.

“Judy started to visit us every day.”

One day, Judy took Sasha and Alla to a department store. “She told us that we needed a lot of things, an iron, a teapot, a coffeemaker.

“So we went there, to Fortunoff’s in Willowbrook. This was the first time we met Josh. He was driving us. It was a weekend. He told Judy that he had only half an hour, so let’s do it quick. They can buy whatever they need. And my wife said, ‘We don’t need anything. Only an iron.’” Russian Jews tend to iron everything, Mr. Smukler explained.

Mr. Weston remembers that story; he remembers the Smuklers being overwhelmed by the number of choices they had. You can’t choose which iron to buy in the Soviet Union. You take what the store has, and you feel lucky to have an iron at all.

“He told me later that he hadn’t spent that much time in a store for decades, but it was very unusual for him to bring Crocodile Dundee to Fortunoff’s.”

Mr. Weston helped Ms. Shtraks, Mr. Smukler, and Ms. Shraks’ father find jobs; they were among the dozens of Russians he helped in that way. He did it by learning their interests and starting them at the very lowest end of any enterprise, then watching them, and advancing them when they were ready. He never put anyone in any position that he or she had not earned.

Mayor Steve Fulop, left, and Alexander Smukler

Later, when Mr. Smukler began to be very successful himself, Mr. Weston taught him what he calls “the most important lesson.

“Josh taught me about philanthropy and helping others. He said to me, ‘Listen. Your wife is working, your father-in-law is working, and you are making decent money. It is time for you to give back to the Jewish community.’’

As a result of that lesson, “I’ve been on the board of Boys Town for 25 years,” Mr. Smukler said. “That is Josh’s major passion.” He also supports FIRST Robotics in Montclair, in Israel, and around the world; he first learned about it from the Westons. And those are just some of the causes that he supports, either directly through the Westons or because he learned philanthropy through them.

Cliff Kulwin of Montclair is the rabbi emeritus of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston. He and his wife, Robin, are good friends with the Smuklers, and he met Mr. Weston through them.

“These days, I am one of a large group of people who have breakfast with Josh, one on one,” he said. “You go to his house at the appointed hour, and he gives you bagels and coffee and conversation.

“I love it.

“He has fascinating stories to tell, and he’s a great raconteur, but at the same time he’s an excellent listener. He has specific expectations of you. When you come to have a meal with him, you have to bring stories. You have to have something to talk about, and damn it you have to be prepared.

“You can’t just say that you think that the economy is tanking. You have to say why you think it’s tanking, and why and how it should be changed.”

Mr. Weston is an extraordinary philanthropist, Rabbi Kulwin continued. “It’s not only the number of causes that he’s involved in, but the nature of them. So many causes and awards in Montclair, and also international causes, both Jewish and general.”

None of them are accidental or undertaken to please or placate someone else.

“I can’t imagine Josh writing a check for $10 without having learned and being satisfied that this is a cause that is necessary, and that the organization operates in an ethical and responsible manner. To do otherwise would be entirely foreign to him.”

Mr. Weston also isn’t interested in having his name on buildings — although sometimes it happens, it’s not what drives him — or living as grandly as he could; his house isn’t a castle, and his car isn’t a chariot, or even a flashy sedan. “Josh’s disinterest in kavod” — in recognition — “is genuine,” Rabbi Kulwin said.

Rabbi Cliff Kulwin and Josh Weston sit in Mr. Weston’s kitchen.

He summed up his surprising new friend.

“Imagine making a new friend when you’re in your 90s, as Josh did with me,” Rabbi Kulwin said. “He’s 94 now, and he is interested in the past, but he is far more interested in the present and the future.”

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