Remembering Ben Perlmutter
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Remembering Ben Perlmutter

Maplewood man was a guiding force behind Jewish Vocational Service of MetroWest

Ben and Ruth Perlmutter
Ben and Ruth Perlmutter

The Jewish Vocational Service of MetroWest New Jersey recently named its student loan program the Ben Perlmutter Student Loan Program, after one of its founders and a main force behind its success.

Benjamin Perlmutter, who lived in Maplewood, died in September. He was 96.

His was a life well lived; he was a guiding force in many organizations, including the Hebrew Free Loan Society (now called Hebrew Free Loan of New Jersey), the Jewish Community Housing Corporation, the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, and the Lautenberg Center for Immunology and Cancer Research at Hebrew University.

But during the many years that he was involved in a variety of organizations, the Jewish Vocational Service always held a special place for him. Mr. Perlmutter came by his devotion to the Jewish community naturally. His parents, Harry and Rebecca Perlmutter, emigrated to this country from Vinnytsia in west central Ukraine and settled in Newark. Harry Perlmutter went into business with a loan from Hebrew Free Loan and gave back to the community later in life by sitting on its board during the 1940s.

Following his father’s example, Ben became involved in the community as a teen. He was senior class president at Weequahic High School and then went to the University of North Carolina, where he was elected president of the school’s Hillel and was an early supporter of civil rights, leading an interfaith student group that worked for the first integrated concert in UNC history. Mr. Perlmutter and his wife, Ruth, honored his time in Chapel Hill by establishing the UNC Hillel Ruth and Benjamin Perlmutter Foundation for Ethics in Our Time, which is dedicated to internationally recognized thinkers on the topics of ethics and Judaism on the campus.

He was drafted into the army in World War II, sustained an injury during basic training that kept him in the United States until his service ended.

After finishing his undergraduate studies, Mr. Perlmutter earned a law degree at Rutgers and then went into business with his father-in-law, Cecil Luria. Mr. Luria’s company, Atlas Steel Products, provided construction materials for businesses throughout northern New Jersey. Later, after Mr. Luria died and Mr. Perlmutter took over, he changed its name to Benco.

Taking care of his business never stopped Mr.
Perlmutter from engaging in service to the Jewish community. That became clear in 1959, when he received the Julius and Betsy Cohn Award, which was given by what was then called UJA but is now the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest. The award recognizes potential in up-and-coming Jewish leaders.

Much of Mr. Perlmutter’s passion for meeting the needs of the Jewish community was centered on JVS. Early on, he saw how important it was to create a student loan program for young people who could not pay for their college education after they’d exhausted all resources available to them. Mr. Perlmutter was instrumental in founding that program at JVS 44 years ago. “He was the one behind it,” Michael Andreas, JVS’s executive director, said. “He wanted students to be able to reach their educational goals.”

When asked why making student loans were so important to her husband, Ruth Perlmutter said it was personal and a way for him to pay back. “He felt it was important that they should have the opportunity to continue their education as he had.”

Mr. Andreas, who lives in Roseland and has been at JVS for the last eight years, speaks of Mr. Perlmutter in glowing as well as respectful terms. “During covid, Ben would call just to check in,” he said. “He’d want to know how I was doing, how JVS was doing, and especially how the student loan program was doing. He was such a gentle man. He was a real big part of the success of JVS.”

Mr. Perlmutter was on JVS’s board for decades and was its president from 1973 to 1975. “Every year that we went through the process of accepting candidates for the distribution of loans, he would be very much involved in vetting the applications, setting up meetings, and chairing them,” Mr. Andreas said. “He always wanted to make sure that people were taken care of.

“Ben was one of those people who would come to a board meeting and sit on the side. There’d be conversations, give and take. But as soon as Ben spoke up, everyone got silent. Everyone listened to what Ben had to say. Because he knew JVS, they knew what he had to say mattered.”

Although others might have left community service behind after they retired, Mr. Perlmutter continued to be deeply engaged in it. He was involved in the Jewish Community Housing Corporation, which offers senior living options in Essex and Morris counties, and served on the board of Hebrew Free Loan, as his father had. He was a chair of the Maplewood Economic Commission and a founder of the Society of Musical Arts, which helped bring live classical performances to local venues. According to his wife, he hadn’t been interested in classical music but still saw its value to the community.

“The entire community knew who my father was,” Risa Goldstein, one of his daughters, said. “He touched so many people. He was involved in the community in every possible way that he could be.” Quoting notes the family received after her father’s death and during shiva, she said, “If my father heard people were having a hard time, with whatever it was, he would say, ‘How can I help you?’”

Ben Perlmutter’s survivors include his wife, Ruth; his daughters Risa Goldstein and Amy Perlmutter; two grandsons, Adam and Hannah Goldstein, and his son-in-law, Eli Goldstein. They also include legions of friends and admirers.

His life was truly well lived.

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