Joseph Gurwin once noted that if he hadn’t been a poor student in Latin as a teenager in his native Lithuania, he may never have made it to these shores. Rather than repeat the academic year, he chose to come to America in 1936, alone and with only $100. He went on to not only make his fortune in business, but to leave a lasting legacy of philanthropy in our community, in Israel and throughout the Jewish world.
Long before he established the Rosalind and Joseph Gurwin Jewish Geriatric Center of Long Island, with its high standards in caring for the elderly, Gurwin, who died Sept. 24 at the age of 89, was known for his deep concern for Jews in need. As a
teen, he lived at the 92nd Street Y for four years, and internalized the lesson of taking care of others. It stayed with him the rest of his life; earlier this year he urged fellow victims of Bernard Madoff’s investment scandal to continue to give generously to Jewish causes. He did so himself, though his charities lost $36 million to Madoff. He told a reporter that he was prepared “to sell apples on the street” to continue his philanthropic work.
“From firsthand experience, Joe knew what it meant to relocate and begin life anew,” UJA-Federation executive vice president John Ruskay said in a eulogy on Sunday at Temple Beth El in Great Neck.
Gurwin’s parents were killed during World War II, and it was 52 years before he was reunited in Israel with his brother, Chaim, who survived the concentration camps.
But Gurwin, aided by an uncle in New York, became a successful businessman, and later a lay leader in the Jewish community. He was chair of UJA-Federation in 1988, a founder of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and a supporter and board member of numerous other institutions.
Over the years, Joseph Gurwin’s name became synonymous with generosity and responsibility, and it will always be so. As he said recently, “I believe we were put on this earth not just to take but to give.”
May his memory be a blessing.