About 80 prominent members of the Palm Beach Jewish community gathered one night early this year, a few months after the extent of their losses in the Bernard Madoff investment scandal became known. The meeting was in the home of one member for a fundraiser on behalf of UJA-Federation of New York.
Without prompting, Joseph Gurwin, a part-time member of the community who had lost millions of dollars to Madoff, spoke for a few minutes.
“He stood up and said no matter what happened to us, we still have to support those who are less fortunate than ourselves,” said Paul Kane, UJA-Federation senior vice president. Mr. Gurwin’s words had “an effect,” Kane said – the night was a success, despite the time’s economic uncertainty.
Mr. Gurwin, who died Sept. 24 at 89 of congestive heart failure in his Manhattan apartment, was a Lithuanian-born industrialist and philanthropist who supported a wide variety of Jewish and civic causes. His name is on a major geriatric center on Long Island, and was on two satellites launched into outer space.
He had homes in Manhattan, Southampton and Palm Beach.
“From firsthand experience, Joe knew what it meant to relocate and begin life anew,” John Ruskay, UJA-Federation executive vice president, said in a eulogy Sunday at Temple Beth El in Great Neck. “Joe Gurwin was an ohav Yisroel, a lover of the Jewish people. He wanted to be assured that young Jews in New York – or Kiev – were being provided every opportunity to experience the power of Jewish life.”
Mr. Gurwin was the founder, with his late wife Rosalind, of the Jewish Geriatric Center of Long Island, a 460-bed rehabilitation and nursing care facility in Commack, which is named for the couple. He was also a trustee of the North Shore Long Island Jewish Medical Center, a founder of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and a supporter of the Weizmann Institute and the Technion Institute in Israel.
He chaired UJA-Federation in 1988, after playing a major role in the 1986 merger of the United Jewish Appeal of New York and the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies.
“He made an enormous contribution to Jewish life in the United States and the quality of life in Israel,” said Stephen Solender, executive vice president emeritus of UJA-Federation.
Thanks to funding for a joint venture by Israeli and Russian research institutes, two satellites bore Mr. Gurwin’s name – in 1995 and 1998. The first crashed upon launching. The second, Gurwin 1B, successfully entered orbit.
Mr. Gurwin, Newsday wrote, was “believed to be the only living person with a satellite named after him.”
Born Joseph Gurwich, he came to the U.S. in 1934 at 14, with $100 in his pocket, to live with an uncle. His parents later died in Nazi concentration camps, but a brother survived. The siblings were not reunited until 50 years later in Israel.
Mr. Gurwin — who had Americanized his name — served in the U.S. Army during World War II. In 1941 he became a partner in an uncle’s business that made military supplies. In 1959 he founded Kings Point Industries, which manufactured items like bulletproof vests and parachute drop equipment for the armed forces.
Mr. Gurwin is survived by his second wife, Phyllis; a son, Eric; a daughter, Laura Flug; and four grandchildren.
Last year, after discovering that his personal fortune – administered by the J. Gurwin and Gurwin Family foundations – had disappeared in the Madoff Ponzi scheme, he told friends he would “sell apples on the corner” to keep fulfilling his philanthropic obligations.
His losses were estimated at $36 million.
“I will have to replenish them,” he told the Palm Beach Post. “I believe we were put on this earth not just to take but to give.”