Robert Arnow was a lifelong champion of the underdog — from sports teams to struggling media companies and educational institutions, to Jews in need, to Israel’s most downtrodden segments of society.
“He had a very deep moral commitment to improving things for people,” his son, David, recalled Monday, on the eve of his father’s funeral. And David’s brother, Josh, described their father as “a man of instinct, initiative and action.”
The senior Arnow, a major real estate developer and philanthropist, died at his home in Scarsdale, N.Y. on Dec. 15. He was 94.
One underdog that benefited from Bob Arnow’s caring and commitment was The Jewish Week. He was one of 10 prominent business leaders who, along with Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, came together to re-constitute the struggling newspaper in the mid-1970s, ensuring its survival through their leadership and generosity and helping it grow for the last four decades. As its founding chairman and active board member until his last years, he championed The Jewish Week’s mandate to be an independent voice in the face of efforts to influence it politically and religiously.
“Bob combined his exemplary generosity with advice, wisdom and clear thinking,” said Stuart Himmelfarb, president of The Jewish Week board. “He is the last of our founders to pass away. To say this is an end of an era is an understatement; to say our future is brighter because Bob was on our board and in our corner is a better way to say thanks for this incredible person.”
“Bob was an inspirational leader, visionary and friend,” said Peter Wang, former president and current chairman of The Jewish Week board. “I will miss his wise counsel and good cheer; he leaves a great legacy, and he will be missed by all who knew and loved him.”
Bob’s integrity and reputation as leader who could not be cowed helped convince me to accept my post back in 1993, and he was always available for advice and encouragement. He played a similar role in leading JTA, the global Jewish news agency, in a time of transition as well in the 1970s.
Born in 1924 in Roxbury, Mass., Bob planned to become a pharmacist like his father, but soon after marrying Joan Weiler in 1949, he was persuaded by her father, Jack Weiler, to join him in the real estate business. It was Weiler, a leader in business, philanthropy and Jewish communal life, who was Bob’s mentor in those areas.
“Bob Arnow was among the very best Jewish leaders I have ever worked with,” said John Ruskay, CEO emeritus of UJA-Federation of New York, where Bob served as vice president of the board. “Smart. Respectful of volunteers and professionals. Dignified. Unrelenting in working to actualizing Israel as a Jewish democratic state. A gift to Jewish life.”
Bob’s family cited a dramatic moment when his interest in Judaism intensified. It took place in 1957 when his wife, Joan, almost died giving birth to their son, Josh. He later said that he had prayed for her recovery and pledged to become a more active Jew if she survived. And he did, instituting traditional Friday night Shabbat meals at home and giving up golf on Saturdays to attend synagogue. “There was a radical difference after that and his life became a Jewish life,” his son David said, “with a deep interest in Jewish learning.”
Perhaps his most lasting legacy will be for his unique role as champion and prime benefactor of the nomadic community of Bedouins, who make up about 25 percent of the population of the Negev in Israel’s desert south. That relationship resulted from his lay leadership role with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in the 1980s at a time when its future was uncertain, due to a range of financial and bureaucratic problems. He was chair of the board of governors for a decade, beginning in the mid-1990s, and he became aware of the plight of the Bedouins who faced social, economic and political crises as the ultimate “others” in Israeli society.
“Bob was one of those rare individuals who gave not only of his wealth but of his self,” Rivka Carmi, president of BGU, told The Jewish Week. She cited “a generation of Bedouin women who have created a genuine revolution in their society due mainly to Bob’s vision, drive and passion.”
One of those women, Amal Elsana, a professor in social work at McGill University in Montreal, met Bob when she was the first Bedouin woman to attend BGU. “His dream was to improve life for the Bedouins and he recognized that the key was to provide education for Bedouin women” who lived in a strict patriarchal society, she said. He provided university scholarships for hundreds of Bedouin women and founded a center at BGU dedicated to improving Bedouin lives.
“He was an angel” in that community, said Elsana, who plans to make good next year on her promise to Bob “to return to teach at BGU and serve my community.” She was one of the speakers at Bob’s funeral on Tuesday morning at Congregation Shaarei Tikvah in Scarsdale.
“Wherever I went with Bob in the Negev, from BGU board meetings to visits to the Bedouin community, he was greeted with love and affection,” said Rabbi Steve Shaw, who served as Bob’s point man in the region for several years in the early 2000s.
Bob is survived by his four children, David, Peter, Joshua and Ruth, 10 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. His wife of 61 years, Joan, died in 2010 at age 80.
JTA contributed to this report.