Remembering Stanley Abramovitch, for seven decades ‘the embodiment of the Joint’

By Debra Rubin/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: Stanley Abramovitch (left) receives rabbinical ordination from Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu in Israel, November 1995. Credit: JDC.

The year was 1935. Yehoshua Abramowicz, just 14, was leaving Poland to join his father in England. His mother told him, “Try to be a good Jew.”

By all accounts, the boy who became Stanley Abramovitch and never again saw his mother—she along with two of his brothers, one of them his twin, perished in the Holocaust—did just that. For nearly seven decades, Abramovitch, who died May 13 at 93, worked for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), traveling throughout the world and dedicating himself to the wellbeing and education of the Jewish people. In 2009, he told The Jerusalem Post that he couldn’t imagine a life “without making a contribution to the Jewish people.”

Contribute he did, immersing himself each step of the way in the life and culture of the people with whom he was working, learning to speak French, Farsi and Russian, in addition to English, Hebrew and his native Yiddish. “If I hadn’t known the local languages, then I never would have been able to communicate” with the people with whom he was working, Abramovitch told the Post.

“Stanley was basically the embodiment of the Joint,” as JDC is often called, Asher Ostrin, a JDC executive in Jerusalem who worked closely with Abramovitch in the former Soviet Union, tells JNS.org. “And if you look at the places where we work, Stanley was basically at the epicenter for all of that.”

Click photo to download. Caption: Stanley Abramovitch speaks at a  Synagogue in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1993. Credit: JDC.

His life’s work began at age 25 when he volunteered to help Holocaust survivors after World War II. JDC sent him to a displaced persons camp in Germany; for four years, he helped survivors rebuild their lives. JDC then sent him to Tehran, where he spent another four years, primarily working on programs for Jewish children.

An ordained rabbi, Abramovitch then went to Paris to work on JDC’s “Jewish Marshall Plan,” designed to assist Europe’s Jewish communities in reestablishing their formal and informal Jewish educational system.

In 1956, while he was participating in a Jewish seminar in Switzerland, he met the love of his life: an Israeli woman 14 years his junior who was studying in the seminar. “He was handsome, very clever, very witty,” says his widow, Noemi. She recalls returning home to Israel and telling her parents, “By the way, I met someone I think I’m going to marry.”

By the next year, the couple were married and living in Paris. A few months later, JDC sent them to America so that Abramovitch could study for a master’s degree in educational administration at Columbia University in New York.

By the time the Abramovitches, now with baby daughter Edna, returned to Europe, JDC had moved its office from Paris to Geneva. Headquartered there for the next 15 years, Abramovitch continued his peripatetic lifestyle, traveling to help Jewish communities throughout Europe, as well as in the Middle East and North Africa. He often carried a suitcase filled with food so as an Orthodox Jew he could keep kosher properly.

Meanwhile, the couple had two more children, Joseph and Moshe, although Moshe would tragically drown, caught in riptides, in 1978 at age 18. (Abramovitch also is survived by 15 grandchildren and, “so far,” says his wife, 20 great-grandchildren.)

The family had moved to Israel in 1972. JDC eventually sent him to the former Soviet Union, putting him in charge of the Asian republics during the transition from communism.

“He was out of touch with a wife and young children literally for months at a time,” Ostrin says. “He was driven by this notion that he was making a contribution in his way to the Jewish people. He subsumed any of his own need for creature comforts. He was in places where the physical conditions were unbearable. He sometimes slept outside, slept in swamps, slept in cars.”

Former JDC CEO Michael Schneider, now secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, called him “probably among the two or three best professionals in the history of the organization,” a religious Jew who “was tolerant, open minded and mixed comfortably and easily among much more secular members of our staff and the community.”

Abramovitch had a knack for connecting with people, Ostrin says, and for helping American donors understand their own connection to and responsibility for Jews in far-flung places. When American Jews would visit a JDC project, Ostrin says, “he wasn’t showing animals in the zoo, he was showing people among whom he lived. He could bring an understanding of who these Jews were. …  They may speak differently, dress differently, have a different routine, but they are us, and you have a responsibly for them.”

Those who knew Abramovitch marvel at his charisma. “When his name comes up, there’s an awe and holiness about him,” says Ostrin.

Abramovitch had “a kind of shining persona that everybody gravitated toward and appreciated,” Schneider says. “There was an aura about him.”

The author of From Survival to Revival: A Memoir of Six Decades in a Changing Jewish World and Lighting Up the Soul: Stories from a Changing Jewish World, as well as three children’s books, Abramovitch officially retired in 2008. But he continued as a consultant, making at least weekly visits from the family’s Ramat Gan home to the JDC Jerusalem office, where, as Ostrin put it, “he held court,” giving advice based on the wisdom of his years.

The results of a routine blood test in August led to a diagnosis of leukemia, which was kept in check until just weeks before his death. “He worked as if it was nothing,” says his wife.

About a month before he died, Abramovitch came down with an infection that could not be controlled. Ultimately, his system shut down. But even in the hospital, he was telling the staff stories, “and he was making them laugh and making them feel good,” his wife says. 

“There was something about him,” Noemi says.

“Wherever he went, he came into a room and he was the center.”

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Posted on May 31, 2013 and filed under Jewish Life, Features, U.S., World.