George Rich, 83, a longtime leader of and major donor to Jewish causes and, locally, a benefactor of the Lester Society of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest, died at his New York City home on Aug. 5, 2015. He formerly resided in Short Hills.
The founder and former president of Starline Optical Corporation, Mr. Rich was born in Budapest in 1931. In 1949, after surviving the Holocaust, he escaped from communist Hungary to Austria, where he lived for three years in a displaced persons’ camp run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. He immigrated to the United States in 1954 and served as an interpreter in the United States Army for refugees from Hungary at Camp Kilmer in Piscataway. Herman Lebersfeld, a past board member of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, noted, “In his capacity as interpreter for the U.S. Army he interviewed my Hungarian cousins who had just won gold medals in the Melbourne Olympics and were seeking asylum after the Russian invasion of Hungary.”
Later, Rich served on the JDC board and became chair of the organization for Eastern Europe.
A past federation board member, he was active on numerous federation committees and chair of several events. He and his late wife, Martha, went on many federation-sponsored missions.
Rich and his wife, who died in 2011, were active supporters of many Jewish service organizations and were founding members and benefactors of the Education Division of the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City and Eternal Flame of New Jersey.
Among the Jews whose survival was owed to the efforts of Raoul Wallenberg, Rich was instrumental in the erection in Parsippany of a statue honoring the Swedish diplomat, who is credited with saving the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews in the last hours of the liquidation of the Budapest ghetto.
The war prevented Rich from engaging in formal learning, but he was a self-educated man who read widely on history and current events and took a keen interest in politics. His early studies in classical piano led to his lifelong love of classical music and jazz. He was a frequent customer at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in Manhattan.
“George Rich was a beloved and admired leader of our community and of the Joint Distribution Committee for many years,” said former federation president Murray Laulicht. “Having experienced and survived the Holocaust, George was a passionate proponent of the idea…that the federation should always be a leader in the fight against hunger. True to this ideal, George contributed considerable sums of his own money to help win that fight. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him.”
“George Rich had an extraordinary life,” said Max Kleinman, executive vice president/CEO emeritus of the GMW federation. “A survivor of the brutal Hungarian Holocaust, he found a new life in America. He raised a family, built a successful company, and, with his late wife Martha, was a leader in Holocaust education and one of the stalwarts behind the Raoul Wallenberg memorial in Parsippany.
“He and Martha are emblematic of the strength and leadership of two individuals who withstood the horrors of their youth to become giants in their Jewish community.
“He was an elegant man and a great conversationalist,” Kleinman added. “I will miss him dearly.”
Former federation board member Adele Lebersfeld, who also sat on the JDC board with Rich, said, “George was my mentor when I became a JDC board member. He was very special, a true gentleman, committed to making our Jewish world a better place. Together with Martha they created a lifetime of ‘giving’ of their time and their resources.”
He is survived by three daughters, Diane (Robert) Herzog of Paramus, Monica (Rod) Kosann of New York City, and Irina Langer of New York City; his son, Michael (Kathy) Leob, formerly of Woodcliff Lake; six grandchildren, Daniel, Danielle (Seth), Jason (Rachel), Julia, Laura, and Marc; and a great-grandson, Jake.
Services were held Aug. 7 with arrangements by Riverside Memorial Chapel, Manhattan. Memorial contributions may be made to Eternal Flame (eternalflame.org).