Joseph Tabak was a man of his word.
Rabbi Eliot Malomet, religious leader of Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth (HPCT-CAE), said that on Sept. 19 he was called to the hospital by Joseph Tabak’s sons, as their father neared the end of his battle with cancer.
“I sat beside him,” said Malomet, “and he told me he was ready to go and be with his beloved Harr” — his wife, Harriet, who died almost five years ago. But the rabbi pointed out that if he died that day, the funeral would be the next day, erev Rosh HaShanah, and some people would be disappointed that they would not be able to come.
“He smiled in a kind of mischievous way and said, ‘So is Thursday okay?’”
Malomet assured Tabak that Thursday would be fine, since the funeral could then be held on Sunday, when all his friends would be free to attend.
“I said, ‘Is that a deal?’ and he said, ‘It’s a deal.’”
As promised, Tabak died Sept. 21, on the first day of the holiday, and a crowd of several hundred mourners came to the temple for his funeral on Sunday.
“Even to the very end, Joey kept his word,” said Malomet, who conducted the service. “He always felt an incredible responsibility to others. That, combined with his humility, made him an extraordinary human being.”
Tabak, 85, was a lifelong Highland Park resident whose family roots go back about 100 years in the borough, and whose ties to the temple and the Jewish and general communities stretch back decades.
Offering deepest condolences to the Tabak family, Susan Antman, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ, said she and her colleagues were both mourning and celebrating “the remarkable life of this special man.”
“Joe was an honorable and upright gentleman who was beloved by all he encountered,” she said. “He was sincere and true in his heart and mind. Joe devoted his life to his family, friends, business, and the community with extraordinary generosity.”
Antman said that the Tabaks were “valued members of the federation’s Vanguard” — the organization’s top donors — where they “set the standard for creative philanthropic giving and commitment to future generations.”
Tabak was an honorary member of the HPCT-CAE board, which had conferred its Chaver Award on the couple, and a trustee of Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison. He served as past chair of the Middlesex County State of Israel Bonds, which awarded him the Israel Peace Medal.
Tabak was a member of the World Presidents’ Organization, a global group of heads of major business enterprises; was chairman of the board for many years at Saint Peter’s University Hospital in New Brunswick; and served on the boards of the McCarrick Care Center in Somerset and the Community First Bank. Among his many accolades, he received the Bishop’s Award from the Catholic Diocese of Metuchen, and was given the Knight of Saint Sylvester Award by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, an honor rarely bestowed upon non-Catholics.
“Mr. Tabak is so deserving of this pontifical honor,” then-Bishop Paul Bootkoski of the Diocese of Metuchen told NJJN at the time. “He is the embodiment of Judeo-Christian values. His service to St. Peter’s, our only diocesan hospital, has been invaluable.”
Tabak went into the paper business with his father, building the Edison-based Jersey Paper Company, a longtime distributor of paper, packaging, and plastic products, into one of the largest paper supply companies in New Jersey. But, said the rabbi, as the company’s president Tabak was always fair and respectful to competitors, and he was beloved by others in the industry.
Malomet said that Tabak had once taken him on a tour of his plant, stopping “to schmooze” with everyone from drivers to forklift operators, and the level of mutual respect was evident.
“Joe was extraordinarily kind and generous, and he had a zest for life,” said Malomet. “He had a great sense of humor and was a really good businessman. He was a person you could turn to in time of need and he never turned you away — never, never.”
After a devastating fire at the temple in 2006, Malomet said Tabak told him, “Rabbi, I’m here for you. Whatever you need let me know.”
Malomet characterized Tabak’s marriage to Harriet, “the love of his life,” as an “extraordinary partnership.”
“Joe was the first to recognize she was the force in their partnership, and after she died he was devastated,” Malomet said. “They had a fabulous marriage and truly loved each other.”
Three years ago Tabak dedicated a Torah scroll in Harriet’s memory at the temple, and he took special pride in carrying it in the sanctuary on Yom Kippur in subsequent years. This year, as Tabak died just days before the Day of Judgement, his sons carried the scroll in their father’s absence.
“We always say, ‘May the dead be bound up in the bond of eternal life,’” said Malomet. “What this means is they are connected to living memory. As long as we are alive [Harriet and Joseph] will be connected to living memory, and their presence in our community will be felt as strongly as can be.”
In addition to sons Jeffrey (Marilyn) of Manhattan and Steven (Cathy) of Westfield, Tabak is survived by five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Arrangements were handled by Crabiel Parkwest Funeral Chapel, New Brunswick. Burial was at Mount Lebanon Cemetery, Iselin. Memorial contributions may be made to the Joseph Tabak Memorial Fund, c/o HPCT-CAE.