105 heartfelt years

105 heartfelt years

Community mourns pioneering physician Norman Reitman

Dr. Norman Reitman, who lived to 105, was remembered as a devoted doctor and a generous donor.
Dr. Norman Reitman, who lived to 105, was remembered as a devoted doctor and a generous donor.

Dr. Norman Reitman wasn’t your average physician, dashing into exam rooms, half-listening to patients describing their symptoms while reading a chart, frequently checking the time, and then leaving just as fast.

“He held their hands and asked about their family,” said Rabbi Bennett Miller of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick. “You always had the impression he really cared about you.”    

Miller’s comments were directed to the large crowd that filled Anshe Emeth as he officiated the funeral for Reitman, who died Feb. 27. He was 105. Reitman’s friendship with Miller dates back to 1974, when Miller assumed leadership at the New Brunswick temple. Reitman, he said, was “a very humble and kind and gracious man who supported everything that was good.”

Reitman was remembered as a pioneering physician and dedicated member of the Middlesex Jewish community whose generosity provided educational opportunities for younger generations. He was a resident of Highland Park. 

The doctor remained active in Anshe Emeth almost until his death, attending weekly Shabbat services and Torah study sessions. He met his late wife, Syril Strauss Reitman, then a Douglass College student, at a temple dance; they established the temple’s annual Syril and Dr. Norman Reitman Scholar-in-Residence weekend.  

“He was alert to the very end,” said Miller. “Recently he had not been able to come as often, but earlier he came every Saturday morning and most Friday nights for as long as I’ve been here.” 

In recent years Reitman was a frequent visitor to the children in the religious school. 

“They loved him and he loved them,” said Miller. “He was very supportive of  the younger generation in the temple and young leaders in general. He was remarkable and I will miss him very much.”

Reitman opened his first medical practice in 1938 in a rented apartment on New Street in New Brunswick, becoming one of the first certified internists in Middlesex County. 

He was also a life member of the board at the former Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, now the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, and assisted in fundraising to create Rutgers University’s Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life.

Lee Livingston, a former president of Anshe Emeth and the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, was a close friend of Reitman’s for many years, marveled at the size of the crowd in attendance.

“We’ve all been to funerals for very elderly people where there have been very few people in the sanctuary,” said Livingston. “For Norman the sanctuary was packed. It really was testimony to all the lives he touched.” 

Livingston recalled a story Reitman once told him about the physician’s early days in medicine when there were only three- or four-digit phone numbers. 

“He started talking about a call he received, like 11 o’clock at night,” Livingston said. “When he asked where the call was coming from he was told a local bar. He got in his car and drove over there. He asked who called for a doctor and a guy said, ‘I called for a taxi.’ It turned out his office number was only one digit different than a taxi service.” 

Reitman, it turned out, was a full-service physician. “He took the guy home and collected the fare.” 

Always at the forefront of medicine, in the early 1950s Reitman received certification in cardiology at a time when the first open heart surgeries were being performed. He became the first physician in the county to operate an electrocardiograph machine and worked as an independent practitioner for 30 years before founding Cardiology Associates of New Brunswick in 1970.

Reitman also served as the first president of the Middlesex County Heart Association, was a New Jersey governor for the American College of Cardiology, and chief of staff at Middlesex General Hospital — now Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick.

Reitman often asked Livingston to bring a pastrami sandwich when he came to visit him at Parker at Stonegate, an assisted living facility and Reitman’s last place of residence. At one of those lunches, when Reitman was in his late 90s, Livingston said the physician engaged in a lively phone conversation with another cardiologist about whether his own heart medication should be changed.

Livingston is the treasurer of Jewish Social Service Committee of New Brunswick and Highland Park which provides Middlesex County residents who have fallen on hard times with rent, mortgages, utilities, food, and medical bills, and other expenses. The loss of Reitman will be a major blow to the committee, he said.

“He was always there if we were giving camp scholarships,” he said. “If I had three or four kids I would talk to Norman and he would quickly write me a check. He was astounding, just amazing. You rarely, if ever, in your life meet a guy like Dr. Reitman. I consider it to have been a real honor to have our lunches and later on those pastrami sandwiches at Parker House with him.” 

In 1958, Reitman was elected a trustee of the Rutgers Alumni Association; in 1975 to the Rutgers Board of Governors, later becoming board chair; and in 1988 a trustee emeritus. When he retired at age 77 in 1989, the hospital and medical school honored him by establishing the annual Norman Reitman Lecture in Cardiology. Forty years ago, the Reitmans established a Rutgers scholarship fund that has made medical careers possible for more than 150 students from around the world.

Born in 1912 in Brooklyn, Reitman grew up in East New York where he learned to be politically active from his mother, Celia Greenman Reitman, a native of Belarus, and his father, Sam Reitman, from the Ukraine. According to his family, one of Reitman’s earliest memories was marching as a kindergartner in a World War I parade against the Kaiser. 

Reitman moved to New Jersey as a teenager, graduated from Bayonne High School in 1928, Rutgers College in 1932, and New York University in 1936 with a doctorate in medicine. He cast his first vote for president in 1932 for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1943, serving in World War II hospitals in Florida, Louisiana, Illinois, and Alaska; in Fairbanks he treated native Alaskan and Russian soldiers. The Reitmans first went to Israel in 1959 and would later travel to more than 50 countries and all seven continents.  

In addition to his wife, Reitman was predeceased by his daughter, Lois Reitman Cartmell, and his brothers, Sidney and Alan Reitman. He is survived by his son, Milton (Ellen) Reitman, Dix Hills, N.Y.; and daughter, Allison (David) Politziner, Princeton; seven grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

Contributions may be made to the Rutgers University Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, and Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple. 

Arrangements were made by Crabiel Parkwest Funeral Chapel, New Brunswick. Interment was at Beth Israel Cemetery, Woodbridge.

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