Builder, philanthropist Alan Sagner dies at 97

Builder, philanthropist Alan Sagner dies at 97

Former chairman of Port Authority was a founder of modern Livingston, champion of Jewish causes

Alan Sagner, UJA special gifts chairman, standing, with Moshe Dayan, wife Ruth Sagner, and Rabbi Herbert A. Friedman of national UJA leadership, circa 1961. Photos courtesy Jewish historical society of nj
Alan Sagner, UJA special gifts chairman, standing, with Moshe Dayan, wife Ruth Sagner, and Rabbi Herbert A. Friedman of national UJA leadership, circa 1961. Photos courtesy Jewish historical society of nj

Alan Sagner, a major benefactor of the Jewish community of Greater MetroWest NJ and beyond, and a strong backer of the Democratic Party and other liberal causes, died Jan. 3 at his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. He was 97. 

“He was very philanthropic. He had a very remarkable life,” said Max Kleinman, an associate professor of social work at Rutgers University who served as executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ for nearly 20 years, retiring in 2014. 

Beyond being a major donor to the federation for more than three decades, Sagner was a former chair of its UJA Campaign, a key funder of JCC MetroWest in West Orange, and a patron to several local Jewish agencies. He was also an early supporter of J Street, the liberal “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group.

As a champion of social justice, Sagner fought residents of West and South Orange who opposed the building of housing for seniors and the disabled. The structures now stand as residences operated by The Jewish Community Housing Corporation of Metropolitan New Jersey.

A former chairman of the board of Newark Beth Israel Hospital, now Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, he stood firm in opposing an unsuccessful plan to relocate the city’s premier hospital to the suburbs after the 1967 Newark riots. 

A real estate developer and builder by profession, Sagner and Martin Levin, his brother-in-law and partner, are credited with acquiring Livingston farmland and building homes to convert it into a bedroom community designed to entice Jews in Newark and East Orange to move to the suburbs.

“Alan had a vision that you could take Livingston, which at the time had no real Jewish population, and build subdivisions and houses,” said David Mallach, a former executive director of the Community Relations Committee (CRC) of what was then United Jewish Communities of MetroWest New Jersey. “They marketed it very successfully,” said Mallach, who is now executive vice chairman of the United Israel Appeal, a branch of The Jewish Federations of North America. 

Beyond his deep concern for Jewish causes, Sagner was a strong advocate for progressive groups and Democratic political campaigns. His involvement began in 1960, when he joined the abortive campaign of Adlai Stevenson, who ran for his party’s presidential nomination against Sen. John F. Kennedy. 

But Sagner later found success in his efforts to elect Democrat Brendan Byrne, an underdog candidate for New Jersey’s governor in 1973. Sagner was the campaign’s finance chairman, and after Byrne’s victory, he served as the new governor’s commissioner of transportation, and was later his nominee to be chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; he was confirmed in 1977 by the NJ State Senate by a vote of 38 to 1. And in 1994, President Bill Clinton nominated Sagner to be a member of the board of directors of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate and served as chairman from 1996 to 1997.

In addition, Sagner was a vice president of the Health and Hospitals Council of Metropolitan New Jersey and a trustee of the New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry.

Sagner was “just great,” said Jacob Toporek, who was the appointments counsel to Gov. Byrne and worked closely with Sagner. Now the executive director of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations, Toporek said Sagner “always returned phone calls responding to my inquiries and my recommendations for certain board appointments. He was a very capable administrator.”

But Sagner was also a controversial figure. He was an investor in the left-of-center magazine, The Nation, and a founder of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in 1960. In 1996 Kleinman accompanied Sagner to Cuba on one of the first American missions to visit its Jewish community. 

“It was a great experience,” Kleinman said. “Now everybody goes to Cuba, but it was at the start of President Fidel Castro’s initiative to encourage religious tourism and the influx of foreign capital to his country.” 

Sagner’s strong opposition to America’s boycott of Cuba caused friction between him and some of his colleagues in the Greater MetroWest community. Cuban-American Robert Menendez was elected to the House of Representatives in 1992. The CRC of what was then United Jewish Federation of MetroWest backed the future N.J. senator’s denunciation of Castro.  

“Sagner saw that and went ballistic,” recalled Mallach. “It was definitely one of the more uncomfortable conversations I had during my period as the CRC director.”

Sagner was born on Sept. 13, 1920, in Baltimore, where he attended public schools before graduating from the University of Maryland and obtaining a master’s degree in history from Columbia University.

In 1945 he married Ruth Levin, the daughter of New Jersey real estate developer Maurice Levin. She died in 1995, and a year later he married Lenore Green Schottenstein. They divorced in 2006. 

He is survived by his daughters, Deborah Sagner Buurma and Amy Sagner Pouliot; his son, John; eight grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements were handled by Bernheim-Apter-Kreitzman Suburban Funeral Chapel in Livingston. In lieu of flowers the family requests contributions to Planned Parenthood, the Movement for Black Lives, and the Newark Museum.

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