Dr. Ira Kukin, innovative industrialist and philanthropist
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Dr. Ira Kukin, 93, a West Orange philanthropist and pioneer in manufacturing air pollution control technology, died May 17.
He was an anchor of local and national Jewish communities and a benefactor of Jewish and secular institutions, including Harvard University and Yeshiva University. He was also chairman of the board of Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim in Forest Hills, Queens.
Kukin was a founder and first president of B’nai David in West Orange, which later became Congregation Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David.
He referred to the West Orange Orthodox community as “the miracle of West Orange,” according to his son Jonathan, who credits the support and example of Kukin and his peers with growing the Orthodox presence.
“There were two equally important contributions to make to your shul: to serve as a volunteer, and to support it financially,” said Jonathan. “There were no sideline sitters when Dr. Kukin was leading the effort.”
In his professional life, Kukin was a chemist who developed a new technology to reduce air pollution emissions in large electricity-generating stations that burn heavy fuel oil and coal, eventually founding his own company, Apollo Technologies International Corporation, in Whippany.
Abraham Yitzhak Kukin was born in New York City in 1924 to William and Clara (Wachtel) Kukin. His father, a cabinet maker, owned a candy store. Abie, as he was known, was one of four children; he later Americanized his name to Ira. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the City College of New York in 1945 and a doctorate from Harvard University in 1951. He married the former Doris Liener in 1954 and they had three children.
Kukin taught at Harvard University, was a research scientist for Gulf Research and Development in Pittsburgh, and then served as research director at the Sonneborn division of Wilco before founding Apollo Technologies in 1963. He was president and chief executive officer of the company until 1983, when he sold it to Economics Labs and began his philanthropic endeavors in earnest.
He held 11 patents, granted between 1976 and 2004.
Kukin served for many years as vice chairman of Yeshiva University’s board, as well as chair of its academic affairs committee. He was also a trustee of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the Cardozo School of Law, and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Mount Sinai Hospital. He was chairman emeritus of the Rabbinical Seminary of America.
Kukin and his wife endowed the Ira & Doris Kukin Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business, as well as an annual lecture series. Doris Kukin endowed a chair in molecular biology at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, where she served as a trustee. The Kukins also supported UJA Federation, Israel Bonds, and the organization that is now the Leon & Toby Cooperman JCC in West Orange, as well as many educational institutions, including the Jerusalem College of Technology, City College of New York, Brandeis University, Barnard College, and all of the various yeshivot that his grandchildren have attended.
He had a passion for education, Jewish values, and leadership, and he put those together to create the Society of Kukin Fellows, which provided a merit-based college stipend for two New Jersey high school graduates every year from 1984 until 2004. On hearing of Kukin’s death, one recipient wrote to the family that Kukin “was one of the first people to teach me to believe in myself because he so selflessly believed in me as he did so many young Jewish people.”
At Harvard, he was the founding benefactor of the Academy for International and Area Studies. In a 1985 interview in The Harvard Crimson, he was asked why he made a major donation to create the academy. “First, I owed it to Harvard. I got my education there, and it made a big difference to me,” he answered. “Second, I felt I was being given the opportunity to do something for mankind… And finally, when all is said and done, there’s a very simple reason for my gift. I feel very proud of Harvard, and I can assure you I’m giving back to it far less than I took.”
Ira Kukin was predeceased in 2016 by his wife, Doris (Liener) Kukin. He is survived by three children, Marrick (Phyllis), Lori Moskowitz (Jeffrey), and Jonathan (Leora); 13 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.