Hal Braff, 84, remembered as civic leader, mentor, and ‘mensch’
Hal Braff learned early in life that being Jewish means more than religious observance. “Make the world a better place, that is your responsibility,” was his mantra, according to his family. Braff of North Caldwell, 84, died Dec. 1, 2018, after a long illness.
Braff was a community leader, visionary, and humanitarian who was passionate about his family, career, and volunteer endeavors such as aiding the students of Weequahic High School.
“The word love was a part of Hal’s everyday vocabulary,” said Sheldon Bross, who co-founded, with Braff, the Weequahic High School Alumni Association. “Everybody loved Hal. You’re not going to find another person like him.”
Braff was born in Newark in 1934 and raised in its Weequahic section. Dr. Noah Chivian, a Weequahic High School classmate, said Braff “was erudite, articulate, and totally committed to the many missions of repairing the world he adopted.”
Braff graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1956 and remained a Badger football fan.
He received his law degree in 1959 from Rutgers Law School. He practiced for 59 years, first at Braff, Harris and Sukoneck, and then as counsel to Margulies Wind, where he was a mediator.
Braff served as counsel for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in the early 1960s. He was also an adjunct professor of negotiations at Rutgers Law and in other graduate programs.
He is credited with expanding in New Jersey the American Inns of Court movement, an organization dedicated to teaching ethics, civility, and professionalism to young lawyers. He received the organization’s highest honor, which was presented to him in 1994 in the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Hal lived his daily life helping all comers,” said Bob Margulies. “He was selfless. He was the ultimate professional and the consummate mensch, a man for all seasons.”
In 1997, Braff and Bross established the Weequahic High School Alumni Association. The organization grew to be one of the largest and most successful high school alumni groups in New Jersey; it raised more than $500,000 for scholarships and student activities, according to Bross. Braff served as co-president for 18 years.
Phil Yourish, founding director of the association, described Braff as “a kind, generous, thoughtful, and dynamic individual.
“He was a ‘doer,’ not afraid to take on challenging situations, and always addressed difficult issues creatively with enthusiasm and optimism,” said Yourish. “As a mentor, adviser, and friend, he impacted the lives of others in so many wonderful and meaningful ways.”
In addition to the Weequahic Alumni Association, Braff was on the boards of other organizations, including Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey (JHS) and the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris Counties.
JHS honored him in 2017 at their Lasting Impressions Gala for his commitment to Newark and the students of Weequahic.
“Hal understood that to make an impact on a youngster that you just couldn’t throw money at a project or event,” said JHS executive director Linda Forgosh. “You had to do a hands-on approach.” Forgosh said he took students to their first dental appointments and aided them with college applications.
“He was a rare kind of guy,” she said. “Nothing was too much for him.”
Braff was former president of the Reform Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield. In 1978 his family joined the Conservative Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange.
Oheb Shalom’s religious leader, Rabbi Mark Cooper, spoke of Braff’s care for people. “[He] was a person whose extraordinary compassion was always aligned with his drive to make a difference in people’s lives,” Cooper wrote in an email to NJJN. “His love and appreciation for his family, and for the beauty and mystery of life itself, were always expressed with profound insight and eloquence. He will be sorely missed.”
In addition to logging countless volunteer hours, Braff enjoyed a variety of interests, including community theater, opera, and the N.Y. Mets.
Predeceased by his daughter Shoshana, he is survived by his wife of 30 years, Elaine; three sons, Adam (Michelle), Joshua (Jill), and Zach; two daughters, Jennifer Gelman and Jessica Kirson (Danielle Sweeney-Kirson); a sister, Susan Sayers; and 10 grandchildren, Jagger, Henry and Ella, and Lila and Blaze Braff; Bryce, Jade, and Tyler Gelman; Isabella Sweeney-Kirson; and Zoe Cali-Manko.
Services were held Dec. 4 with arrangements by Bernheim-Apter-Kreitzman Suburban Funeral Chapel, Livingston. Memorial contributions may be made to Weequahic High School Alumni Association, P.O. Box 494, Newark, N.J. 07101.