Howard Kiesel, a pillar of the Greater Metro-West Jewish community who led several of its major organizations, died of cancer June 11 at St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston. He was 89.
Born at what was then Newark Beth Israel Hospital, Kiesel was raised in Hillside. He attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and graduated from Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts as a commercial artist.
Kiesel, an art director and advertising executive by profession, became a leader in the Jewish community in 1965, when he served as president (through 1968)of Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield, which he helped organize, and as cochair of both its United Jewish Appeal and Israel Bonds campaigns. He was a member of the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest and a board member of Newark Beth Israel Medical Center and the NJ Healthcare Foundation. He was also vice president of the Hebrew Free Loan Association.
Kiesel was actively involved in the Jewish Historical Society of NJ (JHS) since the mid-1990s, moving up its leadership ranks from secretary in 2000 to its president in 2008. Seven years later he received its Lasting Impressions Award for outstanding leadership in the Jewish community. It was a central part of his life, even after his term expired in 2012.
To Linda Forgosh, executive director of JHS, Kiesel was more than the society’s past president. “He was our heart and soul,” she said.
She added, “He was a mentor and a friend. He was clear-headed and clear thinking and best of all, he was a problem solver.”
One of his nine grandchildren, Shira Sky, a Manhattan resident, considered Kiesel and his wife, Audree, as a second set of parents. “My zayda was the rock of so many people’s lives. If anything bad happened he was my first call because he could always make me feel better. I will always have his voice in my head,” she told NJJN.
Because his father passed away when Kiesel was just 12 years old, “he thought he was going to die very young,” said Sky. “So he retired at the age of 50 and devoted himself to being the most hands-on person he could be.”
She said that Kiesel had a plan in case he got sick. “If I ever get cancer, I want to eat pastrami sandwiches, smoke a cigar, and sit in the sun. I do not want chemo,” he told his family, according to Sky. “He just wanted to live the most meaningful, best life he could, and at the very end he fought to stay alive.”
Parts of his personality were distinctly unorthodox. His long curly hair and the diamond stud in his left earlobe, coupled with his love of jazz and playing the saxophone, gave Kiesel the appearance of a proud, aging hipster.
His granddaughter said that tone of respectful irreverence colored his attitude toward Judaism. “He told me you could have the most religious man who would pray five times a day but wouldn’t think twice about screwing you in a business deal,” she said.
“More than religion, he believed in Judaism 100 percent,” and often attended Friday night services at Sha’arey Shalom. It was there that he became friendly with its rabbi, Israel “Sy” Dresner, a civil rights activist and friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In a 2007 interview with NJJN, Kiesel recalled meeting King at a fundraiser for King’s group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
“If you ask me what I spoke to Dr. King about I could never tell you,” said Kiesel. “Just the experience was so exciting that I can’t remember what we spoke about.”
Forgosh described Kiesel as “a genuine mensch” and added, “I will miss him.”
He is survived by two daughters, Pamela Friedman and Linda Zabludovsky; one son, Paul; nine grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Kiesel’s funeral was to be held on June 14 at Temple Sha’arey Shalom, with burial at Mt. Lebanon Cemetery in Iselin. Memorial contributions may be made to either the Howard & Audree Kiesel Family Fund, c/o Temple Sha’arey Shalom or the Jewish Historical Society of NJ in Whippany.