As his wife Judi was dying of cancer seven years ago, Arthur Schechner made her a promise.
The two were supporters of JESPY House, which provides independent living options and programs in South Orange for 150 adults with developmental disabilities.
While Judi always believed that JESPY, an agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, was a “wonderful organization,” she felt there was something missing.
“She said it needed something like a student union — a serious building to give the organization a social structure and hold it together,” Schechner recalled recently.
Judi passed away in August of 2006, and Schechner fulfilled his promise by raising $2 million dollars to build the Judith Ruback Schechner Recreation and Wellness Center, better known as Judi House. It opened in September 2012 without need of a mortgage.
For his efforts, Schechner is being honored by JESPY at a gala dinner on Monday, Aug. 12, at Mountain Ridge Country Club in West Caldwell. Former Gov. Richard J. Codey, a longtime proponent of programs addressing mental health issues, will be the guest speaker.
When the JESPY House board asked Schechner to approve the testimonial, he said yes, with one condition.
“I agreed to it only if a substantial amount of money they raise would go to a new fund, the Judi House Program Fund. It will finance new and innovative programs for JESPY House,” he said.
Currently Judi House has a kitchen, an exercise area, and meeting rooms “where people can come to a sheltered environment to have coffee or play games or listen to a lecture or have Shabbat dinner,” said Schechner. “People can come in to hang out, and there are organized programs going on.”
In his view, “Judi House has become the hub and heart of JESPY House.”
Schechner is planning to form a board of trustees to explore “broadening the mission of Judi House, to make it a role model for the community” and perhaps the rest of the country.
Born in Newark to parents he calls “creatures of the Depression,” Schechner followed his father and grandfather into a family insurance business that now thrives in Summit as the Schechner Lifson Corporation.
Schechner has a son, Michael, of Short Hills — whose wife, June, is event cohair with Judy Peskin of Summit — a daughter, Margie Gart, who lives with her husband, Tom, in Colorado; and six grandchildren.
He lives in West Orange with his second wife, Cynthia Hollander Schechner.
Schechner served as president of the Daughters of Israel nursing home, was the founding president of the federation’s Jewish Community Housing Corporation, and was the first chair of MetroWest Cares, a network of services for community seniors. He is currently president of the Hebrew Free Loan of New Jersey.
“I don’t mean to boast but I certainly paid my dues,” said Schechner. “I’ve given my time and I’ve given my money. And I absolutely got my money’s worth, because when you see what you can do with your time and your energy and how they help the people around you — you know, you get nothing but pleasure from that,”
He said he takes special pride in his contributions to JEPSY House. “JESPY means to me a chance for people who have either emotional or physical restrictions to live a more meaningful life,” he said.