Leo Yanoff, a retired judge of the Essex County Superior Court and a past president of what is now United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, died on July 16 at the age of 99.
President of the Jewish Community Council of Essex County — a predecessor federation to UJC MetroWest — from 1958 to 1960, Yanoff served during a challenging period of transition in the Jewish community’s shift from urban Newark to the western suburbs.
But despite money woes and his own doubts about his abilities as a fund-raiser, he helped lay the groundwork for some key institutions, including the Leon & Toby Cooperman JCC, Ross Family Campus, and the Daughters of Israel nursing home, both in West Orange.
Yanoff presided over “building the foundations of the social work structure that exists today,” said Linda Forgosh, director of the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest. “As a federation president, he really occupied a hot seat.”
“It was a significant era in Newark history, with the start of the movement from Newark to the suburbs,” said Forgosh.
Born in New York City, he lived there and in Paterson, Newark, and West Orange before moving to Maplewood in 2001.
Yanoff was a World War II U.S. Army veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, then returned home to attend the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Law School.
He had a lifelong affection for the judicial system and a deep interest in Judaism and was a member of the Zionist Organization of America.
A box of personal papers Yanoff donated to the MetroWest JHS in 1998 provides a portrait of his era. Its contents chronicle 40 years of his interest in a variety of Jewish matters, from early history and talmudic study to immigration issues and family problems.
“They were very difficult years,” Yanoff wrote in the memoir he published privately in 1986. “Money was always a problem.”
He acknowledged that he “was not a particularly adept fund-raiser, or one of the group of wealthy Jews who could afford large contributions, and I could not talk to them on the same terms as their fellow country club members.”
As a child in the 1920s, Yanoff felt the sting of anti-Semitism. As a member of the only Jewish family living on 20th Avenue in Paterson, he had childhood memories of his home being harassed by local members of the Ku Klux Klan.
In an oral history interview he granted to JHS board members Howard Kiesel and Roger Manshel in 2005, Yanoff shared high school memories of anti-Semitic remarks by a math teacher and “a very definite cleavage between the Jews and non-Jews.”
At Harvard, he recalled “a definite separation between the Jews and the non-Jews” and remembered being excluded from eating clubs and debutantes’ parties.
“Leo was for many years a leader of the Jewish community. He served on most of the committees and was without a doubt one of the major leaders during his active years,” said his former law partner, Martin Fox of Millburn, who was president of the Jewish Community Federation of Metropolitan New Jersey, another UJC forerunner, from 1972 to 1974.
The two men met in the late 1950s and worked together as law partners in Newark until Yanoff became a judge in 1958.
“He was an obvious candidate for a judgeship, but he wasn’t a politician at all,” Fox told NJ Jewish News. “He was an intellectual. He was a lawyer who cared about the workings of the law. He was very well trained, and he was a wonderful judge for many years.”
Yanoff returned to the bench after his retirement in 1999 and took part in arbitration cases on a per diem basis.
“I enjoy going there and I enjoy the fact that they remember me, that even the court officers remember me and that I am greeted…with respect by the sitting members of the judiciary as well as the court attendants,” Yanoff said in his oral history.
About a year later, he collaborated with Robert Steinbaum, publisher of the New Jersey Law Journal and an NJ Jewish News board member, on a history of the state’s constitution.
“At the age of 89, Leo was an active historian with a vibrant brain, writing about the court system, which was his love,” Steinbaum said.
Yanoff was buried July 18 after a graveside ceremony at B’nai Abraham Memorial Park in Union.
Predeceased by his wife of 73 years, Louise, he is survived by a son, a daughter, and two granddaughters. The family has requested that donations in his honor be made to the Cora Hartshorn Arboretum and Bird Sanctuary in Short Hills.