People are people no matter where they came from or what they’ve done.” That philosophy guided Howard Beyer through his years as an administrator in the state prison system.
“He always said, ‘I want to look at them as human beings,’” said his widow, Yvonne, recalling a man whose revamping of the state’s juvenile justice system proved so successful it was replicated in states across the country.
The Highland Park resident, described as “a deeply spiritual and religious man,” died suddenly Dec. 12, 2014, at age 61.
“After Howie passed away we wanted to continue his legacy, and we just went around and around in circles,” said Yvonne. “His two passions were Israel and working in juvenile justice.”
A friend suggested she contact Rabbi Dr. Eric Lankin, also of Highland Park, the executive director of the American branch of ELEM: Youth in Distress. Operating in 40 communities throughout Israel, Elem helps 20,000 troubled youths from all religions and ethnicities annually and assists another 100,000 on-line. Many of these youngsters have been exposed to domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction, neglect, bullying, homelessness, and prostitution.
Yvonne said and her family “loved everything” about the nonprofit organization, where she established the Howard L. Beyer Memorial Fund. “We felt it was really giving meaning to our loss. It meets a very big need in our lives and is helping the community, and we know Howie’s legacy will live on.”
She recalled how her husband’s love of Israel manifested itself when they were both students at Trenton State College — now the College of New Jersey — in Ewing. When the 1973 Yom Kippur War broke out, he left school for six months to pick oranges on a moshav to take the place of those who were fighting.
“He was a humanist to the highest degree,” Yvonne said. “He always made it a point to invite people with disabilities or problems to our house for Shabbos. He reached out to the people other people avoided.”
Lankin also noted that “Howie was a very special and very unusual person.”
“It’s not often you find a Jewish expert on prison issues,” he said. “He was well-known in the community for being tremendously kind and generous. You would never believe someone so kind and generous would be involved with the prison system, but that is what made him so special.”
Lankin, who spent 14 years as a pulpit rabbi, said he had never gone to a funeral like Beyer’s. The eulogies and testimonials continued for more than two hours.
The funeral was conducted by Rabbi Eliyahu Kaufman of Congregation Ohav Emeth in Highland Park.
“He was a spiritual person who wanted to make a difference in the world, and he did make a difference to the most forgotten souls of society, children who did not come from the best situations,” said Kaufman, who often studied Torah with Beyer.
Yvonne said her husband was motivated to enter the justice system by the racial tension he witnessed growing up in Passaic.
His 32-year career with the state Department of Corrections and the Juvenile Justice Commission began in 1975 at East Jersey State Prison, where he became the work release coordinator. He eventually rose through the ranks to become warden of New Jersey State Prison, formerly Trenton State Prison.
“I believe he was the first Jewishly observant warden in the country,” said Yvonne. During her family’s 10 years living in the warden’s residence on prison grounds, they always erected a sukka.
Beyer then served in DOC operations as deputy director and then assistant commissioner, but his wife said he found his real passion when he began working with young people at the state Division of Juvenile Justice.
“Howie felt it was there that he could really make the most change in people’s lives,” said Yvonne.
Gov. James McGreevey appointed Beyer as its executive director. He developed the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, which limited the use of detention and provided “safe and compassionate conditions” for those confined.
Beyer ended his career at Sunspire Health, a drug and alcohol rehab company, as director of special projects.
Beyer also served on the boards of the Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison and Moshe Aaron Yeshiva High School in South River, was a Cub Scout master, and served as a youth sports coach for his children, Samuel, Jeremy, and Rachel.
To donate to the Howard L. Beyer Memorial Fund at ELEM: Youth in Distress, go to ELEM.org; mail checks to ELEM, 270 Madison Ave., Suite 1501, New York, NY 10016 with fund name in subject line; or call 212-787-3337.