Milly Iris, a philanthropist, art collector, and former gallery owner who pioneered Jewish teen programs in the Greater MetroWest community, died Friday, Oct. 24, in Haddonfield.
Iris, a longtime South Orange resident, was the widow of Herb Iris, the founder of a commercial construction firm and longtime leader of what became the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and of other organizations in the Jewish community. Together, they supported efforts like The Iris Family Early Childhood Education Center and the Iris Family Center for Jewish Living at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange.
For more than 30 years, Milly owned and operated “Whichcraft Studio for the selective i” in South Orange, and she also had galleries in Millburn and Long Beach Island. She served on the board of governors of the South Orange Performing Arts Center and was a major supporter of the center and of promoting the arts in the area.
“Milly was instrumental in ensuring that SOPAC became a venue for the visual as well as the performing arts,” said SOPAC board chair Tony Leitner. “We celebrate the Herb and Milly Iris Gallery and the gifted artists whose works we have been able to display.”
Following Herb’s death in 2006, Milly set out to honor her husband’s memory and build on their commitment to young people through support of innovative programming for Jewish teens in Greater MetroWest. She and her family helped create the Iris Teen Tzedekah Program, which engages teens in learning about Jewish philanthropy and its impact through grant-making and activism.
The teens raise and donate their own funds, which are matched by a grant from the Herb and Milly Iris Youth and Family Philanthropy Endowment of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ. The fund was established by family and friends following Herb’s passing. More than 220 teens have been involved in the program and have made grants of well over $100,000 to causes in the local community, Israel, and around the world.
Through the Iris Endowment, the family has been the prime supporter of NU, a magazine by and for Jewish teens published by New Jersey Jewish News. The Iris Endowment also supports Write On For Israel, which teaches Israel advocacy to Jewish teens through a journalism lens, and a Jewish Service Learning position in the Greater MetroWest federation’s Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, which supports extensive teen programming in the community.
Milly often visited the Iris teens and created a special bond with them. “My two years in the program taught me so much about the significance of communal giving, philanthropy, and, most importantly, the Jewish community,” Shira Sacks, an Iris teen alumna from 2006-08, recently wrote in a letter to Milly. “Thank you so much for your generosity, kindness, and example and for investing in my generation.”
“Milly was surrounded by an aura of optimism. She believed in the desire of people to do good. She believed in the idealism of young people,” said Robert Lichtman, executive director of The Partnership, which coordinates the Iris teen program and other programs supported by the Iris endowment. “She believed in the power of the Jewish community to harness both of these forces to make change — lasting change to improve the lives of our neighbors, enduring change in the way young Jews see their role in the world.”
Lichtman added, “The Partnership is proud to have embarked on such endeavors with Milly and her family; the Greater MetroWest community, too, has been changed for the better as a result.”
Max L. Kleinman, former executive vice president/CEO of the Greater MetroWest federation, who knew both Herb and Milly for many years, said that their legacy of compassion and caring for the Jewish community will continue through the Herb and Milly Iris Endowment and the many programs it funds.
“Twenty-five years from now, there will be Iris teens learning and giving to the community, and Jewish family and teen programming to continue to build a strong Jewish future,” Kleinman said. “That is an incredible legacy that will go on for generations.”
NJJN president Robert Daley recalled how the Iris family’s support for NU, now in its eighth year, literally gives a voice to the community’s next generation. “Milly and her children understood that teens need to be part of the conversation about the Jewish future and, with their generous annual gift to the newspaper, enabled us to make NU an award-winning vehicle for that expression,” he said.
Milly is survived by two daughters, Roree Iris-Williams and Kerry Iris; sons-in-law Peter Iris-Williams and Eric Kassoff; and five grandchildren.
Funeral services were held Oct. 29 at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel. Memorial contributions may be made to the Iris Teen Tzedekah Fund, c/o Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ, 901 Route 10, Whippany, NJ 07981; South Orange Performing Arts Center, One SOPAC Way, South Orange, NJ 07079; or The Iris Family Early Childhood Education Center at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, 432 Scotland Rd., South Orange, NJ 07079.