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Norbert Gaelen, history, arts benefactor, 89
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Norbert Gaelen, history, arts benefactor, 89

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Norbert Gaelen, left, was honored at the annual Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest gala for his role as a founder and major benefactor in May 2011; presenting his certificate of recognition is then JHS president Howard Kiesel. 
Norbert Gaelen, left, was honored at the annual Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest gala for his role as a founder and major benefactor in May 2011; presenting his certificate of recognition is then JHS president Howard Kiesel. 

Norbert Gaelen of West Orange, philanthropist, art collector, industrial engineer, and third-generation leader of his family business, died Aug. 10, just a few weeks before his 90th birthday. 

A funeral service was held at Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills on Aug. 12, and the interment was at B’nai Jeshurun Cemetery in Hillside. 

Gaelen, a benefactor of the local Jewish community; his alma mater, Penn State University; and the Montclair Art Museum, was, by all accounts, the sort of person who was kind when no one was looking, often on behalf of employees of the family business.

Always fair, he could also be “tough,” according to friends and associates. His wife of 66 years, Audrey, chuckled as she recalled the many employees who attended the funeral. She said that while her husband would have been gratified at the affection and respect their presence expressed, “He would have said, ‘Why aren’t they working?’” 

The Gaelens, longtime members of B’nai Jeshurun, were benefactors of the Gaelen Gallery East and West, located, respectively, at the Leon and Toby Cooperman JCC of MetroWest in West Orange and the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus in Whippany. He was a founding member of the Jewish Historical Society of NJ, on whose board he sat, as well as a former board member of New Jersey Jewish News, the Cooperman JCC, and United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ (now Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ). In addition, the Gaelens have been generous supporters of National Council of Jewish Women, Jewish Family Service of MetroWest, and the Rachel Coalition.

Norbert Gaelen was born in 1926 in Newark, where he attended Weequahic High School. He earned a degree in industrial engineering from Penn State in 1947 and joined the family business, O. Berk, located at that time in Newark. (In the 1920s, his grandfather, Isaac Goldstein, purchased what had started in 1910 as a bottle redistribution company from its founder and namesake, Oasis Berk.) His father died in 1948.

At about that time, Norbert and the rest of the family changed their last name from Goldstein to Gaelen, following the example of his brother, who made the switch first to help smooth his application to medical school.

Norbert took over the company in 1951, when there were six employees, and led it for 59 years, changing and growing the enterprise to keep up with changes in the industry. A past president of the National Association of Container Distributors, Norbert was inducted into the Packaging Hall of Fame in 2003.

When he retired in 2006, his company employed over 100 people, and O. Berk had grown from a small glass bottle redistributor to an international packaging company with thousands of containers on offer, including glass, plastic, and metal containers designed to hold everything from kitchen spices to hazardous liquids. Today, his children, Marc Gaelen and Meryl Japha, are the fourth generation to run O. Berk.

His wife recalled that they became more active in the broader Jewish community when Seymour Lehrhoff approached her husband and said, “It’s the time of the year to give to UJA.” Lehrhoff of Millburn, who died in 2007, was a longtime major donor to the annual UJA campaign. Audrey continued: “Norbert said, ‘I don’t do that.’ Seymour said, ‘You’ll start now.’ And he did.”

In 1990, Norbert was among the founders of what was then the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest. Later, he described being lured into helping create the society by the late Ruth Fien, another Newark native who was the driving force behind its founding. She told him about “a basement full of various Newark agency records, and said there should be a repository for them,” Norbert said in a 2011 interview with NJJN. “That idea fostered a need for a home so they would not be lost for future generations.”

The Gaelens are perhaps best known for creating the Gaelen Juried Art Show and Sale in 1999. The annual event grew, leading to establishment of a dedicated gallery bearing their name in 2006 at the West Orange JCC. In 2013, a brand-new space was constructed for the gallery in the JCC’s central atrium. The cantilevered 825-square-foot display area is suspended over the JCC lobby. It took 4,500 pounds of glass, 10 tons of steel, and 10 tons of concrete to create.

In a 2006 interview with NJJN, Norbert explained the couple’s thinking in developing the show and the gallery space. “We felt there was a lot of talent in the community and no one was putting it together. These artists had no place to show [their work],” he said.

What many don’t know is that their interest in fine art began with Audrey’s early involvement in NCJW. She told NJJN in a phone conversation a few days after her husband’s death that she volunteered to work at the NCJW art shows, and would look up the artists of any pieces she liked in order to learn more about them. Norbert soon followed her lead. “We taught ourselves,” she said. 

The Gaelens also amassed an extensive collection of American Indian pottery, which they donated to the Montclair Art Museum. 

Friends remember not only Norbert’s industriousness, but also his kindness, his high standard of ethics, his sense of humor — and his love for fine clothes, especially those by designer Ralph Lauren. Marty Barber, a friend for over 45 years and fellow federation board member, said in a phone conversation with NJJN a few days after Norbert’s death, “He was a very, very, very good person.” Having met Norbert in the role of accountant, he said that he was “extremely ethical” in the way he ran his business, and “he treated people very well. Unusually so.”

Barber added that Norbert rarely said no when asked for money for a worthy cause. For one project, a monument in Liberty State Park in Jersey City in which Barber was involved, Norbert “gave us $25,000 without a blink of the eye.” Barber added, “He was very strong and very opinionated and set in his ways, like all of us. But he was very generous and very smart. He could be tough, but he was fair.” 

In a prepared statement, Barber wrote, “I will miss his refreshing spirit, wit, laughter, lively conversations, and friendship. Greater MetroWest has lost a dear friend and legend.” 

In addition to his wife, Audrey, and children, Marc (Debbie) and Meryl (Ron) Japha, Norbert Gaelen is survived by his grandchildren, Jordan, Jonathan, Adam, Alex, Sara, and Hana, and his great-grandson, Henry. 

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