Philanthropist Leonard Punia, dead at 88
Leonard Punia, who died at his home on May 18 at age 88, was a man who worked long hours, keeping to a five-day-a-week schedule until 2013, when he started having heart issues.
His son, Joe Punia, told NJ Jewish News that he liked to compare his father to a Tootsie Roll Pop: “My father had a very hard exterior but was really very soft inside,” he said.
A real estate developer and philanthropist, Punia was a supporter of a number of Jewish institutions, including the Greenwood House skilled nursing and assisted living facility in Ewing and the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks. As an entrepreneur, he was also a partner in Moish and Itzy’s, a Jewish-style deli-restaurant in Lawrence Township.
He was also a supporter of the old JCC in Trenton, State of Israel Bonds, and the Israel Tennis Centers.
Punia was a licensed real estate broker in New Jersey and New York. He was involved in many professional organizations and received several awards for his work in real estate. When his wife, Renee, died in 2009, Punia ramped up his charitable giving.
“My father had always been connected to a lot of charities and made nice donations but nothing of any real substance,” said Joe. “But once my mother passed away, he made sizeable donations.”
In 2011 Punia launched Greenwood House’s Growing for Tomorrow campaign with a $500,000 gift, and the agency renamed its hospice program the Renee Denmark Punia Community Hospice of Greenwood House.
“It’s a way of keeping her name alive and caring for people at the end of life — the care and love they gave to her at the end of life now goes on to other people,” Rabbi Adam Feldman of The Jewish Center in Princeton told NJ Jewish News.
Joe Punia traces his family’s commitment to Greenwood House back to his mother, who volunteered there when it was still on Greenwood Avenue. Renee Punia was in its hospice for the last three weeks of her life. Leonard himself spent about five days there in rehab in 2013 after being hospitalized for cardiac issues.
Joe Punia’s wife, Sheryl, is on the Greenwood House board and is also a past president.
Leonard also was a supporter of Princeton Health Care System and the American Cancer Society. He gave to institutions to which he had a personal attachment: Massachusetts General Hospital, where as a relatively young man he had vascular surgery; Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania, where Renee got her care; and the Hun School in Princeton, which both of Joe Punia’s children attended.
Punia was especially proud of his involvement with the Sunnybrae Little League, which was created on land carved out of one of his developments.
He opened the Lawrence Township outpost of Moish and Itzy’s in 2010 with partner Gary Schindler, who owned the flagship deli in Newtown, Pa. The idea had come one day from his wife Renee when they were visiting the Newtown restaurant.
At the deli, which he visited daily for lunch and dinner, Punia’s friendly and talkative side blossomed. “He thought it was a place for Jews to come and talk and shmooze. He would sit there all day. He was the mayor of the deli,” Feldman said. The Lawrence restaurant closed in Feburary 2012.
Leonard Punia grew up in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn. After serving in the Army during World War II, he went into the real estate business begun by his father Charles. In the 1930s Charles bought back foreclosed properties in New York City and brought the mortgages current, making each building affordable to rent in tough economic times.
Leonard and his brother Herbert, who worked together in the family business for 60 years, completed their first 200-family apartment complex in 1946 on Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn.
After getting his feet wet building single-family home developments, apartments, and shopping centers in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Long Island, Punia was sent to Hamilton, where he was able to help many returned vets to acquire houses at affordable prices.
The brothers built numerous residential and commercial properties throughout the tri-state area.
He met Renee in 1949, and they were married a year later at the Park Manor Caterer, which was Renee’s family’s business. In 1953 the couple moved to Trenton.
Andy Frank, executive director of Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks, said about Punia, “Len was very generous to the organizations and the causes that he cared about. He treated all with respect and integrity, and his presence, along with his late wife Renee, will be missed.”
Punia is survived by his daughter, Leslie Punia Schwebel; his son and daughter-in-law, Joseph and Sheryl Punia; grandchildren, Elyse and Andrew Rosenfield, Charles Punia, Mathew and Dale Schwebel, Michael Schwebel, and Mallory Schwebel; two brothers, Herbert Punia and Jerome Punia; and numerous nieces and nephews.