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Remembering Hattie Segal, 102
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Remembering Hattie Segal, 102

Small in stature, but giant of the Jewish community

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Hattie Segal at Rosh HaShanah 2018.
Courtesy Segal family
Hattie Segal at Rosh HaShanah 2018. Courtesy Segal family

After dropping off a platter with Hattie Segal’s family sitting shiva in her Maplewood apartment, the delivery person from Town Hall Deli in South Orange made a point of telling the mourners how sweet she was. It was a typical remark about Segal, who family and friends said was always smiling, and whose presence could light up a room.

“Happiness was in Hattie’s DNA,” said friend and fellow philanthropist Barbara Drench. “If she could see, hear, create, or encourage happiness among family, friends, organizations, or in communities here at home or in Israel, she did so with an abundance of thought, caring, and generosity.”

Hattie Segal of Maplewood, who stood at a diminutive 4’7” but was considered a giant in the community, died Dec. 3. She was 102.

Her generosity was legendary. She and her husband Arnold, who predeceased her, gave not only to charitable organizations, but to anyone in need, from the parents of her children’s friends to the maître d’ of her favorite restaurant in the Hamptons to her doormen. “She cared for people whether she knew them well, or had just met them,” said her son, Richard Segal. “If someone were sick, she was the first person to bring them chicken soup.”

Richard’s daughter, Cory Pine, called her grandmother a listener. “She cared so deeply about everyone,” she said. “She listened and heard what people said and always knew the right thing to say.” Hattie took the time to learn about things that were important in the lives of those she cared about, Pine said. Although she knew nothing about sports, she followed college football and always knew if Ohio State University’s (OSU) football team had won or lost their last game — because OSU was Pine’s alma mater. “She’d congratulate Cory if they won,” Richard said. “But she didn’t know baseball from football.”

Her intellectual prowess never diminished, and Richard’s wife, Poppy, recalled how Hattie would complete the New York Times Crossword Puzzle “in ink.”

Hattie Segal was among the honorees at the 1988 State of Israel Bonds dinner. Photos Courtesy Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ

When she could no longer read the newspaper, she had friends read her the stories. She had a “sound mind” and gave good advice to the end. “Everyone came to her for advice,” said Poppy, who said she learned long ago that it was wise to defer to Hattie’s knowledge. “If you had an argument with her about politics or history, [it would usually turn out that] she was right.”

In her 90s, Hattie learned to play duplicate bridge and won a tournament against competitors many decades her junior.

To the end, she insisted on handwritten thank-you notes, which many recipients saved for their thoughtfulness. Once, Richard recalled, she nearly missed a flight because she insisted on completing holiday thank you notes — tips included — to all the staff in her building before she left for the airport. “They need the money now, for Christmas,” she insisted, when he suggested finishing later in the week.

“How many of us have received a handwritten note from Hattie — gracious and warm and caring,” said Cantor Perry Fine of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston in his eulogy at the Dec. 5 funeral. “No Twitter, no text messaging here; her delightful notes always with a kind, encouraging word.”

Max Kleinman, former longtime executive vice president and CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater Metro-West New Jersey, called her “a mentor and role model for future Jewish leaders,” adding, “She was iconic and will serve as a model of selfless devotion for the Jewish people for decades to come.”

Hattie’s list of leadership positions is long. Among her accomplishments, she was a founder of Congregation Beth El in South Orange (but a member of Beth Shalom at the time of her death); The Children’s Institute, which serves people with autism and other behavioral issues and is now known as Spectrum 360; and the Sister Rose Thering Jewish/Christian Studies Program at Seton Hall University in South Orange (and she shared a special friendship with the late nun for whom the program was named).

She was also national chair of Israel Bonds; a leader of UJA’s Women’s Division; a donor, with Arnold, at the highest levels to what is now Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey, where she also held many leadership positions; and served on the board of the YM-YWHA of Metropolitan NJ, now the JCC MetroWest in West Orange.

Hattie Segal at the last federation event she attended, a Lion of Judah dinner, featuring Dr. Ruth Westheimer in 2013.

She was also involved with Hadassah, Daughters of Israel and the Jewish Vocational Society, and in Israel, the Weizmann Institute of Science and Yemin Orde. Outside of the Jewish community, she supported hospitals, medical research institutions, science foundations, and treatment affordability organizations, including Saint Barnabas Medical Center, the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the Cure Breast Cancer Foundation, the Jonathan Reichert Foundation, and the Treatment Advocacy Center.

Richard recalled that for Hattie, different organizations took center stage at various moments in her life. But Israel Bonds was a lifelong passion, he said, and his mother spoke and traveled extensively on its behalf. Drench recalled that Hattie loved to speak for Israel Bonds, and that Arnold would often stand in the back and give her a signal to cut her speech; she would ignore him and continue. “Everyone loved to hear from Hattie,” she said.

The couple was involved in transforming the Hebrew Orphanage and Sheltering Home in Newark, founded in 1883, into The Children’s Institute (TCI). They had been supporters of the home since 1945, but by the early 1960s the orphanage was in a predicament: They had $250,000 and a building, but few orphans to house.

As Hattie said in a 1988 speech she gave at TCI, “The question was asked — What can we do with this beautiful building? And with the funds we had?” And so the seven board members formed a search committee to uncover underserved populations.

“It’s hard to believe now,” she said in the speech, “but 25 years ago there were no schools for children with special needs.” She was instrumental in creating TCI, which was housed for many years in a building donated by Hoffman-LaRoche in Verona. Now known as Spectrum360 and located in Livingston, TCI offers schooling and other services for those on the autism spectrum and with disabilities.

Her interest in caring for children springs from her own biography. She was born Oct. 7, 1916, in Brooklyn to Joseph and Gussie Rotkowitz. Her mother died when she was a baby, and her father, a tailor, found he could not care for her, which he confided to a coworker. According to family lore, the man told Joseph about his brother and sister-in-law, who the coworker called “a saint.” The couple, Archie and Rose Levy, lived in Bayonne and were childless. They took Hattie in and treated her like their own, although they never technically adopted her. Her father stayed in the shadows, eventually serving as her religious school tutor. She called him “Papa,” because she felt he served a grandfatherly role in her life. Only later did she learn that Joseph was her biological father. She remained in touch with him throughout her life, but, as Richard said, “The pain stayed with her, that her mother’s family did not take her in.”

The valedictorian of her class at Bayonne High School, Segal attended New York University and aspired to be a teacher, but could not get a job — Pine suspects the rejections were related to anti-Semitism. Hattie’s actions suggest she felt similarly; she later attended secretarial school and changed her last name from Rotkowitz to Lester to help her find employment.

She married Arnold Segal, also from Bayonne, in 1938. He and his four brothers founded the profitable construction company known as Segal & Segal. In 1945, Hattie and Arnold moved to Maplewood, and eventually moved again, first to South Orange and later to Short Hills. They also had homes in Naples, Fla., and in Bridgehampton. After Arnold died in 1998, Hattie moved to The Top in Maplewood, where she lived until her death.

“Everyone liked to be with her,” recalled Richard, who said she often socialized with people in their 40s and 50s. “She was out of her time.”

Said Drench, “She was just all love. When she was in the room, you felt warm, good, safe, happy.”

She is survived by her children, Richard (Poppy), Ken (Karen), and Stephen (Patty); nine grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren.

Services were held Dec. 5 with arrangements by Bernheim-Apter-Kreitzman Suburban Funeral Chapel, Livingston. Memorial contributions may be made to a charity of your choice or the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Va.

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