Bryna Ringel remembers the day she met Rita K. Waldor. It was 1960, and Ringel and her husband had just moved to West Orange from Massachusetts. “She came up my driveway with a banana cake,” Ringel said.
A freshly baked cake was how she always welcomed new neighbors, wherever she lived, said her son Peter.
Friends called her an inveterate fund-raiser and an invaluable mentor who shared her talents with young leaders, but mostly, they called her extraordinary because of the way she gave of her time to others.
“She was a giving soul,” said Ringel.
Waldor, 89, of South Orange, whose name, as Ringel said, is synonymous with giving at Jewish Federation of Greater Metro-
West NJ, died July 5 after suffering a catastrophic stroke at the end of June. She would have turned 90 in August and was making solicitation phone calls for federation almost to the end, according to friends and family.
In April, federation honored her with the President’s Bamberger Award in recognition of her leadership, philanthropy, and dedicated service to the Greater MetroWest community. It was the last of many philanthropic awards she received, including federation’s Muriel Walter Volunteer of the Year Award in 2009; in 2008 she was the local recipient of the National Women’s Philanthropy’s Kipnis-Wilson/Friedland Award from Jewish Federations of North America.
Marion Rocker of Short Hills told NJJN in a telephone interview that she was an admirer of Waldor before becoming her friend.
“Rita led by example,” she said. “I’m not sure she realized how many young men and women she mentored just by being herself.”
Rocker said that Waldor knew how to find success with grace when she made solicitation phone calls. “She’d say, ‘We need you. It’s necessary. I know we can count on you.’ She spoke with tremendous conviction and authority, and people listened to her.”
Rita’s husband, Jerome “Jerry” Waldor, who died in 2005, was a retired two-star major general in the Air Force and founder of the Waldor Agency, an insurance business; in the early 1990s he served as president of United Jewish Federation of MetroWest, a precursor to today’s federation.
Together they were founders of the Lester Society (for endowments of $100,000 and up), members of the Achim Society (for annual giving of $100,000 and up), hosts of major gift events in their home, leaders of missions to Israel and around the world, and advocates on behalf of Soviet Jewry in the 1980s.
“Jerry and she were a well-matched couple with heartfelt love for the Jewish community,” said Rocker.
They created in 1992 the Waldor Memorial Library on the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany; the library was dismantled in 2014. A long-time member of federation’s board of trustees and major gifts cabinet, Rita was instrumental in establishing the Women’s Philanthropy’s Lion of Judah endowment — for gifts of $100,000 and up — was a longstanding board member of Women’s Philanthropy, and helped establish the Jerry Waldor Institute, an endowment in her husband’s memory for leadership development programs in Greater MetroWest. She also served on the board of the JCC MetroWest in West Orange.
Although she had the means, Rita eschewed the usual displays of wealth in clothing, jewelry, or lavish trips. “It wasn’t a priority for her,” said Rocker. “She dressed comfortably and did not let the community dictate to her.… She was honest. She called a spade a spade.” She was also known for never raising her voice, even when parenting.
Waldor’s many other interests included bridge, tennis (she apparently had a great backhand), collecting and displaying antiques, and dogs. A founder of the Jersey Animal Coalition, a no-kill shelter in South Orange, she helped lead its campaign to build a state-of-the art facility.
Waldor also had a passion for gardening that was ahead of her time, said Peter, who recalled that they had a “giant compost heap” in their South Orange backyard when he was growing up. For some 40 years, beginning around 1965, she had a flower business with partner Gloria Einhorn, called GloRiTree Studios. They did floral arrangements and plantings from out of their homes.
“You could really see her eye [for beauty] in the bouquets,” said Rocker.
Her volunteer work included Meals on Wheels, reading to the blind, and helping found the Livingston-based Friendship Circle, where she volunteered on Sundays until the end of her life.
“I wish I was as community minded as she was,” said Peter. “She always had time to talk to people and meet people and listen to their stories and try to understand them. She touched so many lives.”
The Waldors were long-time members of Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills. “They weren’t religious so much as they loved the [Jewish] community and loved Israel,” said Peter.
Rita K. Waldor, the daughter of Gertrude and Max Kaden, was born Aug. 23, 1929, and grew up with her brother, Melvin, in the Weequahic section of Newark. She graduated from Weequahic High School and studied zoology at The George Washington University (GW) in Washington, D.C.
She’d grown up in Weequahic with Jerry, although he was two years older and they didn’t really know each other. While picking up her driver’s license at the local motor vehicle agency at age 18 or 19, she happened to say hello to his parents, who ran the agency, and Jerry’s mother prodded him to take Rita out. Luckily, he listened. They dated briefly and were married in July 1950, after she had graduated from GW and he from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
He was stationed in Texas, California, and England, before the couple returned to New Jersey, where they lived in Union and West Orange, eventually settling in South Orange, where they raised three sons. Even in those early days community service was a part of her identity; she volunteered with the Red Cross while living in England.
“We are heartbroken at Rita’s passing,” said Dov Ben-Shimon, executive vice president and CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. “Generations of community leaders were inspired, touched, and led by her example. So many of us were blessed to have known her, learned from her, and seen her warmth and generous spirit. We were fortunate to have had the opportunity to celebrate her just a few weeks ago at our federation’s annual meeting. She will be deeply missed.”
Ringel said she would miss hearing Rita tell her before a get-together, “I can’t wait to see your sweet, smiling face.” Pausing, Ringel added, “She’s going to teach the angels how to run the place up there.”
Rita is survived by her sons, Marc (Nancy Long) of Manhattan; Matthew (Lori Olans) of Newton, Mass.; and Peter (Jody Miller) of Telluride, Colo.; nine grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.