Jerry Benjamin remembered as ‘bigger than life’; Former president of Milwaukee Jewish Federation dies at 67

Jerry Benjamin, an activist for Jewish educational and political causes and former president of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, died in Boston on May 11, 2019. He was 67.

“Jerry was bigger than life,” said his longtime business partner and friend Bruce Arbit. “There’s no one Jerry met that wasn’t impacted and affected. His creativity knew no limits. He had boundless enthusiasm. He basically loved all people. He was an incredible mensch.”

In 1975, Benjamin and Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox organized a conference on Jewish education that led to their co-founding the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education. He had been active with it for many years, on and off, even helping to bring it back to life after bankruptcy as “New CAJE,” according to prior Chronicle coverage.

“Jerry was a visionary,” reflected Koller-Fox. “He loved art, he loved culture and he loved everything that had to do with the Jews. And he really believed that we can have a strong, caring Jewish community, and he worked for that his whole life.”

After serving as executive director of the Maimonides School, a Jewish day school in Brookline, Massachusetts, he and his wife Cindy moved to Milwaukee in 1981, and he became co-managing director with Arbit of direct marketing firm A.B. Data.

They also opened a branch of A.B. Data in Israel, and in 1985 as part of Project Renewal they co-founded the mail-processing facility Integrated Mail Industries in the community of Or Yehuda near Tel Aviv.

In the 1990s, working for the Claims Conference, they led an effort to locate all of the world’s living Holocaust survivors and assist them in applying for reparations, according to prior Chronicle coverage.

“He found a way to take a company that collected and sold addresses, and he turned it into a way to help the world and to help the Jewish community,” noted Koller-Fox.

In 2009, Benjamin was named president of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.

“I always was extraordinarily grateful to be part of a community and a people that had accomplished so much, that had such a rich history, whose story continued to unfold in my lifetime in such interesting ways,” he told this paper last year. “It’s exciting to be part of the Jewish story.”

Later in life, he was managing member at Milwaukee Silicon, a startup working on silicon purification to make solar costs more affordable, according to Milwaukee Jewish Federation biographical information. Among numerous other roles, as an undergrad he chaired the North American Jewish Students’ Network; in 1983 he helped found Milwaukee’s Lake Park Synagogue and served as the congregation’s first president; he chaired the National Young Leadership Cabinet of the United Jewish Appeal in the 1990s; and was a longtime board member and trustee of the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. In 2018 he received the Lifetime Impact Award from the Coalition for Jewish Learning of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.

“He was one of the best thinkers and most engaged and interesting leaders that we had,” said Rick Meyer, former CEO of the Federation.

Jerome William Benjamin was born in Columbus, Ohio, on July 9, 1951, to Stan and Edie Benjamin. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English at Case Western Reserve University, and a master’s from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

In 1973 he married his high school sweetheart, artist Cindy (née Pearlman). They had two sons, Ariel and Nadav. They moved to Boston in 2018.

In addition to his passionate interests in Jewish education, Jewish history and politics, he enjoyed cigars, felt strongly that the Doobie Brothers deserve to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and had a deep appreciation for literature.

“He read constantly,” Ariel Benjamin remembered. “He had a library at home with hundreds if not thousands of volumes. He wrote several unpublished books himself.”

The funeral was held on May 16 at Shaaray Torah Synagogue in Canton, Ohio, where his father, grandparents and other relatives are buried.

Benjamin is survived by his wife Cindy, sons Ariel and Nadav (Lindsay Sommer Benjamin), mother Edie, and brother Sheldon.