Gerald Ostrow: a man of principle, devotion
Prominent Jewish community leader Gerald “Jerry” S. Ostrow, who at one time held positions as diverse as chair of the Jewish Community Center, chair of Jewish Family & Children’s Service, chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, chair the Chronicle, board member of Rodef Shalom Congregation and national vice chair and life trustee of the Jewish Community Center Association, passed away June 6 at his home in Florida. He was 94 years old.
A Philadelphian by birth, Ostrow spent most of his life in Pittsburgh. He was also the president of CleanCare, a linen and textile rental service.
One of his most notable accomplishments in his philanthropic work was as a key player in the merger between the Irene Kaufmann Center and the Young Men and Women’s Hebrew Association in 1960. Woody Ostrow, also a former chair of the Federation, remembered his father coming home frustrated from meetings about the contentious merger, “but he never complained.”
Brian Schreiber, the current president and CEO of the JCC, said that the IKC-YMWHA merger, which became the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, was the event “that helped us become a real JCC.” He added that, during Ostrow’s tenure as the board chair, the Emma Kaufmann camp moved to Morgantown, Pa., a change that allowed the camp to grow three times its previous size. To Schreiber, Ostrow was “dynamic … a strong, forceful leader. He put a lot of building blocks in place that we’re still benefiting from today.”
Dr. Sidney Busis was involved in many of the same community organizations and knew Ostrow well. He too remembers the IKC-YMWHA merger and an intense meeting in the YMWHA building that Ostrow chaired with success. The two men were also good friends, participating in a weekly poker game on Tuesday nights with some friends. The game was important to Ostrow, said Busis, and if any of the wives tried to make plans that conflicted with the game, he would tell her husband: “Remind her that Tuesday is poker night!”
Busis and Ostrow would also meet at Smallman’s Deli on Murray Avenue for lunch once a week. Over their food, they would talk about their families or argue about politics. Even after Ostrow moved to Florida, said Busis, they would call each other on the phone to talk. “He really was an outstanding guy. I had great admiration for him.”
Linda Ehrenreich, chief innovation officer for the Jewish Family & Children’s Service, said that as president of the organization from 1967 to 1969, Ostrow, among others, was instrumental in helping create the Career Development Center, which has gone on to “32 years of highly successful programs” and helped many unemployed people find work. CleanCare, his business, also provided jobs. Ehrenreich said that Ostrow’s company hired a significant number of refugees, a move that was facilitated by JF&CS. “He gave people their first chance at work.” Woody Ostrow, the current president of CleanCare, said that the business also employed many hearing-impaired people from the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.
Woody Ostrow shared that, in the days since his father’s passing, he keeps thinking about his “life of deeds. He just did the right thing.” His father led by example, he said, and one of the things he stressed in regard to his philanthropic work was that in order to do right by an organization, there could be no personal agenda. It was not your own goals or success you were furthering, but the agency’s.
Howard Rieger remembered Ostrow in a similar light. Of his time as executive vice president of the Federation Rieger said, “he knew that the Federation was only as good as the agencies that created it. He understood how to manage others who he then taught how to hold people accountable for outcomes.”
Rieger remembered a discussion he had with Ostrow regarding an article in the Harvard Business Review, about how managers should delegate their time. “All these years later, I vividly recall Jerry’s admonition that a good manager needed to resist the temptation to be the chief problem-solver. Others need to carry out their responsibilities and learn from the experience.”
Ostrow was a decorated bomber pilot during World War II, although Bill and Woody Ostrow remember their father confiding that he wanted to be a fighter pilot, but he was too tall to fit into the small cockpit. So he joined a bomber crew instead, where, as Bill Ostrow put it, “he had nine guys who could get him killed.” He spoke very little of his time in the Army Air Corps and only if asked, although Woody Ostrow related a story that had stuck with him. When pilots needed a break from flying combat missions, they were assigned to fly fuel planes instead, traveling between Ireland and England to transport the gas needed for flight operations. Woody Ostrow remembered his father telling him that they would load the planes so heavily with fuel that pilots would begin takeoff unsure if their planes could physically lift off of the runway. The fear he felt on these gas runs, he said, was so intense that it made him long to be back in combat.
Bill Ostrow said that though his father was proud of his service, “he never talked about his experiences much.” Unlike the nostalgic baseball player in Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days,” he preferred to speak about “more recent things. His war years were very interesting: they were a part of his life, but not the main part of his life.”
For Bill Ostrow, more impressive was his father’s devotion to his mother at the end of her life, the way he pushed her wheelchair her around by himself. Though he’s proud of his father’s Distinguished Flying Cross, he’s more proud of the values he learned from him — “that being on time meant being 10 minutes early,” that you should always write thank-you notes and dress neatly and that you should “face life squarely.”
Bill and Woody Ostrow both emphasized their father’s dedication to the Jewish community of Pittsburgh as one of the traits they most admired. Bill said that his father’s record of service here is “impossible to live up to. He set a very high bar.”
Jeff Finkelstein, current president and CEO of the Jewish Federation, mentioned that “even up to this year, Jerry served as a volunteer campaigner garnering financial support for our Annual Campaign to support Jewish organizations and people in need here and around the world.” In fact, when Woody Pstrow visited his father in the hospital in Florida, just a few weeks before he passed away, Ostrow told him that he had in his possession information on a potential or past donor to help volunteers solicit funds — that he hadn’t managed to use yet. “Can you finish that for me?” he asked Woody.
Ask people about Jerry Ostrow, and they’ll all tell you the same few things — that he was a gentleman, a hard worker, a dedicated leader and a good friend, father and husband. They’ll also tell you that there was no artifice about him. “The standard people saw in the community is truly how he lived his life,” said Woody Ostrow. Bill Ostrow added, “He didn’t do anything in private that he wouldn’t do in public.” Ostrow was the same at a board meeting as he was in the backyard on a Sunday morning.
At his funeral in Rodef Shalom, Rabbi Sharyn Henry quoted from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” saying, “Good-night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
He is survived by his children Bill, Ricky (Elyse Dasko), Woody (Nancy) and Carol (Michael Graff).
Masha Shollar can be reached at email@example.com.