Arie Halpern’s death leaves a community celebrating a life well lived

by Elaine Durbach
NJJN Bureau Chief/Central

Arie Halpern, a pillar of the legendary group of Central New Jersey Holocaust survivors known as “the Builders,â€? died on Sunday, Jan. 29, in Elizabeth, at the age of 87. Accompanied by 35 family members, his body was flown to Israel where he was buried on Tuesday, laid to rest in the city of his childhood dreams and site of much of his adult beneficence.

But first he was memorialized in Elizabeth, where he made his home after World War II. The service was held on Monday, Jan. 30, at the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, whose buildings were erected by his construction company, Atlantic Realty in Elizabeth and Woodbridge, with others still in the process of construction.

When Halpern’s grandson Gonen Paradis spoke, his voice cracked with emotion. In the capacity crowd of around 600 there were some in tears, and as people streamed away afterward, there was talk of the enormous gap left by his passing. Fellow Holocaust survivors and philanthropists Clara and Sol Kramer, Halpern’s friends for four decades, shared the sadness like family. But the resounding theme of the event was appreciation for an extraordinary life.

“While knowing how to live life well is difficult — and Mr. Arie Halpern knew how to do that — it is even harder to know how to leave well, and he did that too,â€? said Rabbi Elazar Teitz, leader of the JEC. Teitz knew Halpern from the time the builder moved from Manhattan to Elizabeth in 1959. Halpern moved to Springfield in 2003.

Teitz said Halpern expressed gratitude for all the years of his long life, without dwelling on the agonies of his internment in the concentration camp or the losses he suffered. “He had no complaints against God. He accepted every year he had as a good year, with gratitude and satisfaction. That is a rare attribute,â€? said Teitz.

Halpern, who was born in Chorstokow, Poland, lost his parents and his older brother in the Shoa; only his brother Sam survived and came to the United States with him, in 1950, and they remained a close-knit team all their lives. Sam Halpern emerged from the memorial service, looking pale and shaken, supported as he walked. He had not spoken, but others paid tribute to the brothers’ extraordinary bond. “They weren’t two individuals; they were a pair,â€? Teitz said.

Halpern’s nephew Yosef Paradis said that his uncle, whom he called a tzadik, a righteous man, helped thousands of children get a yeshiva education.

“He was my role model and my best friend,â€? Paradis said. “The first thing he taught us was the importance of giving tzedaka. His sole purpose in working hard was to make more money to give others, to make the world a better place.â€? He drew a deep sigh and added, “His smile could light up a room.â€?

Rabbi Chaim Marcus of Congregation Israel in Springfield talked of the great friendship he shared with Halpern. He said that Jewish children were Halpern’s greatest love. To bring him comfort when he was ill, Marcus brought Halpern a photograph of a Jerusalem park he had financed. “I told him, ‘These are my children playing in your park in Yerushalayim.’ Immediately he had the picture put up on the wall,â€? said the rabbi.

After settling in New Jersey with his wife Frieda, and having three daughters, he was struck again by tragedy when Frieda died at the age of 43. But a few years later, he met and married Eva, the mother of two sons. “You brought new joy to my mother’s life,â€? his stepson Henry Stein said, and spoke of the patience and tireless support his stepfather gave him. As Halpern’s nephew David Halpern said, they formed a loving and totally unified family.

His young grandson Misha Brenner read a message written by Halpern’s daughter Nanette. She wrote of qualities echoed by all of them, his warm smiles and limitless generosity. Son-in-law Dr. George Savran said, “Everyone who met him would come away saying, ‘What a nice man!’ Whoever asked for help from him did not go away empty-handed.â€?

Halpern played a major role in numerous Jewish organizations in addition to the JEC. The list includes Israel Bonds, Mizrahi, the World Zionist Congress, Religious Zionists of America, Yad Vashem, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, and the YM-YWHA of Union County.

Perhaps the aspect the speakers highlighted most was Halpern’s passion for Torah. “His business was a sideline,â€? Teitz said. “Gaining knowledge was his main preoccupation. Torah came first for him.â€? Marcus described how Halpern would turn up for morning prayers each day, dressed immaculately and “smelling wonderful.â€? For work, he said, he could wear anything, but for prayer he had to be just so.

“As long as he was capable of studying Torah, he got joy from learning something new,â€? Gonen Paradis said. With a deep sigh, he added that his grandfather always said a man’s greatness was measured by how he fulfilled his potential: “You exceeded your potential,â€? he concluded. “On behalf of our whole family, may I say we are so proud of you.â€?

Halpern is survived by his wife, Eva; daughters Shelley Paradis, Bella Savran, and Nanette Brenner; stepsons Henry and Ben Stein; brother Sam Halpern, and 16 grandchildren