The engagement was announced in The New York Times. The wedding was held at the Biltmore Hotel. What many guests still remember so many years later was how the bride’s family entered the room that day. They paused until everyone was seated and then strutted in pairs, in their finery, in a sort of royal procession.
“It was like a triumphal march,” one guest recalled. “They were saying: ‘We’re here, we’re celebrating!’” Another described the entrance as, “like, ‘we’re the Kennedys.’”
They were the Kushners. It was April 1965, and they had come a long way. Little more than a decade earlier they were so poor that Rae Kushner, the mother of the bride, served lunch at her children’s Jewish day school. Her husband, Joseph, ran a construction business from the trunk of his car.
Still, America was a paradise compared to what Rae and Joseph left behind in the forests of what is now Belarus, where Joseph hid with his siblings with a pistol in a shallow grave, or the brutalized ghetto of Novogrudok where Rae and her sisters and their father were among a tiny handful of survivors, or the displaced persons camps in Hungary and Italy, where the future bride, Linda Laulicht, would be born.
Now they were at the Biltmore, a grand Manhattan landmark. In just one more generation, their grandson, Jared, would be seated in the White House, at the right hand of the president of the United States—and even crazier to imagine, would be married to the president’s daughter, who converted to Judaism and raised their children as Orthodox Jews. The Kushners were bashert, as they say in Yiddish. They were fated!
Celebrating with them at the Biltmore that day was a close-knit group of other bashert families who also made it through the Holocaust—some literally hiding in haystacks, others starving through a succession of labor camps—even as most of their relatives perished. These families eventually made their way to America and gathered in Elizabeth, New Jersey, a town by the industrial port of Newark that made for an unlikely end of the rainbow. They arrived with very little and formed a community. Many soon built dynastic fortunes in real estate.
They were known as the Holocaust Builders or Refugee Builders. Or, sometimes in Yiddish, the Greener Builders—"greener” being the word for newcomer.
Much has been written about Jared Kushner’s gilded life as the scion of a real estate empire and the epic downfall of his criminal father, Charles Kushner, who was sent to prison in 2005 for a host of sins including a scheme to blackmail the gay governor of New Jersey, use the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as a personal instrument of his family real estate empire, and, perhaps worst of all in the minds of people for whom family was sacrosanct, entrap his brother-in-law with a prostitute and then send the video footage to his sister.
Often overlooked in the soap-opera-like machinations of the second and third generations are the stories of the survivors who built family dynasties out of nothing. At a time of anguish about social mobility and immigration, theirs is a postwar tale of refugees leaning on each other as they clambered onto the first rungs of the American ladder and began a remarkable and at times troubling ascent. They would end up being courted by presidents and Israeli prime ministers, and their heirs would own National Football League teams—and become bywords for everything right and everything wrong about the country that blessed them, instead of trying to murder them.
The builders were the ultimate embodiment of the American dream, yet they lived apart from prewar American Jews. They were latecomers, who cloistered themselves in a suburban enclave—a fancy shtetl, if you will—and practiced traditional Judaism with a vigor that was off-putting to the upwardly mobile Jews depicted in Saul Bellow and Philip Roth novels who wanted so desperately to join the American mainstream.
They were a collection of orphans who married each other and formed extended family bonds, becoming the siblings and nieces and nephews the others had lost in Europe. They celebrated weddings and bar mitzvahs together, and mourned together at funerals. They were—and still are, well into the third generation—world-class philanthropists. Their names grace hospitals and universities and Jewish centers across the United States. In Israel, they were among the biggest donors to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and memorial while also buying bonds and building hotels, hospitals, and other desperately needed infrastructure when the state was still in its infancy.
They could also be famously brutal in business, even with each other. “They were tough as nails when it came to business,” said one contemporary. It was a hardness some believe was born of their experience of the war and which—even as they rose as philanthropists and anchors of a community—they never lost.
“You didn’t survive this because you were a good guy,” Marjorie Blenden, whose late father, Leonard Diener, arrived in Elizabeth before the builders and helped many gain a foothold, explained. She was sipping coffee in her living room in suburban New Jersey on a recent morning, sifting through her father’s papers and indicating the nearby houses where the builders once lived. “Zucky over here, Pantirer over there. Halpern down the road.”
Builders could butt heads during the week over a deal and then embrace in synagogue on the Sabbath. The best way Blenden could explain it was to recite a mantra that her father used to utter that conveyed the compartmentalized code by which they navigated a fallen world: “What is to man is to man; what is to God is to God; what is to business is to business.”
Arguably, the ultimate builder, the man who turned a collection of homeless survivors into a thriving community, was the enterprising rabbi who officiated that day 55 years ago at the Biltmore: Pinchas Mordechai Teitz. While his congregants were putting up apartment complexes and shopping malls in postwar New Jersey, Rabbi Teitz built a modern Orthodox religious movement that would eventually alter the character of modern American Judaism. The rabbi and the builders thrived alongside one another. They generated wealth, while he imbued their lives with purpose.
“He was a great leader,” said David Halpern, whose father, Sam, survived a labor camp in Poland to reign as the unofficial king of New Jersey developers before his death in 2013 at the age of 93. “They lost their families in the Holocaust and Rabbi Teitz became a father figure to them—not just a spiritual leader.”
Halpern was sitting in an office at Atlantic Realty Development, the family business, in Woodbridge, New Jersey, with one of his adult sons alongside him. He spoke of his father with great care and deliberation, as if he were handling a family heirloom that was precious and fragile. Outside the sixth-floor window was a sprawling shopping mall and other pieces of the Halpern empire, and then, just visible in the far distance, the hazy Manhattan skyline.
More than just a spiritual guide, Rabbi Teitz played matchmaker to various builders and helped iron out their disputes. He was so renowned as a fixer that there is a story that he was once enlisted to resolve a conflict between two biblical enemies: McDonald’s and Burger King. The latter was apparently poaching workers after they had been trained by the former. Whether such tales are true, their continued circulation says something about the reverence for a rabbi who commanded titans.
“Rabbi Teitz was our leader, our provider,” Rae Kushner, now deceased, explained to the compilers of a book of Holocaust testimonies from New Jersey survivors. “We were orphans.”
In return, the builders underwrote Teitz’s vision of transplanting traditional Orthodox Judaism to America. It was said that if someone won the lottery, Rabbi Teitz would find out. And if that person did not contribute a share of their winnings to the yeshiva, they could expect to be called in for “a discussion.” One person recalled a board meeting of the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, during which the rabbi asked for $100,000 from one builder, $200,000 from another—and so on. And they complied.
To Joel Glazer, who for decades taught history at the JEC, educating many of the builders’ children—including the young Charles Kushner, Jared’s father (his handwriting was apparently meticulous)—the builder families were like royalty in the community, able to make a simple man rich merely by smiling upon him—and also the reverse. Yet Rabbi Teitz stood above them all.
“What the rabbi did was convince the builders: ‘Hashem gave you this money—God! It’s not yours. You’ve got to give some of it back.’ And I think they internalized this,” Mr. Glazer said. “He made them feel that what they were doing was important.”
Elizabeth has the unadorned feel of much of New Jersey, a place in between places. It is a port to arrive at and then move on from. These days Latino immigrants dominate. Yet there are still traces of a rich Jewish life preserved beneath the fresh layers of Colombian and Venezuelan storefronts. The Dunkin’ Donuts in Elizabeth is strictly kosher, and a Jewish grocer still sits on the main street, which had that slightly charged atmosphere on a recent Friday afternoon as shoppers rushed to finish their errands before the Sabbath.
Nearby was the Halpern Building of the Jewish Family Services charity and the Schindler Plaza office building, the latter named for Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who protected more than 1,200 Jews in the Holocaust. A trio of Elizabeth builders—the Zuckermans, the Pantirers and the Levensteins—were among those survivors, and they made a habit of naming streets and avenues all over New Jersey to honor their protector. For years before his death in 1974 they sent him money, and even brought him to town once for a visit.
A short walk down Elmora Avenue stands the earthly monument to Rabbi Teitz’s spiritual ambition: The Jewish Educational Center day school, whose low-slung, rectangular brick building is named for Harry Wilf, whose sons own the Minnesota Vikings. The JEC is, as one local called it, “the mothership” in a network of Jewish schools that educated generations of Kushners and Wilfs and Halperns.
Rabbi Teitz, a gifted orator, arrived in Elizabeth in 1934 as part of a fundraising and lecture tour to support the Telz yeshiva in Lithuania. It was never the plan for him to stay but he met Basya “Bessie” Preil, daughter of the local rabbi in Elizabeth. Rabbi Preil had stated in his will that if a Torah scholar would marry Basya, he would inherit the rabbinate. They married in January 1935. A wedding picture shows a tall, dapper young groom with a neat mustache and a top hat—Orthodox, but modern.
Like other newcomers from oppressed lands, Rabbi Teitz was struck by the ease of American life, according to Learn Torah, Love Torah, Live Torah, a biography by his daughter, Rivkah Blau: “‘In America,’” he used to say, “‘a person who is creative thinks of two solutions; in Europe a Jew had to think of a hundred solutions—and just in case, a hundred and one.’”
Yet the young Rabbi Teitz was also dismayed by American Jewry. American Jews, he concluded, were more interested in assimilating than studying Torah and living a Jewish life. There was a meekness in the way they practiced their faith. Elizabeth’s Orthodox congregation, which he took over from his late father-in-law, was a shabby rival to the wealthier and better established local Conservative Jewish community.
Rabbi Teitz sensed an opportunity. He would try to transplant what he regarded as a more vibrant and learned form of Judaism in the soil of postwar America—not in a metropolis like New York City or Boston, but in Elizabeth, New Jersey. His means was Torah education, which he likened to a vitamin infusion for a sick patient. In 1940, he inaugurated the first class of what would become the JEC, a Jewish school—or yeshiva—that aimed to provide students a top secular education with the added benefit of proper religious instruction.
Rabbi Teitz’s new formula of embracing strict religiosity without turning away from the benefits of material life was not an easy sell to American Jewish parents who were convinced that the route to prosperity for their children was through assimilation; many were happy to have left religious practice behind in the old country. The inaugural class consisted of just two students—one of whom was the rabbi’s son, Elazar.
But Rabbi Teitz persisted. “Be modern, be Orthodox!” was a favorite slogan. And: “Don’t adapt the Torah to America, adapt America to the Torah.”
One of Teitz’s early allies was Diener, a Polish Jew who came to New Jersey in 1925 and became a leader within the JEC community. The two men spoke nearly every day, sometimes for hours at a time. “I used to shake when I answered the phone,” Blenden recalled. But beneath the rabbi’s stern exterior, she also sensed warmth. A small example: On Sabbath he would make sure to walk straight ahead, never glancing left or right, because he did not want anyone violating the holy day by driving a car, for example, to feel ashamed that the rabbi had seen them.
Some members of the congregation doubted the new rabbi’s grand visions for Elizabeth. At one point he challenged them by threatening to leave. Gradually, he prevailed. New members trickled in from the Conservative synagogue. By 1944, the fledgling JEC had taken over a spacious old home on Elmora Avenue. Seven years later, it opened its own purpose-built elementary school. In between, Rabbi Teitz and the community built a new synagogue. For its grand opening, it was draped with red-white-and-blue bunting.
“He literally built this community,” Blenden said. His authority was conveyed through a saying that is still repeated in the wider community: There’s the right way and the wrong way. And the Rabbi Teitz way.
While the rabbi was laying the building blocks for a new kind of Jewish community, or kehilla, in Elizabeth, their forebears in Europe were being annihilated.
In Novogrudok, in northern Poland, Rae Kushner, the daughter of a furrier, was 16 when the Soviets invaded in 1939. The communists sent many of the wealthier residents to Siberia. They were the lucky ones, as it turned out. Two years later the Germans rolled in and corralled about 30,000 Jews from the surrounding areas.
They were told they would be kept as workers. But mass shootings, strangulation, poisoning, and other means of extermination soon commenced. On one occasion, Rae and a few dozen other young girls were enlisted to scrub the blood from the town square where professors and other educated Jews had been murdered. A band played all the while. Rae would witness the murder of her mother, Linda, and sister, Esther. By 1943, Rae, her father, Nachum, and two remaining siblings were among only a few hundred Jews confined to a courthouse in an ever-shrinking ghetto.
With no other hope, the remaining survivors of the Novogrudok ghetto began to dig an underground tunnel that would eventually stretch nearly 1,000 feet from the ghetto to outside its walls. On the rainy night of Sept. 26, more than 300 Jews crawled into the tunnel. Before departing, some of the plotters strangled to death a fellow inmate—a teenage boy—whom they feared would inform on them. When they emerged in a wheat field on the other side, Rae’s brother, Channan, became separated in the confusion and was never seen again. Dozens of others were swiftly recaptured and killed—some tortured first, others locked in a barn and then burned alive.
Rae, along with her father and sister, made it to the woods. After 10 days on the run, they eventually joined a group of partisans. There she found Joseph, who had grown up about 10 miles away in the village of Korelitz. His mother and three sisters had been murdered. He survived by hiding during the day in a hole he and his remaining siblings dug in the forest.
When the German army finally collapsed, Joseph and Rae joined one of history’s great mass migrations, a meandering journey across a chaotic Eastern Europe. They talked their way past the Russian army and boarded a train to Czechoslovakia, then walked by night across Hungary. In Budapest, Rae and Joseph married alongside 20 other Jewish couples—there was no time to waste. From there they made it to Cremona, Italy, where they waited for someone to take them in.
“We would go anywhere where we could live in freedom, but nobody wanted us,” Rae Kushner stated in her testimony. Their daughter, Linda, was born in a displaced persons camp while they waited.
After three-and-a-half years they secured U.S. immigration papers with the help of American cousins and a Jewish refugee organization. They crossed the Atlantic in a Polish boat, arriving in New York in 1949. They were at last free. But they were destitute.
In Elizabeth, the war brought a different kind of agony. Rabbi Teitz and his growing congregation were safe, but they knew that their loved ones in Europe were not.
The rabbi had glimpsed the Nazi threat early on. Soon after marrying, he had brought Bessie to Latvia and Lithuania to meet his family—a journey that took them across a darkening Germany. “My mother said you could actually feel the fear in the country,” Rivkah Blau said. In New Jersey, Teitz joined other prominent rabbis appealing to U.S. politicians to rescue the Jews, even proposing at one point to pay $100 a head. But they were pushing against a U.S. immigration door that had been closed tight by the nativism of the 1920s.
Rabbi Teitz managed to help his own parents escape, but his efforts to save his sister, his brother-in-law, and their four children were for naught. The immigration papers he sent them were lost after the Soviets invaded the Baltic countries. Their last telegram arrived on March 3, 1941. It read simply: “Missing the exit visa.”
It was one family tragedy among countless others. In the Lithuanian city of Telz, where Rabbi Teitz had once studied at its famous yeshiva, nearly every remaining Jew was murdered.
After the war, with thousands of survivors like the Kushners confined in displaced persons camps across Europe, the JEC of Elizabeth mobilized to bring them to America. Rabbi Teitz used the JEC bank account to satisfy a U.S. rule that any arriving immigrant must have at least $1,000 in savings. He also placed refugees on the JEC payroll—so many that his daughter used to tease him that the school had more employees than students.
One day a builder named Murray Pantirer walked into an Orthodox synagogue on Elmora Avenue in Elizabeth. Pantirer had been born in Krakow, Poland, in 1925. His parents and all six of his siblings had been killed in the war. Pantirer himself was spared because Oskar Schindler had vouched for him as a skilled sheet metal worker, and therefore vital to the German war effort; Pantirer had never worked with sheet metal. “To this day I have no idea who put me there,” Pantirer would say years later of his place on Schindler’s list.
Pantirer was looking for a place to pray that day because it was his family’s yahrzeit, and he had been told that this particular shul conducted both morning and afternoon prayers. “So I walked into the shul. There was a very distinguished young man, and his name was Rabbi Pinchas Teitz,” he recalled in an interview before his death in 2008. Pantirer told the rabbi he had lost his entire family and asked if he could lead the prayer that day. Rabbi Teitz obliged. Afterward, they ended up chatting in Yiddish about their losses and all that had happened during the war.
Pantirer’s story was horrible in the extreme—but unusual only in that he lived to tell it. With fair hair and blue eyes, he had passed as a non-Jew until a Gestapo patrol one day ordered him to drop his pants and then detained him. During trips into the Krakow ghetto as part of a cleaning crew, he would search among the corpses for his brother and sister, whose dead bodies were eventually brought into the labor camp where he was working. There was the inhuman sadism of the Nazi camp commandant Amon Goethe at Plaszow, and the day his last remaining brother was “marked” for Auschwitz—while Murray was saved.
Pantirer felt an instant sense of kinship with the European rabbi and the Orthodox community he was building in Elizabeth, and he evangelized on its behalf among other survivors. “I told everyone about the community,” Pantirer said. “The Wilfs came in, the Halperns, the Kushners. And every one of them had the opportunity to give their children a Jewish education because of Rabbi Teitz. … I don’t know how to say it in English, but in Jewish it’s bashert. It’s meant to be.”
Some of the builders were working on projects in New Jersey, but they were not yet living there. When they came to Elizabeth, they discovered a Judaism familiar to them from the lost world of their childhoods. It did not matter how much money they had, or didn’t have. Rabbi Teitz insisted that every child should be able to have a Jewish education, regardless of their parents’ ability to pay.
“It had everything they wanted,” Blau explained. “And it had a rabbi who reminded them of Europe and who could speak Yiddish with them, and who had suffered loss himself and was extremely sympathetic.”
In retrospect, it is easy to see how and why orphaned survivors would be drawn to Elizabeth, New Jersey, and to Rabbi Teitz’s modernized, empathetic brand of traditional Judaism. What is harder to imagine is that so many of them would become wildly successful American builders. Before the war, some had experience as tailors or buying and selling textiles or other goods. Some had no work experience at all.
As a calling, real estate development had a few things to recommend it to people in their predicament, though. Good English was not necessary—nor was a formal education. Many survivors say that next to surviving the Nazi Holocaust in forests or concentration camps, the risks of defaulting on a bank loan or the demands of long hours on job sites were hardly daunting.
When he arrived in New York in 1949, Sam Halpern had only made it to the seventh grade before the war interrupted his studies. He found work in a grocery store in Washington Heights. “My father didn’t speak English,” his son, David, explained. “He was taking cans out of the boxes.” Eventually he learned the language and took over his own small store. He then opened another store for his brother, Arie, who came to New York 18 months later.
Sam and Arie Halpern had survived Kamionka, a particularly vicious labor camp in Poland where all but a few dozen of the 5,000 Jewish inmates were killed. Sam gained the favor of one of the commanders, and then the brothers crawled under the fence a day before the camp was liquidated. In his biography, Darkness and Hope, Halpern recounted the terror of lying in a cornfield for a day while guard dogs hunted for Jews and screams rang out from the people being shot all around him. The brothers eventually made it back to their hometown where Catholic friends hid them in a hay loft for eight months.
The problems that confronted the Halperns in America were of a different order. The brothers were from a Hassidic family, and running a supermarket meant violating the Sabbath. One day, a friend named Al Rieder offered the Halperns a way out. He invited them to partner with him on a modest building project—putting up single-family homes on 14 lots in a town called Spotswood, New Jersey.
The Halperns did not know much about building, but Rieder promised to show them the ropes. This was to be his second project. He had come from a prominent Hungarian Jewish family, but lost whatever money he had soon after arriving in America. It took him three years of odd jobs to scrape together enough cash to buy one lot in Spotswood on which he built three single-family homes in 1951.
The houses he built with the Halperns sold; their next project together was 30 lots. Soon they were riding around central New Jersey in Rieder’s secondhand 1954 Buick. “None of them had a car. They used to ride to the job site in his car,” his grandson, Elie, who is also a builder, explained. When he was not driving, his grandson recalled, Rieder liked to pass the time studying daily Talmud readings.
By 1960 the Halperns had left the grocery business behind and become full-fledged builders. They worked long hours—but not on the Sabbath. Amid the postwar boom, returning soldiers were starting families and were desperate for housing. The government opened up farmland to developers by carving federally funded highways through it. It also supplied cheap financing to homebuyers through the GI Bill. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, headlines in the Elizabeth Daily Record documented a building boom: “Industrial construction spurt, up 262 per cent over 1955. … Record home-building. 109 per cent increase in residential building.”
“Any kind of shack you put up, people bought,” said Marjorie Blenden. “The soldiers were coming home. People wanted houses.”
The early financing came through fellow members of the community, like Diener, who pooled their money in partnerships. As Mr. Halpern soon discovered, cash from the first home sales in one project could be mobilized to launch the next development. Later, as the builders’ success grew, the banks became eager lenders. Many even took out advertisements in the JEC newsletter. If a real estate deal went bad, the underlying land provided something tangible for the bank to recover.
If there was a disagreement, the builders went to the rabbi. “When there used to be some differences among them—for example, over some plot of land they were competing for—they would come to my father as the arbitrator,” Blau, the rabbi’s daughter, said. “He would try to work it out.”
If the builders had a common playbook, it was to build homes and then pour the profits into garden apartments—the U-shaped, low-rise rental complexes with modest landscaping and a courtyard—that can be found throughout suburban New Jersey. They are not particularly glamorous but they are good moneymakers, especially if managed closely. Another devotee of this strategy was Fred Trump, a son of German immigrants who grew wealthy after the war by building nondescript, middle-income apartment blocks in Queens and Brooklyn with the help of government tax breaks.
The builders seldom spoke of the Holocaust in those days—except among themselves, and often in Polish so that they could not be understood. The organized physical annihilation of European Jewry was scarcely mentioned in local newspapers or depicted in films. It was not even taught at the JEC until a teacher eventually broke the silence in the 1970s by assigning his students to ask their parents about their family history.
Still, the war—and their experience of it—was inseparable from their business and personal lives. “He always felt if he survived, God wanted him to succeed,” was how David Halpern described his father’s sense of mission. “After breaking stones 16 hours a day, with no water, this was easy.”
For men who had been processed like cattle by their captors, the Holocaust made them determined never again to work for anyone else. It may have also made them impervious to the sense of risk that might tame other entrepreneurs, according to William Helmreich, a professor at City College in New York who studied 140,000 Holocaust survivors for his book Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America. “They figured if they were going to lose, they’ll lose big. In that sense, they were fearless,” Helmreich said.
The Kushners in particular had little to lose. The family was so destitute in the early days that Linda Laulicht recalled her father going to work the next day after they arrived in Brooklyn, searching for building-site jobs. “He had no real skills because his father died when he was young, and then the war came along,” Laulicht explained.
If Sam Halpern was occasionally fiery, and his brother Arie was more of a philosopher, Joe Kushner was known to be reserved. At one point he had considered becoming a farmer but his wife, Rae, disabused him of the idea. Real estate, not eggs, was the way to riches in America. Besides, it was not easy to walk to synagogue and lead a proper Jewish life when you lived on a farm.
“My mother—to her credit—said to my father: ‘I came out of the wilderness. I’m not going back,’” Linda Laulicht recalled.
Soon he began riding the bus from Brooklyn, where they shared an apartment with an aunt and Rae’s father, to building sites in New Jersey. He eventually ended up riding in Rieder’s Buick.
Joe Kushner’s first independent project was with Oscar Wilf in Union, New Jersey. With Rae’s help, he had saved up $10,000 to fund it. Family legend has it that Joe slept on the worksite to save money on bus fare. “Everything was tied up in this project,” Laulicht said.
Like the other builders, the Kushners followed a scraping path in which gratification was delayed, profits were reinvested in the business, and publicity—at least outside the Jewish community—was to be avoided. To raise your head up, to show your riches, could only invite trouble. The books were managed by the formidable Rae Kushner, often at the kitchen table.
By 1954, the growing family had moved to Elizabeth. While Joseph and Rae were not Orthodox, they were drawn to the JEC because of Rabbi Teitz, who reminded them of the old world, and insisted on educating their children to become Orthodox Jews.
There is a story that a struggling Joseph once approached one of the JEC rabbis to become his partner in exchange for an investment. The rabbi turned him down, thus confirming that a religious education does not always produce shrewd investors. But others at the JEC lent a hand. Although Mr. Diener rarely spoke of business at home, Blenden remembered him once mentioning trouble that Joe Kushner was having in Freehold, New Jersey, a place where he had once built. “He spoke to someone who spoke to someone and there was no more problem,” she said.
It was not until 1958 that the Kushners moved into their first home, a three-bedroom house built by Joseph in Elizabeth. Even then, modesty prevailed. “I shared a bedroom with my sister until I got married,” Laulicht observed.
The Halperns, meanwhile, did not move into a house until 1962. “My father had built hundreds of houses for other people and we still lived in an apartment!” Halpern marveled.
Their parents’ climb was steady, the builders’ children recall, but by the mid-1960s there were already clear markers of their progress: Within a few years of each other, the families moved from Elizabeth to the neighboring town of Hillside. It was just two miles away, but leafy and green. The man who owned the land did not much care for Jews but he sold to them anyway.
Many of the houses in Hillside boasted of columns and other Colonial Revival touches. These days it still looks like a prosperous middle-class suburb—though not the kind of place that might earn a second glance from a hedge fund manager. The builders clustered along a circular road within a three-block radius of each other—the Dieners next door to the Zuckermans and Pantirers, with the Halperns and Wilfs a few blocks away. The Kushners lived down the road, in a split-level at the corner of Westminster Avenue, whose name they would later give to their apartment management company. In their leisure hours, they might play cards, or go to the Yiddish theater together. “They were always with each other,” a member of the community recalled.
In business terms, the Halperns and the Wilfs set the pace. Soon the saying would go that those families owned more of New Jersey than did either Verizon or the state of New Jersey.
Rabbi Teitz was also flourishing. In 1972, The New York Times featured a glowing profile of the “dynamic rabbi leading a renaissance of Orthodox Judaism in Elizabeth.” By then the JEC had opened a new high school and the governor of New Jersey turned up for the dedication, as well as for the Bruriah school for girls. One mark of the JEC’s success was that its students, including Blau, were not only receiving a Jewish education but also winning admission to Ivy League universities. Further validation of the immigrant rabbi’s project came in 1976, when Jimmy Carter, the Georgia governor then seeking the Democratic nomination for president, paid a visit to the JEC and even donned a yarmulke for the occasion. With the support of his prospering community, Rabbi Teitz was also becoming a multimedia star. He launched a weekly radio program in which he taught Torah in Yiddish, which lasted 35 years and was broadcast around the world. He also took an interest in the Soviet Union, traveling there more than 20 times to support its Jews in an echo of his earlier life-altering trips to the displaced persons camps of postwar Europe.
The communal projects that the builders funded may have been praiseworthy and important—even righteous—but their business dealings were not always pristine. As with other developers, there are tales of builders who leaned on their contractors, delaying payment and then offering them 75 cents on the dollar for their work. If they refused, the offer might drop to 50 cents. (Donald Trump, meanwhile, had developed a reputation in the construction industry for not paying bills at all.)
If you invested in one of the builders’ partnerships, withdrawing your money—even if you were Leonard Diener’s daughter—might be near impossible, as Blenden discovered years after her father’s death, though she does not hold a grudge. “Something changes,” she said, tapping her temple and shrugging as she tried to explain the mentality of people who had lived through the camps.
In one of the great regrets of his career, Sam Halpern was indicted after buried construction debris at one of his developments caused a sinkhole that killed a 7-year-old boy in 1993. He was later exonerated. Ed Mosberg, a 93-year-old survivor known to still occasionally doff his concentration camp uniform, was indicted in 2008 for selling homes at a discount to a local New Jersey official in exchange for favorable treatment of his construction projects over 20 years. Prosecutors later dropped the case, in part citing Mosberg’s advanced age. He was honored three years ago at the JEC’s 75th anniversary gala.
“That was America at the time,” said Jack Rosen, whose father, David, literally swallowed what remained of the family gold before going into Auschwitz. He would survive, and eventually partner with the Wilfs—only to discover the indignity of dealing with local building inspectors. “When he first tried to get a permit in New Jersey they told him they wouldn’t give a Jewish builder a permit,” said Rosen, a successful real estate investor who is also the president of the American Jewish Congress. He still keeps his father’s last remaining gold coin, which is scratched from where it was nailed into a shoe.
When traveling in China, Mr. Rosen is often asked by his hosts about “the secret” to the Jews’ success. In fact, he believes, the builders followed the universal blueprint of immigrants in America—be they Korean shop owners or Indian moteliers. “You come here with some cash, you find a business, you find a network, and you work 14 hours a day,” he explained.
But the scandals that have come in the second generation are harder to justify as a reaction against wartime trauma and indigenous American bigotry. Charles Kushner’s lurid turn against his siblings is well documented. “It is difficult for me to reconcile the generous man with the revengeful, hateful man,” opined the judge at Kushner’s sentencing hearing in 2005, after weighing his crimes against hundreds of letters the court had received attesting to his philanthropy.
More revealing, at least in business terms, may be the epic lawsuit the Wilfs lost in 2013 involving a 1980s real estate deal. They were ordered to pay $103 million after a court found that they had cheated former business partners for years through self-dealing, inflated charges and other means.
“The Wilfs didn’t just take a little extra money,” said the judge presiding over the case. “They robbed their partners. They took as much money as was there.” The judge also said she did not believe any of the financial statements produced at the trial were accurate.
In 2018, an appellate court upheld most of the lower court’s findings but decided the statute of limitations had, in some cases, expired. The Wilfs tend to minimize the case as a single “business dispute” in a vast enterprise that includes apartments, hotels, shopping centers and other developments across more than 30 U.S. states and Israel. It remains under appeal.
Still, such episodes have contributed to a darker theory about the builders’ success. The same attitude that may have saved their lives in the camps also led them to disregard the rules of normal business practice. When everyone was ordered to march to the left, the builders were the ones who went to the right. It is what prompted Rae Kushner to crawl through a tunnel, and Sam Halpern to escape Kamionka when others stayed behind to pray. Some in the Elizabeth community do not disagree with this theory, which was advanced by Vicky Ward in her recent book, Kushner, Inc. Yet such thinking can soon veer into anti-Semitic stereotypes: The survivors were the cunning Jews, the savvy Jews, the sly Jews.
It may also be a distortion. After researching his book, Helmreich concluded that the builders were resourceful people with enormous energy who had faced and passed an extraordinary test. But so were many others who did not survive. “People thought the toughest survive. But when you read and learn about the Holocaust you realize most of them had no control over what happened to them,” Helmreich said. “It’s an insult to the dead to say it was skill or these people were more resourceful.”
The builders’ business affairs tend to be conducted through private partnerships, which are protected by an almost clannish loyalty. To speak ill of the builders and their descendants is to speak ill of “the community.” Still, some are willing to do so—albeit quietly. “Nothing they do is done without public recognition,” one person said. “This to me is not kosher.”
Another member of the New Jersey Jewish community, a former bank executive who has seen some of the builders’ dealings up close but asked to remain unnamed to protect his business interests, confessed to feeling torn about them. As a Jew, he takes pride in their success and appreciates their philanthropy. Yet it is “the how,” he says, that sometimes plagues him. “They’re interesting, fascinating people. But I have mixed emotions about how they proceed with their business,” he explained. “It’s this idea that rules don’t apply to them.”
The banker cited Enemies, a Love Story, the novel by Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer about a Holocaust survivor who marries the Polish peasant who rescued him—and then falls in love with a third woman—after believing his first wife has died. The wife makes a miraculous return, and many deceptions ensue.
“You look at Holocaust survivors as being wonderful, upstanding people,” the man said. “But as Isaac Bashevis Singer was saying: They’re human. They’re complicated.”
These days, the builders are all but gone—and so is Rabbi Teitz, who died in 1995. The community they built still exists, but not in the same way. Many of the families have moved from Hillside to more affluent towns, like Short Hills and Livingston, where they have founded new yeshivas, like the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy. Rabbi Teitz’s son Elazar a respected Torah scholar and brilliant mathematician, succeeded his father at the JEC, though with its benefactors now scattered throughout the state, it is no longer the force it once was.
The children of the builders still gather at big events, like the annual Yeshiva University black tie Hanukkah dinner and the JEC gala. They are also major philanthropists, particularly for Israel and Holocaust education. “We are very proud of where we came from and of the legacy we have built. Our family has continued to invest in and build a sense of community, which all stems from the family’s early days in Elizabeth,” Mark Wilf, who—in addition to his business activities—chairs the Jewish Federations of North America, wrote in an email.
But, perhaps inevitably, the descendants do not share the same bond that their parents and grandparents once did when they lived in a three-block radius. There are said to be rifts.
Some of the children have also cast off the old prohibitions that guided their parents. Many believe the original sin that precipitated Charles Kushner’s downfall was to cut an increasingly visible presence as a New Jersey power broker and bankroller of Democratic politicians. The Wilf sons, Mark and Zygi, stepped into the limelight outside the tightknit builders’ world when they bought the Minnesota Vikings in 2005. For all their wealth, there was a kind of head-turning confusion as to just who these people were when the acquisition was announced.
It remains to be seen whether future generations will display the same business acumen. Some have shunned real estate for other careers. Some are said to be thriving. If you had the steady cash flow generated by tens-of-thousands of apartment units there were plenty of bargains to be had following the 1991 savings-and-loan crisis or the 2008 financial crisis. On the eve of the latter crisis, Jared Kushner sold the family’s steady-but-unspectacular garden apartments for about $2 billion and placed a $1.6 billion bet on a glamorous Fifth Avenue office tower. The reckoning was painful, and it took considerable effort before the family finally managed to extricate itself from the building in 2018.
While Jared’s position in the White House has increased the family’s prominence, it has also greatly complicated their business. The scrutiny that President Trump attracts from his political foes has brought lawsuits and regulatory hassles and prompted some developers and investors to shy away from doing business with the Kushners, deciding they are simply not worth the trouble. “They’re radioactive,” one New York real estate executive observed.
The family’s most recent moves suggest a return to their knitting: Kushner Companies paid about $1 billion last year for a portfolio of suburban apartments in Maryland and Virginia. Assuming there is a downturn, the thinking in the industry is that those sorts of assets should be a safe bet.
It is hard to know what Rabbi Teitz would have made of it all. Some speculate that had he been around, the great rabbi—the arbitrator of Burger King and McDonald’s and so many New Jersey land disputes—might have found a way to temper Charles Kushner before it was too late. Jared Kushner appeared to believe something similar. According to a recent memoir by former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who, as a federal prosecutor, sent Charles to prison, Jared complained that his father’s offenses were “a family matter” best dealt with by rabbis—not the U.S. Department of Justice.
Then there is Jared, himself. Some who knew him as a boy still marvel at his current position. If anyone was White House material, surely it was the Princeton-educated Mark Wilf. Jared has spoken publicly of a boyhood in muddy boots as he dutifully toured work sites with his father. Upon entering the White House, he brought along a picture of his grandparents, which he referred to last year while opening the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. “I keep a photo of them on my desk to remind me of how high the stakes are,” he told the audience.
Given where Rae and Joseph came from and everything they and the other builders endured, Marjorie Blenden sees Jared’s mere presence in the White House as “almost miraculous,” adding “it’s like their revenge on Hitler.”
Yet one Kushner cousin reacted with outrage. “I have a different takeaway from my grandparents’ experience in the war,” Marc Kushner, a New York architect, wrote on Facebook. “It is our responsibility as the next generation to speak up against hate.” One descendant of the builders wondered out loud to me whether Jared is the apotheosis of the American dream his grandparents embodied or whether he has betrayed that dream by serving a president who gave succor, especially early in his administration, to white nationalists. Some worry for Jared Kushner—that in playing the role of the “court Jew” he may be courting trouble for the larger community if Trump falls.
It all seemed simpler in the beginning, when the builders had only had each other to cling to back in Elizabeth as they struggled to make American lives from the ashes of Europe. “That was a golden time,” Rivkah Blau said, reflecting on those days. “It was a very good time.”
Joshua Chaffin is the New York Correspondent at the Financial Times.