Erica Jesselson, Philanthropist, 86

By Forward Staff

Published March 13, 2008, issue of March 21, 2008.
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Erica Jesselson, a longtime Jewish philanthropist who helped establish the Yeshiva University Museum, died March 12 at her home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. She was 86 years old.

Jesselson was a devoted patron of the arts and a major funder in the area of Jewish education. She and her husband, Ludwig Jesselson, a highly successful commodities trader who died in 1993, supported numerous Jewish institutions here and in Israel. Among other projects, they endowed a chair in mathematics at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, founded a religious girls’ school in Jerusalem and financed a synagogue at the Technion in Haifa, where both husband and wife served as board members. In keeping with her love of art and culture, Jesselson also funded the Israel Museum and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. She served on the board of both institutions.

Yitz Greenberg, an Orthodox rabbi and educator who first met Jesselson and her husband when he served as their rabbi at the Riverdale Jewish Center from 1965 to1972, described Jesselson as a woman whose generosity extended to both the broader Jewish community and her wide circle of personal friends. Greenberg said that when he and his wife, author and lecturer Blu Greenberg, were unable to obtain a bookstore copy of the newest Harry Potter book to send to their grandson in Israel, they turned to Jesselson. Just as they had suspected, Jesselson had amassed extra copies of the sought-after book so that no wanting child would wind up heartbroken.

Greenberg also said that a “classic example” of Jesselson’s commitment to the arts came in the mid-1970s, when the Jesselsons were funding a new building for the SAR Academy in Riverdale, a Jewish day school that they helped found. When the first architectural plans were shoddy, Greenberg said, Jesselson insisted on having new plans drawn up from scratch, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, which she and her husband agreed to cover. “She felt that all activity comes out nobler if you have an aesthetic beauty built into it,” Greenberg said.

Jesselson, who was born Erica Pappenheim in Vienna and was later sent, along with her sister, Lucy Lang, on the Kindertransport to England, reunited with her family in Brooklyn in 1940. She later married Ludwig Jesselson.

The Jesselsons amassed a noted collection of Judaica and Hebraica. Their gifts to Yeshiva University allowed the institution to acquire rare pieces, including Judaica Americana; publish a catalog of its incunabula, or early printed books, and make its Judaica collection more accessible to students and scholars alike. Jesselson served as chair of the board of Y.U.’s museum from 1973 until 2008.

She is survived by her sons, Michael, Daniel and Benjamin; numerous grandchildren and great-children, and her sister, Lucy Lang.

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