Rena Costa, a philanthropist who lent her name and support to the Center of Yiddish Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, died in her hometown of New York City at the age of 84 on December 5 after a three-month battle with cancer.
A refugee from Hitler’s Europe who could scarcely speak a word of Yiddish, Costa yearned to establish an institution in Israel where Jews could preserve and nurture Yiddish culture. She set out to fund the Center of Yiddish Studies, which bears her name, in 1983 in order to honor and remember those killed in the Holocaust.
“If Yiddish dies, Hitler will have won,” Costa once said, “and that is one victory we must make sure he does not have.”
Costa held the attention of those who crossed her path, using both her sincerity and wit. In 1999, at center ceremonies awarding 130 degrees to bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree candidates, she said, “If you’ve heard me before, you know that my Yiddish stinks to high heaven!”
“She could be irreverent. She could be outspoken,” said Gary Baskind, New York regional director for the American Friends of Bar-Ilan. “But she was a lot of fun.”
Costa was well known at the Bar-Ilan offices in New York, bringing in babka two days a week and fraternizing with everyone who crossed her path.
“She would talk to the king the same way she would talk to a street sweeper,” Baskind said. “She cared a lot about people.”
Born in Vienna, Costa fled Europe just prior to World War II. After arriving in the United States, she earned her fortune fitting diamonds onto earrings.
The Center of Yiddish Studies holds classes in Yiddish language, literature, culture and folklore. Teachers speak only in Yiddish and doctoral dissertations are written only in Yiddish. The center, which encourages its students to pursue teaching and researching positions in the Yiddish field, will offer distance learning over the Internet in the upcoming year.
Costa is survived by her sister, Trudy Gildin.