Stanley Hirsh, the imposing philanthropist, real estate investor and garment manufacturer as renown for his blunt-spoken style as his contributions to Jewish and political causes, died at his Studio City home March 22 after a two-year battle with brain cancer. He was 76.
The mourners who gathered at his funeral at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries on Wednesday remembered Hirsh as a man of contrasts: tough but fair, prickly but compassionate.
"This was a really opinionated, obstinate guy," said Frank Maas, secretary of The Jewish Federation. "And yet, he was the most generous man when he saw a person in trouble."
"He was a taskmaster, but he cared about social justice," said Rabbi Harvey Fields, who officiated at the funeral. "He felt a responsibility that I think grew out of his Depression-era childhood of experiencing need and others in need."
During Journal interviews, others described Hirsh as a man who could be relentless in pursuing business and charitable goals, but who served as confidante and counselor to his employees, some of whom he helped start their own businesses.
A tall, muscular chain-smoker with fiercely intelligent blue eyes, Hirsh, a Jewish Federation past president, was also a maverick philanthropist. "He was a doer, and he didn't always worry about the communal niceties," Federation President John Fishel said.
Arthur Laub, honorary vice president of Jewish Family Service (JFS), described how his close friend Hirsh used to telephone JFS's executive director at the end of each fiscal year. "He'd say, 'Are you short?' and they were always short, and then he'd give them the money, whether it was $40,000 or $100,000," Laub, 84, said. "Stanley got things done, and he did them his way."
Bronx-bred Hirsh, the son of a gas station owner, demonstrated that independent streak early on. "He wasn't the easiest candidate for his bar mitzvah," said his wife, Anita, Hirsh's partner in philanthropy. "His Orthodox rabbi threw him out, and his parents had to find a rabbi who could wrangle him."
When that clergyman gave him a pushke to collect money for settlers in then-Palestine, a philanthropist was born. "I took one of those little blue cans and walked around the Bronx," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. "It was my first taste of going out and raising money -- nickels and dimes and pennies.... They just asked that you bring the box back full."
As a teenager, Hirsh dropped out of school and went to work to help support his family, which relocated to California when he was 14. He carried bricks and mortar at a Long Beach shipyard "until they found out he was underage," Anita Hirsh said. Eventually, he finished high school while serving in the Navy, where his fellow recruits' anti-Semitism "clinched his being a Jew forever," his wife said.
After his stint in the military, Hirsh signed on as an assistant store manager for the women's clothing manufacturer House of Nine; eight years later, he began his own apparel manufacturing company with a partner.
After marrying Anita, a clothing designer, in 1961, his business expanded rapidly; eventually the couple purchased six commercial buildings in the downtown garment district, including the landmark Cooper Building.
Steve Hirsh, 48, recalled how his father, an avid amateur plumber and electrician, did much of the initial work on those buildings, early Los Angeles skyscrapers, himself. "He'd go down with a screwdriver in hand and fix things," he said.
On weekends, Hirsh's four children were expected to help with chores at their Studio City home and 6-acre ranch, where Hirsh loved tinkering with his yellow Case tractor. "We all held the flashlight while dad was fixing things, and that's how we learned," his daughter, Jennifer, 33, said.
While Steve Hirsh hated the chores as a teenager, "the recollections are now sweet," he told The Journal. "In retrospect, they seem like some of the most important times I spent with my father."
Stanley Hirsh's pro-Israel activities date from 1967 and the Six-Day War, which "really got me off my butt," he told the Times.
Four years later, his political involvement began when, dissatisfied with governance while serving on a homeowner's group, he ran for the Los Angeles City Council. He lost.
"But he was the first to endorse me during the runoffs," former City Councilman Joel Wachs said. "Thereafter, he served as my campaign treasurer and he was my best supporter for 30 years.... But he never sought public attention for what he was doing; he worked behind the scenes."
Along the way, Hirsh entered the world of large-scale political giving, including organizing a 1976 fundraiser for Howard M. Metzenbaum, then a Democratic Senate candidate from Ohio, according to the Times. Hirsh went on to sponsor events for 1988 vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan) and others who often shared his liberal, pro-Israel ideals.
"He could pick up the phone and call 20 senators," Rep. Howard Berman (D-28th District) said. "He was viewed as an important resource nationally."
Hirsh was also viewed as an important resource in Israel, where the mayor of Tel Aviv once took him to an impoverished community called Ajami in the mid-1980s. When the mayor said the area wasn't receiving attention because it was predominantly Arab, the Hirshes put up the money to build an early childhood development center.
Back at home, Hirsh served as Federation president and United Jewish Fund general campaign chair (1984-1985), and "he set a precedent by becoming the first half-million dollar giver," according to Laub.
When The Federation's kosher meals program for seniors was jeopardized by problematic outside caterers around 1992, Hirsh again stepped forward. "He said, 'Look, I'm going to build you a kitchen,'" JFS Executive Director Paul Castro recalled. A $650,000 initial grant helped build the state-of-the-art Hirsh Family Kosher Kitchen on Fairfax Avenue, which provides meals to homebound seniors and to 12 senior meal sites around Los Angeles.
According to Anita Hirsh, one of her husband's favorite roles in recent years was serving as publisher of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. Hirsh took on the position after the 1997 death of previous Journal publisher Edwin Brennglass.
"He was a good steward, because the newspaper is better today than it was when he became the publisher," said Irwin S. Field, chairman of the board of Los Angeles Jewish Publications, the corporation that owns The Journal. "Our move toward Conejo, the West Valley and Orange County was the result of the thinking process that he brought about, which was to reach more readers in Southern California."
"The Journal grew significantly under Stanley's leadership," said Robert Eshman, The Journal's editor-in-chief. "He wanted a paper that was tough, fair and compassionate -- the same mixture of qualities he displayed."
As Maas said just before Hirsh's funeral, "Stanley could be tough, but if there was a human issue, he was on it."
Stanley Hirsh is survived by his wife, Anita; his children, Steve (Pam), Adam, Jennifer and Liz (Yehuda) Naftali; four grandchildren, and three nieces and nephews and their spouses: Cathy and Larry Ross, Karyn and Jason Newman, and Jeff and Beth Cohen and their children.
The family requests that donations in Hirsh's memory be made to Jewish Family Service. Mail to Jewish Family Service, attention: Paul Castro, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Suite. 500, Los Angeles, CA 90048. For questions, call (323) 761-8800.
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