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Oldest Alum, 98, Leads Way at Penn Ceremony

May 20, 2010 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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Jay Furman, Class of '34
"Somebody's looking out for me upstairs," Jay Furman cheerfully declared as he pointed upwards. Needless to say, the 98-year-old wasn't talking about the folks who manage the Center City senior living facility where he lives.

Whether it's due to a healthy lifestyle or a far greater power, Furman once again led the procession of alumni at the University of Pennsylvania commencement ceremony this week-- his third consecutive year doing so.

Furman, Class of '34, is the school's oldest living alumnus. Or, as he likes to put it: he's the oldest "of anyone who can carry a flag -- and that's quite an honor."

"I feel good about it," he said during an interview at his home several days before the May 17 commencement. "It does give you a high, but it's not easy."

The hard part, he explained, comes from the amount of time needed to accomplish the task, as well as the big production that's involved with being the first member of such a multitudinous procession. His first year, he explained, he managed to walk it, but this year and last he used a wheelchair to make the process easier.

Furman's never been one to sit around and let life pass him by. Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., this son of Russian immigrants attended Penn's Wharton School for a year before deciding that he would rather make things with his hands. So he changed course, graduating in 1934 with a degree in mechanical engineering.

In those days, he said, Jewish life at the West Philadelphia institution was much different from today.

For one thing, he said, "they didn't have the Jewish organizations then that they do now."

In fact, he recalled that there was only one other Jew in his engineering classes, and that there wasn't much Jewish activity of any kind on campus.

Many Ivy League schools at that time had quotas as to the number of Jews they admitted on an annual basis.

Beth Wenger, a history professor and director of Penn's Jewish-studies program, said via e-mail that while there were limitations on Jewish enrollment, the school was one of the Ivies that was most open to admitting Jews.

She said that in the 1915-16 academic year, only about 7 percent of the school's population was Jewish, whereas in 1934-35 -- at the end of Furman's time there -- enrollment was closer to 20 percent.

'Heartbeat of the Community'

A former classmate introduced him to his wife, Jean Sneir, an artist whose paintings line the walls of his spacious apartment at the Atria Center City, where he's resided for the last decade.

The pair was married for 49 years, until her death in 1988. They had three children.

Today, Furman boasts seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, with extended family that reaches all the way from Seattle to Huntsville, Ala., with admittedly some relatives who remain as close as Northeast Philly.

Indeed, this year's graduation proved a family affair for the Furman clan, as a selection of kids and grandkids turned out to cheer on their patriarch.

Several year after his undergraduate education, Furman became involved with a group working to establish Germantown Jewish Centre, which has long been the Furman family's spiritual center.

"I was there watching every stone go up," Furman said, one of the last surviving charter members of the Conservative synagogue.

Even now, nearly 75 years after its inception, he's still an integral part of the congregation. Each year, Furman presents an award -- named after his wife -- at Shavuot, given to a confirmand who has exhibited the greatest ability in Torah reading.

The synagogue's rabbi, Leonard Gordon, said that Furman is "the kind of person who's the heartbeat of the community."

"He's seen as a well-respected elder who connects us" to the congregation's history, he added.

Although Furman's not as geographically as close to the synagogue as he used to be, he's still a regular face there.

Part of what made him finally leave his Lafayette Hill home of 35 years for the Atria facility, he explained, was that "I decided that I'd had enough of shoveling the snow and enough fixing the roof. So I moved here. It was my own decision."

He has spent the last decade as a Jewish liaison of sorts for the senior living establishment, leading activities like Passover seders and folk-dancing sessions for his fellow residents.

For his part, Gordon, who will be leaving the Philadelphia area later this summer for a relocation to New England, said that for personal reasons, he's hoping that Furman's position at the head of the commencement line lives on.

Why so, you ask?

Gordon's youngest daughter, Samara, will be starting Penn in the fall, explained the rabbi, adding that "it's really my hope that I will see him in the parade four years from now, when my daughter graduates."

In fact, he said: "I'm counting on it."


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