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Philadelphia Legend Joe Smukler Dies

July 19, 2012
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Together, Joe and Connie Smukler contributed to many Jewish causes.

Before he died, when he knew his end was drawing near, Joseph Smukler told his rabbi that he wanted lots of people to attend his funeral.

He got that wish.

The cavernous Main Line sanctuary at Har Zion Temple was filled to capacity as hundreds poured out on a hot summer Sunday to mourn and honor a longtime pillar of the Philadelphia Jewish community.

Smukler, who died on Friday, July 13, from heart failure at age 84, was remembered as a community activist, philanthropist, lawyer, poet, tennis partner, family man and all-around mensch.

Citing the heroics of Joe and his wife, Connie, in their efforts to free Soviet Jewry, Dr. D. Walter Cohen eulogized him as the "finest example of tikkun olam, for which the entire Jewish world is grateful."

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called him "a gift and a blessing to the Jewish community in Philadelphia, in America, in Israel and beyond."

"Joe Smukler's loving family, his numerous friends and the local and global Jewish community have suffered a deep loss," Ira M. Schwartz, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said upon hearing of Smukler's death. "But we can all draw comfort from the knowledge that his presence will be felt for generations because of the lives he touched. He was a role model to so many of us -- a great, kind and generous man."

Smukler wore many communal titles over his lifetime. He was a past chairman of the board of Federation and a recipient of the 2003 Avodat HaKodesh Community Award, Federation's highest honor. He served as vice president of the National Museum of American Jewish History, honorary president of Federation's Jewish Community Relations Council, a vice chair of the Anti-Defamation League and a founding board member of the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, which is trying to develop a Holocaust educational center at the site of the Monument to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

In a recent interview in the Jewish Exponent, Smukler recalled the April 1964 dedication of that memorial as a highlight of his Jewish involvement.

In that same interview, Connie lovingly joked about their "mixed marriage," with him growing up in the heavily Jewish section of Strawberry Mansion and she in an assimilated family in Narberth.

Loving partners in so many of their communal endeavors, they overcame those differences in background and forged ahead with their efforts on behalf of Jews around the world and at home. They were honored for their lifetime achievements on behalf of the Jewish community during a festive concert and reception at the Kimmel Center in February 2011.

But it was their decades-long struggle to free Soviet Jews that most energized them as a couple and set them upon the national and international stage. Smukler was a co-chair of the first Soviet Jewry Council of Philadelphia and vice chair of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. For nearly 20 years, the Smuklers staged rallies and vigils, lobbied lawmakers and strategized with world leaders about how to open the Soviet gates to Jewish emigration.

Among the most famous Soviet dissidents and refuseniks they befriended was Natan Sharansky, then known as Anatoly, whose friendship continued after his release from a Soviet prison and his immigration to Israel.

In a message that Foxman read at the funeral, Sharansky, now the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, recalled their first meeting in Moscow in July 1975. He saw right away, Sharansky wrote, that the Smuklers were "the embodiment of exactly what we needed to see from American Jews," passionate individuals who were willing to use their position and influence to make a difference. Sharansky saw them as a pillar of strength during his ordeal in prison and a source of guidance and encouragement to his wife, Avital, during those dark years.

Indeed, Smukler's son, Kenneth, in an eloquent eulogy that touched on his father's many roles as lawyer, parent, grandfather and communal activist, joked about what it felt like to be told at the tender age of 17 that his father had been cited in the Soviet press as an international spy. Smukler senior was banned from the country for a period of time because of his clandestine activities on behalf of the refuseniks, those who were not allowed to emigrate.

He served many other communal roles as well: as president of Family Service of the Main Line and of Jewish Campus Activities Board (Hillel): and commissioner of the Philadelphia Fellowship Commission. He also served on the boards of the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and held many leadership positions, including membership on the board of trustees at the time of his death, at his longtime spiritual home, Har Zion.

Smukler's academic achievements included membership in the Central High School Hall of Fame. He graduated cum laude from Kenyon College, and went on to Harvard Law School and Oxford University.

Cohen, whose friendship with Smukler dated back to their days at Central High School, where they played on the varsity tennis team together, noted that his good friend continued to quote Chaucer and Shakespeare right up until his death.

After Smukler returned from the Air Force, where he served as a first lieutenant during World War II, and Oxford, his law career took off at Fox Rothschild, where he rose through the ranks to become a senior partner and chairman of the personal injury group.

Smukler's love for Israel and Yiddishkeit was legendary among his family and friends. More than one person fondly remembered him belting out Yiddish tunes at parties or berating himself with his Yiddish name, Yossele, when he missed a shot in tennis.

Connie Smukler boasts proudly that they had been to Israel 50 times. Their granddaughter Shoval, who now lives there and serves in the Israeli army, also sent words to the man his nine grandchildren called "zayda."

She called him a hero and "the greatest man" she has ever known.

She and one of the grandsons, Robbie, who delivered a eulogy on behalf of the cousins, granted another wish that their grandfather had for his own funeral, according to Rabbi Jay Stein -- to hear "I love you, zayda."

They said it, and they were clearly not alone.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his three children, Andrew Smukler, Kenneth Smukler and Cindy Smukler Dorani, along with nine grandchildren.

Contributions can be made to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the National Museum of American Jewish History or a charity of the donor's choice.

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