Happy 90th, Jerry Benjamin
Photo: Courtesy Benjamin Family 
Shown here on Sunday, March 31, 2024, with the birthday boy, front and center, are many of his loved ones who attended from near and far.

By Deb Silverthorn

A 90-year salute to U.S. Air Force veteran Jerome “Jerry” Benjamin is in order following his April 3 birthday. Friends and family traveled from around the country for celebrations at home and synagogue, at his children’s homes and at a friend’s poker table.

“We had Shabbat dinner, sponsored the kiddush lunch at Tiferet, had a Saturday night dinner, had a party on Sunday with a ‘Jerry Trivia’ game and then a pickup poker game on my actual birthday. Lowell Michelson and Simcha, the ladies at Tiferet and my daughter-in-law Alyssa who baked my birthday cakes all did an outstanding job,” Benjamin said.

“I had the honor of a Kohen aliyah at the service since there wasn’t one in the room and I shared it with my sons,” said Jerry. “That’s a lot of celebrating and a lot of love. I am a very blessed man.”

Jerome Benjamin was born in Klaipėda, Lithuania (then Memel, which was part of Prussia). Jerry, 3, and his parents Bassya and Kurt, of blessed memory, immigrated to New York City to join his grandparents. Once they were settled in Borough Park, Brooklyn, Jerry’s sisters Anita Benjamin and Gail (Robert) Hirsch joined the family fold.

Jerry’s best childhood memories are of the Jewish summer camps he attended starting at age 5. Camp Winadu, Camp Delaware, Camp Pokano and Camp Everett, where he also worked for three years, strengthened his Jewish core.

A graduate of The Bronx High School of Science, Jerry went to Brooklyn College, where, with dreams of becoming a pilot, he participated in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

After marrying the former Naomi Slatkin, z”l, in 1956, Jerry enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and trained at Lackland Air Force Base and Keesler Air Force Base. After the birth of the couple’s first son, Andrew, Jerry served for three years as a navigator and electronic warfare officer based at Yokota Air Force Base in Japan.

After his honorable discharge as a captain in 1959, Jerry returned to New York City with his wife and son. He joined a training program at Macy’s and he and his wife welcomed their second child, David.

In 1961, Jerry left the department store and began a 13-year career with ladies’ clothiers Ginsburg & Abelson, where his Uncle Nat Abelson was a partner. When the company opened a division in Dallas, the Benjamins were excited for a new start. They claimed their independence from the East Coast on July 4, 1963, when Dallas became home.

Three years later the family welcomed son Richard. The family were members of Congregation Tiferet Israel and on the board of Akiba Academy of Dallas (now Akiba Yavneh Academy) from the start. Jerry joined the Jewish War Veterans Dr. Harvey J. Bloom Post #256, an organization he remains deeply connected to.

“I was the post commander three times, I co-founded the color guard, I was on the national executive committee four times and a director of the governing committee,” said Jerry, who was also a vice-president of the National Museum of American Jewish Military History. “It’s an honor to have served our country to still feel so much a part of the devotion through the JWV.”

In 1974, Jerry says the “biggest break of my life” came when he joined Ned Gould and Robert Bar-David in their N.R.1. clothing line. He built a relationship of brotherhood with the owners and felt professionally fulfilled.

Jerry had a dream job and was chairing a Jewish Cub Scout troop at Tiferet, his wife was a revered CPA and their sons were growing. Then, a crisis came upon the family that no one could have imagined.

“I was in Florida on business and a wayward teenager we’d provided a home and help for came in and killed Naomi,” says Jerry. “It was unbelievable and the most terrible loss.”

For five years, Jerry focused on work and his teenage sons. The brothers said he became “Super Dad.”

“There’s never a dull moment around Dad. He is funny and amazing whenever he steps up to a challenge. Of course, after our mom died but also when I was young, after my cancer, Dad helped me go to annual scans. He and our mother were very generous in making a great education the No. 1 family funding priority,” said Andrew, a member of Akiba Academy’s first graduating class. “He taught us from early on that, despite being competitive, winning on merit was what mattered.”

David echoes his brother’s mention of their father providing for schooling and enrichment activities even in lean times. “He always stressed getting as much education as possible and he always provided such opportunities. He taught us that honesty and faithfulness are our north star. Throughout his life, his connection to Judaism has grown. That, and he always loves a great Shabbos meal.”

Richard has treasured memories of floating down the Rio Grande with his father, Jerry coaching his boys’ JCC sports teams and the opportunity to work alongside one another in the apparel industry, always taking in so many of the lessons his brothers mentioned.

In 1986, Jerry had several friends encouraging him to date and find company. Diane Wernick’s name was recommended either by Rebecca Greenblatt, who was a mutual friend, or during a tennis court intro by son Richard, as the story has two tellings. Regardless of who deserves the credit for the connection, it was fast and fantastic from the start.

“Dad’s always there and nothing matters more to him than family,” Richard said. “He and Diane, who has been like a mom and who is an awesome grandma, love each other so much.”

Jerry and Diane’s romance began with their first date at Gershwin’s restaurant. The two were seated at 7:30 p.m. and were asked, “politely, but severely,” says Jerry, to leave three hours later as the restaurant had closed.

“She could finish the end of my sentences just a couple hours in,” says Jerry. “We have a similar sense of humor and, while we don’t always agree, we have always had great respect for one another.”

There was a second date, then another and another.

“I was so impressed by how devoted he was as a father and what a good role model he would be,” she said. “He had so loved his first wife and he had so much love to give.”

The two were married on Nov. 30, 1986, by Rabbi Jordan Ofseyer in the small chapel at Congregation Shearith Israel. Throughout the years, the couple have shared their spiritual and community connections at Shearith, Congregation Shaare Tefilla and Tiferet Israel. Jerry served Tiferet on its board of directors and for over 10 years as its cemetery chair.

The couple’s family has grown to include their seven sons. There’s no differentiation between his — Andrew (Shelley Saunders), David (Judy) and Richard (Kim) Benjamin — and hers: Stuart (Sheryl), Bruce (Rachelle), Barry (Alyssa) and Ephraim (Lea) Wernick. They have grandchildren Nate (Kristen) Benjamin; Jay (Madeline) Benjamin; Naomi (Miles) Hossana and Jack Benjamin; Ilana, Erin and Anna Wernick; Azarya and Zeke Wernick; Betsy, Alice and Libby Wernick; and Jacob, Jonny and Wyck Wernick. Their great-grandchildren are Eden and Lenny Benjamin, with another due imminently.

“Whatever I thought he was, the moral man of character,” said Diane, “he has exceeded in every way. He’s a special person and we have a special life.”

A moral man of character, Jerry Benjamin is a man and a life to celebrate.

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