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Joel Gershman, Noted Philanthropist, Dies at 86

October 11, 2011 By:
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Joel Gershman

Joel Gershman, a prominent commercial real estate developer, philanthropist and namesake supporter of the Gershman Y in Center City, died of cardiac arrest on Oct. 4 after struggling with a variety of illnesses. He was 86.

Were the Rydal resident able to read these words, however, he would have protested such public recognition, friends and family said.
 
"He just wanted to be in the background," said Marshall Cohen, who was Gershman's tax adviser before becoming the managing partner at his Jager Management firm.
 
"He was very successful and a brilliant businessman but he would be the last person to tell you that," Cohen said. He recalled that Gershman once told him that he played "a little golf," and later learned that he was a scratch golfer who had won numerous awards and tournaments.
 
Outside of dedicating the Y in honor of his parents, Charles and Elizabeth Gershman, in 1985, he never publicized his philanthropy, said Gary Lozoff, the center's board chairman. Joel Gershman and his wife, Elaine Levitt, not only remained among the highest level of Y supporters, but made an effort to attend programs there whenever possible, he said.
 
Gershman grew up in Germantown and attended Central High School. After serving as an officer in the Navy during World War II and graduating from the University of Chicago, he returned to the region and began his career in development.
 
From building homes in West Philadelphia "out of the trunk of his car," he went on to build apartment complexes and shopping centers throughout the area, Cohen said.
 
"Regardless of his success, he really cared about everybody and he was in touch with his community," Cohen said.
 
He met his wife at a country club. Right away, Elaine Levitt said, "I knew my mother would like him because he was very philanthropic to Jewish charities." And, she added, "he was adorable."
 
She taught him how to downhill ski at age 60, and they spent a lot of time at their vacation home in Aspen, Colo.
 
Over their 28-year marriage, they supported a variety of institutions, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the Friends of Rittenhouse Square and the University of Pennsylvania hospital.
 
They served together on the board of the National Liberty Museum; and aside from his position as vice chair of the organization, Gershman also advised his friend and the museum founder, Irv Borowsky, on acquiring and renovating the building in Old City, said the museum's chief executive officer, Gwen Borowsky.
 
Though Gershman wasn't religious, "he was very Jewish in his concern for our people," his wife said, and was drawn to the Y as "a great place for Jewish people to strengthen their identity in a worthwhile way."
 
The former Young Men's-Young Women's Hebrew Association opened at Broad and Pine in 1924 and later became a branch of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Philadelphia. When Gershman became involved there more than 30 years ago, "it was a real community center," with a pool, track, accredited day care and many other programs, Levitt said.
 
To her husband's chagrin, she said, the JCCs of Greater Philadelphia sold the building to the University of the Arts in 2000. It's now a cultural center, hosting visiting artists, classes and exhibits.
 
In addition to his wife, Gershman is survived by stepsons William Levitt, of Philadelphia, and David Levitt, of Boulder, Colo. Contributions in his memory can be made to the Gershman Y, the National Liberty Museum or the University of the Arts.
 

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