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Kenneth Kaiserman, 73, Builder, Force for Ethiopians

August 30, 2012 By:
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Kenneth Kaiserman

Kenneth Kaiserman, 73, a major player in the local theatrical renaissance whose business acumen led to a towering career in real estate and whose heart was invested in the plight of Israel's Ethiopian Jewish refugees, died Aug. 19.

The prominent Philadelphian had been battling the debilitating effects of colon cancer at a hospice in New York.

He was president and CEO of the family business, Kaiserman Co., a real estate development and management firm that his father, the late Kevy K., had started some 90 years ago.

The company committed to a massive investment in Center City and regional properties, including The Bourse, Rittenhouse Claridge, the Springfield Mall and the PNC Bank Center, located in Wilmington.

Among Kaiserman's many investments of time and emotion -- including the plight of Ethiopian Jews arriving in Israel, which first drew his attention nearly 25 years ago through his ongoing involvement with the Jewish Federation of Great­er Philadelphia -- was a passion for theater, which started long before he earned a bachelor's degree in the art at Brandeis University in 1960.

He later would also serve Brandeis -- his father and mother, Hortense, had helped found the university -- as a trustee.

The Lower Merion High School grad found an outlet locally for his artistic bent years later, linking up with the Phila­delphia Theatre Company, serving as a board member for 34 years.

Sara Garonzik, the company's longtime producing artistic director, recalled how "Ken's deep love" of the nationally known company "and his passion for the art of theater was reflected both in his unwavering commitment to the company's artistic goals and his extraordinary philanthropy.

"His generosity to PTC, sustained over nearly four decades, helped make possible PTC's dream of building and moving into the Suzanne Roberts Thea­tre in 2007," she said.

Kaiserman's influence was two-fold: "His kindness, generosity and humility taught me on both a personal and professional level about what was important in life and at work."

Kaiserman's attention also was drawn to the visual arts. He was a mainstay at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, active on its committees, and the guiding force behind the Kaiserman Family Fund for Modern and Contemporary Art.

His communal commitments were driven largely by his concern for Ethiopian Jews, which he learned about from the North American Conference on Eth­iopian Jewry and from several trips to Ethiopia.

"Those people put their lives at risk for the chance to make aliyah," he said in a 2008 interview with the Jewish Exponent.

In 1997, Kaiserman was named head of the committee that paired the Federation and the town of Netivot, Israel, a sanctuary for some of the new immigrants to Israel. He also served as a co-chair of Federation's Center for Israel and Overseas and had served as a Federation trustee.

Ira M. Schwartz, CEO of the Jewish Federation, described Kaiserman as a "true gentleman" and one of the true pillars of the Jewish community both in Philadelphia and in Israel.

Schwartz said that the Israeli government's efforts to aid in the aliyah of the some 1500 Jews who remain in Ethiopia "is testament to Ken's tenacity and commitment."

Behind-the-scenes work cemented Kaiserman's reputation as a "do-er": The 1991 implementation of Operation Solo­mon -- a vastly more ambitious rescue operation than the preceding Operations Moses (1984) and Joshua (1985), which ferreted Ethiopian Jews under cover to Israel -- led Kaiserman to say in 2008 that ­"Israel has probably done more for Ethiopian Jews than for any other immigrant group in its [then] 60-year history."

He put his money where his mouth -- and heart -- was, constructing the Kaiserman Family Ethiopian Cultural Center, incorporating a synagogue and social forum, in Netivot, Philadelphia's Project¿Renewal partner city.

In 1999, Kaiserman was named an honorary citizen of Netivot.

His concerns were not just targeted to the plight of Ethiopian Jewry; earlier, he had been a driving force on behalf of Soviet Jews, serving as chair of the Federation's Task Force on Resettlement in the late 1970s.

Kaiserman is survived by his wife, Susan; two daughters, Aman­da Kaiserman-Tosi and Laura Kaiserman Dupouy Ber­ent; a sister, Constance; a brother, Ron; and a grandson.

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