Charming Shoppes Co-founder, Philanthropist David Wachs Dies at 97

David Wachs. Courtesy of Jenifer Wachs

Jon Marks

David V. Wachs wasn’t particularly religious growing up, but that didn’t prevent him from feeling the sting of antisemitism from the outside world.

As a child, he was physically attacked at school for being Jewish to the point he learned to box to defend himself. Years later, while serving as an Army officer, a Southern subordinate told him he would “refuse to take orders from a Jew.”

But the man who became one of the co-founders of Charming Shoppes, who played a key role in helping Camp Ramah’s worldwide expansion and who was a longtime proponent and benefactor for Perelman Jewish Day School, never let those indignities deter him. In fact, they may have spurred him to become a success in the business world and later a philanthropist and vibrant member of the Jewish community.

“My father did not grow up religious, but he grew up believing in the Jewish people,” said his oldest son, Philip, in the aftermath of his 97-year-old father’s death on Dec. 19. “He wanted people to get in the game, be proud to be Jewish and be proud of Israel.”

From left: Judy and David Wachs. Courtesy of Jenifer Wachs

David Wachs certainly was. A graduate of West Philadelphia High School, the University of Pennsylvania and the Wharton School at Penn, he and his wife of 63 years, Judy, were involved with many causes. But none mattered more to him than securing the future through Jewish education.

“She influenced him a lot,” said Rabbi Ephraim Levin, the Chabad director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman Center for Jewish Life, who became friends with him following the center’s 2009 groundbreaking. “He admitted Judy was the one who lit the flame for him. I think as he got older and saw the assimilation, he realized the importance of keeping the Jewish community strong from generation to generation.”

Judy Wachs’ parents, Abe and Fannie Birenbaum, bought the site that became Camp Ramah in the Poconos in 1950. Their son-in-law, David, built upon that, expanding Ramah to locations around the country in California, New England, Colorado and Georgia, while also bringing it to Israel and even two locations in Russia. And every summer his children would attend camp at Ramah’s Lakewood, Pennsylvania, location.

David Wachs’ personal library. Courtesy of Jenifer Wachs

All the while he was turning the business, co-founded in 1940 by himself and his brother Ellis, along with Morris and Arthur Sidewater, into a profitable venture. Once Charming Shoppes was renamed Fashion Bug, it took off.

“They started with one store,” said his youngest son Marty, who, like brothers Philip and Michael, worked in the company’s real estate department at one point. “Ultimately, they grew the company and, at its zenith, had 1,400 stores nationwide and $1.4 billion in annual revenue. They were in about every state but Hawaii and Alaska.”

That wasn’t his only successful business.

“I worked with him at D.A.M. Management Co.,” said his daughter Rachel Wachs, who, like her brothers, lives within a few miles of the Penn Valley house where they grew up and where David Wachs lived for 67 years. “My father was the corporate owner of 40 mobile home parks in Pennsylvania, New York and Maryland, consisting of 6,000 residents.

“He had the gift for making the people who worked for him feel important and giving them a better life. He believed in giving them a fair wage and benefits. Both my parents had a heart for others. It wasn’t about accumulating things. It was about giving of yourself.”

That responsibility of giving was also evident in his relationship with Perelman Jewish Day School, where he became a regular donor after witnessing every one except his own grandchildren’s lack of interest in their Jewish education.

Another library view. Courtesy of Jenifer Wachs

“At times he’d go into services at Har Zion and saw the other kids were hiding,” explained Marty Wachs, who said his father was a voracious reader, particularly of history books. “It upset him. So, he set up a scholarship fund for Har Zion members regardless of their needs. There were no financial limitations. The only requirement was once they started, they had to graduate Perelman.”

It hasn’t gone unappreciated.

“Together with his wife Judy, David had a passion for Jewish education and a commitment to ensuring the next generation of knowledgeable, compassionate Jewish leaders,” Perelman Head of School Mitchell Daar said. “Their dedication to Perelman is without measure, and their devotion will continue to serve as an eternal inspiration to us all.”
David Wachs leaves behind sons Philip, Michael and Marty and daughter Rachel, as well as 11 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife Judith, brother Ellis and sister Celia.

Jon Marks is a Philadelphia-area freelance writer.


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