by Marla Cohen
There were three things Rosen wanted to do before he died: return to Israel, participate as an honoree in JFS’ fall gala, and see the birth of his newest grandson. He was able to do all three, participating as the sandek at his grandson, Evren’s bris. Michael J. Rosen, a man deeply involved in Jewish organizations throughout the Rockland County, whose sometimes intimidating presence masked a soft and generous heart, died on Feb. 14 in Calvary Hospice in the Bronx. He was 71.
He died after a yearlong battle with lung cancer, according to his wife, Gail.
Rosen, who began his career in sales, but quickly found a niche in building maintenance, was known as a tough negotiator in business. But behind a somewhat imposing presence, he was in the words of family members, “a mush” who was known on building sites as “Mr. Mike” to workers. He was a man who made sure he spoke, or in more recent years, texted, with his four children and six grandchildren on almost a daily basis.
“He was a real people person,” said Gail, who met Mike in 1970, then a divorced father of two young daughters, Mindy and Jennifer. “When he met you and spoke to you, he cared about you. And if he ran into you a year later, he’d ask about your spouse by name, your kids by name, because he cared.”
That sense of caring and detail carried over to his professional and volunteer activities. He made a point of knowing workers on sites he managed, whether they were employed in low-level jobs or higher up the ladder. He brought a high level of expertise and hands-on management to the Jewish organizations he was involved with, which included Rockland Jewish Family Service, his synagogue, New City Jewish Center, where he was a past president, the Holocaust Museum and Study Center, and the State of Israel Bonds. And love of Israel permeated his giving, so much so that he told one daughter he didn’t want to visit the Jewish homeland before he retired because he was afraid he would never come back.
He visited Israel only twice, first in 2007 and again in 2010, both times with the State of Israel Bonds, an organization he was involved with. That return trip was one he vowed to make after he had been diagnosed with cancer and knew that death was not far off.
It was his work with Jewish Family Service that came to mean most to him in later years. Gail, who in 1990 returned to school to become a social worker, had worked with the organization for many years. His good friend and neighbor, Joseph Zweig, a founder and past president of the organization, had brought Mike onto the board of directors to help with the finances and to put the sometimes-struggling organization onto a better fiscal path.
When he came onto the board of directors as treasurer, he quickly took the reigns, according to Maria Dowling, chief executive officer of JFS. Posessing a wicked sense of humor, he could quickly diffuse a a tense finance meeting with a joke or story. But it was his caring nature that really shown through.
“He really got the agency, how important it was for providing service to the community” said Dowling. “It was part of his mission to do what he could to keep us going and moving forward and he did it in a fairly short time.”
Rosen threw himself into the task, feeling that the organization, which provides counseling and support services, needed to be there to aid those who were in danger of falling through the cracks.
“I think, to a large extent, it was that Gail worked for JFS for a number of years and really did a lot for the organization,” said Zweig. “Inevitably, Gail and I would talk about JFS and Michelle’s [Zweig’s wife] and Mike’s eyes would glaze over. But he started to appreciate JFS and how passionate Gail was about it and there were times I would consult with him about issue that JFS was having. He was helping out JFS long before JFS even knew he was helping them out.”
But it was his family that ranked highest. Whether taking his son, Mark, to spring training to see his beloved Dodgers, by then, long gone from Brooklyn, play in Vero Beach, Fla., or spending Sunday mornings running errands getting together brunch with his youngest daughter, Amy, Rosen counted that time as sacred.
He was the first person they called for advice. If a stain needed removing, or you wanted a recipe, dad was the go-to guy. He loved landscaping, and knew exactly what plants needed sun light, shade and what type of soil conditions. And when Amy, his youngest, returned home from Israel to find a snake in her bathtub, she called her father, in his office in New York.
“I’m not sure what I thought he could do from there,” she said. “He told me to call 911. I did after critter control hung up on me. He was always the first phone call and he was always right.”
Michael J. Rosen was born on June 27, 1939 to Miriam and Moe Rosen in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn. He was a gregarious even as a very small child, and his mother would put his playpen outside each day, where he’d talk to neighbors and passers-by. One day she failed to put the playpen outside, said Gail, and the chatty little boy was so missed that everyone inquired wanting to know what had happened to him.
He attended James Madison High School in Brooklyn and then New York University, which he attended for two years. He dropped out after his father died in order to support his mother. He began working in sales and management and met Gail Ginocchio in 1970, when they were both working at a building maintenance firm.
What struck Gail most about her future husband was what a family man he already was. “When I met him, his mother was widowed, and he made sure he checked in with her eery day. He was divorced from his first wife and he made sure to check in with his two daughter every single day.”
The couple married on June 22, 1972. In 1978 they moved from Douglaston, Queens to New City with their two children, Mark and Amy. They settled in a newly developed area near Clarkstown High School North, and it was home right away. They became friends with their neighbors, the Zweigs, who had children close in age. And although Sammi, Zweig’s youngest was terrified of Rosen at first, he melted her heart eventually, according to her father.
When she left her beloved Cabbage Patch doll at the Rosens when she was about 5 or 6 years old, a few hours later there was a baggie filled with cole slaw and a ransom note left in the mail box suggesting that if Sammi didn’t comply with certain demands, the shredded cabbage would be the fate of her doll.
“The thing that was so Mike about this, we were talking about this just a few weeks ago, is that he still had all the things Sammi had given him,” said Zweig. “He had a terrific sense of humor but behind that sense of humor was a realconnection and caring.”
The family became involved in New City Jewish Center, where Mike served on the board, becoming president in 1998. During that time he spearheaded a capital campaign that led to the construction of an office and nursery wing of the synagogue.
When Rosen became president, he asked his friend, Paul Adler, who was coming off the board as vice president to remain on as parliamentarian.
“I said I didn’t know if I wanted to do that,” Adler recalled. “He said it would be very easy,’ just rule in my favor.’ If you know Mike that is sense of humor.”
They developed a strong friendship from that point on, working on a larger environmental remediation project in Westchester for 15 years.
“He asked me if I knew why the bris was important,” said Adler. “I said, yes, if you ever went to an adult education class at New City Jewish Center it’s a brit milah, a covenant with God. He said, “No dummy, it’s because if I’m at the bris, they aren’t naming it after me. You have to have that kind of presence. It speaks volumes about who he was.”
Rosen is survived by his wife Gail, children Mindy and Neil Schechter, Jennifer Rosen and Kelvin Dickenson, and Mark and Günce Rosen, and Amy Rosen; grandchildren Brianna, Matthew, Daniel, Jack, Ayla and Evren, and mother-in-law Anita Ginocchio.
Donations can be made to Rockland Jewish Family Service, 450 West Nyack Rd., West Nyack, N.Y. 10994.