Harold “Hal” Agrast was a lifelong Clevelander, fully dedicated to making the community better – which was evident in his almost 50-year career at the Mandel Jewish Community Center in Beachwood.
Agrast, who died May 6, 2021, at age 97, served in numerous roles before retiring in 1998, including working in the children’s division, assistant director of Camp Wise, director of teen activities, and later as director of the young adult, adult and senior adult divisions.
He started his career at the JCC in 1951, after serving in the U.S. Army during World War II from 1943 to 1946. While in school, he met his wife, Charlotte Kancelbaum, and they married in 1949.
One of his sons, Mark Agrast of Washington, D.C., said that his father always had a strong orientation toward public service.
“Everything he did was organized to improve life for people in his community,” Mark Agrast said. “After coming back from his service in Europe, he never left Cleveland again, besides his famous travels and tours he did with the JCC. But, he made his life here and was very devoted. You don’t stay in a job for 50 years unless you’re feeling like you make a difference. It was never the same job twice for him and it evolved over that almost 50-year period. I just see it all stemming from the same source – that desire to be of service.”
Throughout his career at the former JCC in Cleveland Heights and the Mandel JCC, Agrast initiated several social and cultural programs for young Jewish singles, single parents, married couples and retirees, including a candidates’ night and welcome program for newcomers called “Cleveland Shalom” and “Design for Dynamic Maturity,” a program to assist married couples to prepare for retirement. In 1979, he created and directed a JCC tour program for ages 50-plus, which he and Charlotte led for 20 years, resulting in over 200 trips around the world.
His other son, Robert Agrast, of Cleveland, serves as director of campus nutrition services at Menorah Park in Beachwood. He said many residents tell him all about their experiences on his father’s tours.
“He got tremendous satisfaction that no matter where he and our mom went, he would see people who went on their tours,” he said. “People always spoke fondly of the amount of detail that went into those tours, and I think that made it very special.”
Jordan Rothkopf of Beachwood served as the former assistant director at the Mandel JCC, working there from 1979 to 2007, and again until 2010. Recalling the years he worked alongside Hal Agrast, he said his personality and dedication to creating a meaningful senior program was “amazing.”
“I remember being a staff person at the JCC and Hal would also play the piano, for groups, staff and even at our Chanukah parties,” he said. “His personality was as such, and that was what kept the program going. When he left, we tried in different ways to keep his programming going, but part of it was his personality and his wife’s. They were only as successful as they were and ran as long as they did because of his personality. He had a following, people were always looking forward to what he was going to do next.”
Hal was predeceased by Charlotte, his wife of 69 years; and by his brothers, Julius and Michael. He is survived by his sons, Mark Agrast (David Hollis) of Washington, D.C., and Robert (Brenna) Agrast of Cleveland; grandchildren, Rebecca (Michael) Marcotte and Aaron (Nichole) Agrast; and great-grandchildren Jacob, Olivia and Kyla.
A private graveside service was held May 10 at Mayfield Cemetery.