When Robert “Mendy” Klein died May 3, the world – and notably Northeast Ohio’s Jewish community – lost a man described by many as a philanthropic “giant.”
The 65-year-old Beachwood resident and the son of Holocaust survivors, started with nothing and built a business empire in Cleveland. He was known for his generosity, kindness, compassion – and most of all his tzedakah.
Thousands mourn loss
He was a “remarkable man,” Rabbi Simcha Dessler, the educational director of the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland in Cleveland Heights, told a standing-room-only crowd of 3,000 people who filled the academy’s Beatrice Stone Yavne High School in Beachwood for the May 4 funeral.
Mourners came from Chicago, New Jersey, New York and elsewhere. The gymnasium could not fit everyone, so the service was live streamed to another part of the building, and the funeral is believed to be one of the largest Jewish funerals in Northeast Ohio history. Another 500 people, including some in Israel, watched the live stream online while another 500 listened to the service via an audio feed.
“Today, we have gathered to pay tribute to the life and legacy of an icon in our community and a legend in K’lal Yisroel, but more than anything else, a remarkable ambassador of Judaism who cared enough to make a difference in our lives and in communities across the globe,” Dessler said. “This is the life story of an extraordinary communal leader whose passion was unique, whose generosity was incredible and whose heart was large enough for everyone to enter. From Kever Rochel (Rachel’s Tomb) to the soldiers, from yeshivot, schools and kollels to the Federation (Jewish Federation of Cleveland), and from addiction recovery to abuse prevention, no neshama (soul) was excluded, no Jew was left behind.
“Our eternal appreciation (is) for not only what you’ve done, for what you’ve accomplished, not only for who you were, but for the example that you taught all of us.”
For just more than two hours, rabbis, friends and family paid homage to the man who single-handedly changed the lives and fortunes of countless organizations, institutions and individuals.
The gymnasium was turned into a makeshift funeral chapel, with women and girls sitting on one side and men and boys on the other, as Klein’s casket was wheeled down the center at the beginning of the service.
Tears flow freely
Almost every speaker had to pause to wipe away tears or to gather himself. Many in the audience also sobbed – still stunned, shocked and in disbelief since hearing the tragic news only about 12 hours earlier.
Dessler said Klein wanted to make this world a better place to live.
“Mendy, we in this room cannot possibly fathom the incredible merits which accompany you as you enter the eternal world,” he said. “All we can say is ‘thank you.’”
Dessler pointed out how special Hebrew Academy of Cleveland was in Klein’s life.
“His gratitude to the school, which educated his children and grandchildren, was boundless,” he said. “He came when his grandchildren learned the Hebrew letter ‘zayin’ because he was their Zeidy. He was here for siddur parties and Chumash parties. He appeared just to give his grandchildren hugs and he was so, so proud of each of his children and grandchildren.”
Amir Jaffa, his son-in-law, called Klein a “mentor, teacher, role model and one of my closest friends” and considered him to be a second father.
“One of the things that made him so special was ... it’s not the money he gave, it’s not the amounts,” he said. “He joked and said he would take the receipts with him. He had a lot of receipts – more than anyone will ever know.”
Jaffa promised to continue his father-in-law’s philanthropic ways.
“I will continue on the mission to assure the legacy that you wanted, that you so desired, that was so important to you, will continue,” he said.
Klein was born Oct. 16, 1952, in Hungary and came to the United States in 1956. He was a taxi driver in New York City before moving to Cleveland some 40 years ago. He immediately immersed himself in the Jewish community.
Klein was chairman of Valley View-based Safeguard Properties, a turnkey resource for multiple aspects of default property preservation. He started the company in 1990 and turned over the leadership role to Jaffa in 2010. He wasalso founder and chairman of SecureView in Cleveland, a supplier of clearboarding polycarbonate material, and chairman of RIK Enterprises.
Tragic news hits hard
Rabbi Yitz Frank, Ohio director of Agudath Israel of America, said he talked to Klein May 2 and was on a plane May 3 when he heard the news.
The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner said Klein died of ischemic cardiovascular disease.
“It’s surreal,” Frank told the CJN. “He gave money everywhere. I mean, the former Soviet Union, Israel, other places, Cleveland, other areas of the United States, Jewish causes, not-Jewish causes. He didn’t care. What made him so special is he was obviously an enormously wealthy person, huge philanthropist, on a gigantic scale, but he was a regular guy, just a regular guy, but such a giant in philanthropy. You don’t see people of that scale and level. He was doing gigantic things on a daily basis.”
For his contributions to Agudath Israel of America and the world, the organization already had planned to honor him at a leadership event May 29 in New York City.
Frank, who described Klein as a father figure to him, said he enjoyed many meetings at Klein’s house when “a stream of needy people would knock on his door and he would give. Over an hour, 10 to 15 people, ringing the doorbell, and they flew in from out of state and they had some need. He did not know how to say no. ... He was an incredibly bright person, became industrious and a total workaholic. He made his wealth relatively later in life, probably in his 40s, but he never really forgot where he came from. ... He didn’t like attention. He did not seek attention.”
Klein was a pillar, especially in the Orthodox community.
“Just thinking from Cleveland, pick an organization, he gave,” Frank said. “He was a huge donor to the Federation, Hebrew Academy, Yeshiva Derech HaTorah and Fuchs Mizrachi.”
Causes he supported
Education, mental health, abuse prevention, security, cemeteries and the state of Israel were among the causes Klein cherished. In 2015, his generosity helped save Mosdos Ohr HaTorah, an Orthodox day school in Cleveland Heights, when it had a $14 million debt. The school was renamed Yeshiva Derech HaTorah.
Dr. Louis Malcmacher, president of the Hebrew Academy who knew Klein for more than 30 years, told the CJN, “First of all, in terms of what he meant to organizations and individual people, there are tens of thousands of people that are worried about their futures that weren’t worried yesterday because he’s not around. With that being said, he’s raised his kids to follow in his footsteps in terms of the support, chesed, that has always been his mission. Most certainly, his family will carry on his tradition.
“He came here with nothing but he was a full-fledged member of this community – and (he) was involved in everything from the get-go. To Hebrew Academy, he was a confidant. He literally drove many of the programs Hebrew Academy never could have afforded on its own. His singular focus was the health, well-being and education of every single child in the Hebrew Academy and around the community. That includes spiritual, emotional and physical well-being.”
Klein was “instrumental” in bringing The Shabbos Project to Cleveland,” according to Cheryl Fox, chair of Shabbos Project Cleveland.
“He was passionate about Jews, passionate about Judaism and passionate about Shabbat,” Fox said. “He knew the power of Shabbat in his own life and wanted to bring that connection and warmth to Jews across Cleveland. He believed in the Cleveland Jewish community and wanted to set a precedent for other cities to join in the worldwide excitement and Shabbos Project programming.
“One of Mendy’s many gifts was to cross all (invisible) barriers within the Cleveland Jewish community and bring unity. So, for this one Shabbat a year, his wish was for everyone to experience the peace and joy of Shabbat, along with the big cities like Miami and New York.
“The Shabbos Project Cleveland was just one of the many beneficiaries of his kindness and generosity. Cleveland, and the Jewish world at large, has lost a giant.”
Klein also was committed to restoring Jewish cemeteries in Cleveland, Hungary and the former Soviet Union.
To view a video of Klein speaking at the 33rd annual Holocaust Commemoration in 2013 click HERE
Watch a video of Secure View's work fighting neighborhood blight:
Leaders pay homage
Stephen H. Hoffman, president of the Federation, saw Klein at the Federation’s annual meeting April 26.
“Personally, I thought it was like I was kicked in the stomach and am deeply saddened,” he told the CJN from Jerusalem, describing his reaction upon learning of the news. “Mendy was one of a kind, big heart, caring, compassionate, generous, an example of what we call a mensch Jew.
“He believed deeply in K’lal Yisroel. He believed we were here to help the less fortunate and more vulnerable and educate any kid who wanted a Jewish education. He was the real deal, the full-caring Jew. From the community point of view, the loss is overwhelming because Mendy was at the heart of helping do whatever we needed to do.”
Hoffman said Klein never sought the spotlight.
“Mendy never wanted credit for what he was doing,” he said. “You know the Maimonides ladder of giving and one of the higher rungs is you’ve helped someone and they don’t know you are the one who’s helping. Mendy was that type of guy. He didn’t want people to know he was helping. He wanted to know people were taken care of. He didn’t want any credit.”
Albert Ratner, former co-chairman emeritus of Forest City Realty Trust, met Klein within the last 10 years and also recently partnered with him on a project to revitalize Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood.
“My first thought was Mendy used every minute he had,” Ratner told the CJN. “He really lived his life as if this was the last day of his life. ... There’s a popular saying, ‘People are all in.’ Mendy was all in, but what differentiated him from everyone I knew – he was all in for everything.
“It’s a phenomenal loss to this community. He was like a comet who shot up so bright and then disappeared, but he won’t disappear because everywhere you go, you will see Mendy.”
Family, another funeral
Klein is survived by his wife, Ita; four children: Edna (Amir) Jaffa; Yoni (Shoshi) Klein; Dina (Shmully) Halpern; and Nati (Chany) Klein; 20 grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
Following the service, hundreds walked in a procession as the casket was wheeled from Yavne to South Green Road, then north to Timberlane Drive, where the casket was placed in a hearse as police stopped traffic. The procession headed east on Timberlane until it reached Klein’s house, where it stopped for several minutes before heading to Berkowitz-Kumin-Bookatz Memorial Chapel in Cleveland Heights.
Another funeral took place May 7 at Yeshiva Kaminetz in Jerusalem. Burial followed on Har HaMenuchot.
Shiva continues at the Klein residence, 23453 Timberlane Drive in Beachwood, through the morning of May 13.