U.S. President Joe Biden, Malcolm Hoenlein and Richard Stone. White House Photo.
By Mike Wagenheim (JNS)
And SJL reports
At a time when the State of Israel needed someone to speak up for it, New Orleans native Richard Stone’s legal and courtroom skills were indispensable for constructing arguments to answer its critics.
“No one could articulate a case for Israel like him. He would argue it like a Supreme Court case. He’d build a thoughtful argument based on facts,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, longtime executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Stone suffered a burst artery and passed away suddenly in New York on May 29 at the age of 79.
“Facts and truths were irrefutable, and he used them to answer false allegations about Israel, many made by Jewish Israel detractors,” Gerald Platt, president of the American Friends of Likud, told JNS.
“Often times, decisions have to be made that alternate between either being correct or being smart… and they don’t always overlay. Richard was able to flesh out details from a particular problem and formulate a plan that would best use the abilities of both the correct and smart perspectives. I was able to use his keen mind to help me sort out some issues in the political Jewish world… not an easy feat,” added Platt.
A giant in the field of Jewish leadership, Stone served as chairman of the Conference of Presidents, representing more than 50 of the most influential American Jewish nonprofits. He was also the longtime president of the National Coalition for Soviet Jewry, later renamed the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry.
“Richard was the embodiment of a selfless leader, working diligently behind the scenes for the benefit of the Jewish people without fanfare or recognition,” Arthur Stark, immediate past chairman of the Conference of Presidents, told JNS.
Malcolm Hoenlein, who has served at the Conference of Presidents for 36 years, described Stone as his best friend — a consensus-builder who Jewish figures turned to long after Stone’s official leadership days were over.
“World leaders and leaders of Israel respected him. Everyone thought they were his good friend. He was someone that didn’t put on any airs, though he could and warranted it. He didn’t suffer fools and those who engaged in the division or harmful activities towards Israel. He was truly someone who loved Klal Yisrael and could work with Jews from across the spectrum,” Hoenlein told JNS.
“He was the most eloquent, knowledgeable chairman of the Conference of Presidents during the years I’ve been a delegate to that organization,” said Josh Katzen, who represented the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Accuracy at the umbrella group and is also the publisher of JNS. “He remained involved until his passing and was universally respected for his intelligence, wit and commitment. He devoted himself so incredibly to the chairmanship.”
William Daroff, who succeeded Hoenlein as executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents, said Stone “was a once-in-a-generation Jewish leader and thinker who had a tremendous positive influence on American Jewish life. He was also a dear friend and mentor who will be deeply missed.”
Mark Levin, executive vice chair of NCSEJ, said Stone was involved in the cause of Soviet Jewry from its beginnings, citing a 1973 trip Stone made with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “going from one end of the country to the other.
“They arrived in Moscow not knowing that Israel had been invaded and was fighting for its survival,” Levin said. “They learned of the war through their meetings with Jewish activists who were listening clandestinely to banned international short-wave radio reports.”
Levin said Stone told him “this trip was one of the defining moments in his life” and was a motivation in fighting for Soviet Jewry and Israel.
In January 2013, Stone and Telushkin held a conversation in New Orleans to kick off the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans’ centennial celebraton.
Stone’s friends, seemingly made instantaneously, remember him as someone who would always give of himself — his time, his effort, his wisdom — but never considered himself indispensable.
Stone had been serving as the longtime chairman of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs when Steven Savitsky took over as the OU’s president. Savitsky is a believer in term limits, feeling the need to inject fresh ideas and new energy into organizations.
“I came to [Richard] with great trepidation to tell him I didn’t want him to be chairman anymore, even though he had done a great job. I went through a long speech, and he cut me off and said, ‘What is it that you want?’ I went with him through my thinking how organizations, especially Jewish organizations, are better off with term limits,” Savitsky told JNS.
“Richard looked at me and said, ‘I agree with you. I was just waiting for someone to tell me I didn’t have to do this anymore’.”
‘A chameleon who felt at home anywhere’
Richard Berenson Stone was born in New Orleans. His father was a prestigious attorney and his mother was considered a queen of sorts in the local Jewish community. He also spoke with pride of his roots in Bogalusa, making sure the town was cited in a 2012 Jerusalem Post profile.
In 2014, at the installation of Rabbi Gabe Greenberg at Beth Israel in Metairie, Stone spoke of the Yiddishkeit he got from the congregation and from his grandparents in Bogalusa.
“Over the years I discovered how many great scholars in the European yeshivas ended up briefly in Bogalusa or were related to people in Bogalusa,” he said.
“We had Yiddishkeit in the air in Bogalusa,” but also “on my father’s side at Beth Israel on Carondelet Street,” and he often returned to Beth Israel, including the weekend before Katrina.
Stone attended that installation in memory of a favorite cousin who died young after having three children — one of whom was the mother of Greenberg’s wife, Abby.
Graduating first in his class at Isidore Newman High School in 1960, Stone made his way to Harvard University following a year of study at Mercaz Harav, the yeshivah in Israel founded by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.
Stone graduated with honors from Harvard before matriculating to Harvard Law School, where he was selected to the prestigious Harvard Law Review. Beginning his career in private practice in Washington, Stone was appointed a Deputy Solicitor General in the Office of the U.S. Solicitor General. He tried 10 cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court while representing the government.
In accepting the 2014 Distinguished Alumnus award at Newman, Stone said that when he was preparing to argue his first case before the Supreme Court, he focused and relaxed by picturing himself in Newman’s auditorium, doing a speech for student government.
After working in Washington, he moved to New York City, where he served for decades as a popular faculty member at Columbia Law School, specializing in tax law. He also served as the mayor’s Manhattan representative on the Board of the City Universities of New York during the administration of Rudy Giuliani.
Since 1991, Stone held the Wilbur Friedman Chair in Tax Law at the Colubia University Law School.
A venture capitalist, he also co-founded several biotechnology companies, including Lev Pharmaceuticals; Powermat, a global player in wireless device charging; and was chair of Espro Acoustiguide, the second largest provider of hardware for acoustical museum guides.
Stone came to Orthodox Judaism later in life and returned to Israel a number of times to study Talmudic law. He noted on more than one occasion that his education at Mercaz Harav was often more rigorous than what Harvard provided.
His work during his chairmanship of NCSJ brought him to the forefront of the Jewish world. That Cold War and Soviet Union breakup period featured a series of protests in support of Jews wishing to emigrate to Israel and the United States. He chaired the policy arms of the Orthodox Union and the New York Jewish Community Relations Council.
Stone co-founded several businesses, and later in life became a significant investor in a number of Israeli tech companies and startups, while finding the time to pursue his passion for fishing, often in isolated areas of Louisiana.
Martin Oliner, co-president of the Religious Zionists of America, remembers Stone as a man who could find his place in any setting.
“He was always a pleasure to be with, a real raconteur. He was a chameleon who felt at home anywhere. He was always entertaining but always focused at the same time. Richard was a man of many, many talents,” Oliner told JNS.
Stone is survived by his ex-wife, Suzanne Stone, a professor and director of the Center for Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization at Yeshiva University’s law school, and their children: Rebecca Stone, Ilana Stone, Aliza Stone Howard and Mikey Stone; and six grandchildren. He is also survived by a brother, Harvey Stone of New York City, and a sister, Carol Wright Stone of New Orleans.
A funeral was held at West Side Institutional Synagogue on May 31. His burial will be in Israel, where he was in the process of purchasing an apartment and applying for citizenship.
Hoenlein says he intends to assist with an effort to get the Israeli government to grant Stone that citizenship.
As for Platt, he noted that Stone’s passing hasn’t yet sunk in. “His wit, intelligence, friendship and camaraderie will be sorely missed. But mostly, his tapping me on my shoulder and saying, ‘my boy’.”