Helen Hirsch, patron of good causes, 1921-2017

FBW | March 22, 2017

Helen Hirsch lived a long life, full of passion for her many causes. She died on February 9, 2017 at the age of 96. Helen grew up in Brooklyn, New York. She and her husband, Juergen, raised their twin daughters, Susan and Debbie, in north Jersey, residing in Edgewater and Tenafly. She moved to Hoboken twenty years ago, purchasing a spacious penthouse loft on First Street and Park Avenue.

On March 5, Helen’s friends gathered at her loft in Hoboken to celebrate and commemorate her life. Most of those attending had been to her home many times before for various meetings and events. It is a stunning space filled with her remarkable collection of authentic native American artwork, including southwest Indian pottery and a ten foot tall northwest Indian totem pole. Her home was also filled with orchids which she raised. A Steinway piano which had been played at many of the events remained in the corner.

The countless meetings Helen hosted were for activist civic groups in the Hoboken area such as People for Open Government (POG), the Hudson County Alliance (HCA) and the Fund for a Better Waterfront. Becky Hoffman, one of the leaders of HCA, mentioned some of Helen’s interests before she moved to Hoboken: She was a fine violinist and played a pivotal role in the Art Center Chamber Music Concerts based in Teaneck, New Jersey which continued for over 50 years. She helped scout groups for the concert series many that later became big names such as the Emerson String Quartet, Tokyo String Quartet, Waverly Consort and Yo-Yo Ma.

In addition to her support of the local groups, Helen supported National Public Radio and national environmental organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society. (Those who wish to honor her may want to volunteer or contribute to one of these organizations.)

At the memorial, Ron Hine spoke about Helen’s support of POG which met at 98 Park to organize campaigns that forever changed Hoboken politics. In 2004, POG placed on the ballot the first pay-to-play model ordinance entitled Public Contracting Reform that Hoboken voters passed by a 10 to 1 margin. Subsequently, POG got the City Council to pass a redeveloper pay-to-play ordinance. These measures dramatically reduced the amount of campaign contributions flowing from individuals and companies seeking municipal contracts and redeveloper agreements with the city, thus helping to level the political playing field.

Others at the gathering such as Dan Tumpson, Jim Vance, Ira Landgarten and Richard Weinstein also spoke of Helen’s generous spirit and support of local causes. Her home was central to the life of the activist community during her time in Hoboken.

October 2015 photographic portrait of Helen Hirsch by Ira Landgarten.

October 2015 photographic portrait of Helen Hirsch by Ira Landgarten.

For a number of years, Helen was a fixture at Hoboken City Council meetings where she spoke about local issues of concern to her. As Helen reached her 90s, it became increasingly difficult for her to maintain her activist persona. Several weeks before her death, Helen fell and fractured her pelvis.

Toward the end of the gathering, John Keim sat down at the Steinway to play. It may have been the last time the music Helen loved filled this space and the last time her Hoboken/Jersey City friends gathered to enjoy her hospitality.

She is survived by her twin daughters Dr. Susan Hirsch who works at New York University Hospital and Deborah Golan who lives in Israel. Ms. Golan gave Helen three beloved grandsons, Matan, Jonathan and Edo who are now adults and also reside in Israel.

Related links

People for Open Government takes Mayor & City to court over pay-to-play
In Hoboken, citizen-initiated ordinances bring an end to pay-to-play campaign cash