News and analysis
February 06, 2012

No. 16: Eric F. Ross

Amount donated in 2011: $76.5-million

Biggest beneficiary: American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Other top beneficiaries: Saint Barnabas Medical Center Foundation, Golda Och Academy, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Donor’s background: Mr. Ross founded Alpha Chemical & Plastics, in Newark, N.J.; and Mercer Plastics Company, in Umatilla, Fla. He sold both companies in the 1980s.

Mr. Ross, who was 91 when he died in 2010, left nearly $76.5-million to 17 nonprofits, most of which he had long supported during his lifetime. He bequeathed more than $18.1-million to American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev for scholarships and other student support. Mr. Ross and his late wife, Lore, had previously given the university a total of $4.9-million.

Mr. Ross never attended college, so when the university gave him an honorary doctorate in 2010, he said in his acceptance speech, “What does this honorary doctorate mean to me? Well, considering that I was forced out of school in 1933 at the age of 14 and have now received the university’s highest honor, I have not yet digested it.”

He was referring to his childhood in pre-war Germany, when Nazi laws governing quotas for German children forced many Jewish youths out of the schools. Mr. Ross left Germany when the “Kristallnacht” anti-Jewish riots broke out in November 1938, and he eventually settled in the United States. His parents, Albert and Regina Rosenberg, stayed and were forced from their home in Frankfurt and put to death at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. (An immigration official changed Mr. Ross’s last name when he came to America.) The donor’s memory of the injustices and horrors of the Holocaust would end up informing much of his philanthropy throughout his life, and many of his bequests reflect his commitment to education and Jewish groups.

Mr. Ross gave $17.4-million to the Golda Och Academy, a private Jewish day school in West Orange, N.J., for scholarships and to support the school’s Neshama program, in which 12th-graders spend a semester in Israel. And he donated another $17.4-million to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, for endowment. The donor served on the museum’s board from 2003 to 2008 and gave the institution about $13-million during his lifetime, including a gift to support an exhibit showing the original diaries of Anne Frank. In addition, he left more than $17.4-million to Saint Barnabas Medical Center Foundation, in West Orange, to expand and maintain the hospital’s lobby.

Mr. Ross and his wife first became acquainted with the hospital when Mr. Ross visited the chief engineer of his plastics plant who was being treated at Saint Barnabas for an illness. The man told Mr. Ross he should support the hospital, and so the Rosses became donors with an initial gift of $5,000. The couple would eventually give the hospital its first seven-figure gift. That donation, said Hoda Blau, executive director of the Saint Barnabas Medical Center Foundation, enabled the hospital to raise $15-million from other donors.

“Eric broke the million-dollar barrier for us,” said Ms. Blau.

Along with those large bequests, Mr. Ross left a series of smaller donations in his will. He gave more than $1.7-million to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, in Newark, nearly $1.3-million to the Rutgers Hillel: the Foundation for Jewish Life, in New Brunswick, N.J.; $1-million to St. Benedict’s Preparatory School, in Newark, N.J.; $500,000 to Temple B’nai Abraham, in Livingston, N.J.; and $300,000 to United Jewish Community of Metrowest, in Whippany, N.J.

Other bequests include $250,000 each to Boys Town Jerusalem Foundation of America, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, New Jersey YMHA-YWHA Camps, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Mr. Ross left $100,000 apiece to Congregation Ahavas Sholom and St. John’s Roman Catholic Church, both in Newark, $30,000 to Beth Israel Congregation, in Florence, S.C.; and $25,000 to Drew University, in Madison, N.J.

Described by one longtime friend as “tough as nails but very charitable,” Mr. Ross gave about $150-million to charities before his death.

“His philanthropy was his way of thanking this country,” said Sara J. Bloomfield, director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “He had great gratitude toward America. ”

—Maria Di Mento

View more profiles of donors who gave the most in 2011