“No matter what subject I broached in Hartford, men said, ‘You gotta talk to Jerry Wagner about this.’ Wagner is more immersed in Jewish affairs than any other layman.”
— Harry Golden in Travels Through Jewish America (1973)
By Cindy Mindell and Judie Jacobson
Once, several years back, Bob Fishman had to track down Judge Jerry Wagner to discuss with him an issue that Fishman, as director of the Jewish Federation of Connecticut (JFACT), was dealing with at the time.
“It was already nighttime, so I called the house,” recalls Fishman. “His wife Sally told me that I could reach him at the office. When Jerry picked up his office phone, I asked why he was working so late. He said, ‘I’ve been doing work for the Jewish community all day long and now I have to catch up.’”
And that pretty much sums up Judge Jerry Wagner, whose commitment to the Jewish community and involvement in civic affairs ran deep and ran wide.
It was also the way he was remembered this week by family, friends and associates, as news of his death on Tuesday, Sept. 30 at the age of 88 spread throughout the community.
A long-time resident of Bloomfield, Wagner had been a judge of the Superior Court of Connecticut since 1979 and served on the Judicial Executive Committee and the Executive Board of the Connecticut Judges’ Association. He became a judge trial referee in 1991 and was the oldest active referee in the Hartford Judicial District.
Born in New Haven, the son of Nathan and Clara Themper Wagner, Wagner graduated from Hillhouse High School before serving in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. He earned degrees from Yale University and Harvard Law School and practiced law in New Haven, then held positions in various governmental posts in Washington, D.C.
Wagner relocated to Hartford in 1953 to practice law with Ribicoff & Kotkin. He established his own law practice in Bloomfield in 1956 and was a senior partner in the firm of Wagner, Beck, and Pinney until 1979.
To be sure, his professional accomplishments were many; but it was his unparalleled efforts on behalf of both the Jewish and general communities that had people talking.
“Jerry was the most dependable person I ever met because, if you needed something, he responded immediately and his counsel was always on target,” says Fishman, who worked with Wagner in the Jewish community for 40 years.
Wagner was committed to Jewish organizations locally and nationally, as well as internationally. At home, he served as president of the Hartford Jewish Community Center (now the Mandell JCC), vice-chairman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, chairman of the Commission on Jewish Education of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, and president of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford, Midrasha Hebrew High School, and Beth Hillel Synagogue in Bloomfield. He was a board member of the Hillel Foundation at the University of Connecticut, and more recently, he sat on the boards of Trinity College Hillel and the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford. He was also chairman of the Hartford chapter of the American Jewish Congress and the Connecticut Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC).
Nationally, he served as chairman of the Social Action Committee of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, where he was also an honorary vice president. He was vice president of the American Jewish Congress, the United Synagogue of America, and the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, and secretary of the World Council of Synagogues. He served on the national boards of the Hillel Foundation, the Jewish Publication Society of America, the National Yiddish Book Center, and Boston Hebrew College. He chaired several committees of the Council of Jewish Federations and was a delegate to numerous international assemblies, including those in Israel and Europe on behalf of Soviet Jewry.
Wagner is remembered as a mentor and mediator who worked for the good of the Jewish community at large.
“Judge Jerry Wagner was not just an outstanding leader of Jewish community relations agencies; he was also one of the intellectual giants that helped shape and build the field,” says Ethan Felson, who worked with Wagner on the JCRC. Felson now serves as vice president and general counsel of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA).
“He taught me and countless others the theory of community relations and helped guide me through my years as director of the Hartford JCRC and later at JCPA, where he had been a national leader for many years. I remember that, in Hartford, when we were concerned about community divisions regarding Israel, Jerry was our go-to person. He led annual community-wide Israel town meetings – sessions that allowed people with disparate views to share their opinions in a civil and respectful fashion under Jerry’s skilled moderation. Years later, the lessons from those sessions informed us as we shaped our national civility initiative. This work was intuitive to him because building an engaged, inclusive, deliberative, and respectful Jewish community was so central to his life’s work.”
Son-in-law David Baram, who serves as state representative from Connecticut’s 15th district, saw Wagner as a consummate role model for fellow Jews.
“He provided leadership and reason; he embraced traditional Jewish values and was a strong advocate of broad inclusion and coalition-building,” Baram told the Ledger.
“He valued Jewish education. He embodied Jewish precepts of compassion, caring, tzedakah, and tikkun olam. He loved family and the spirit of Shabbat. He was an outspoken supporter of Israel, and a vigorous defender of our First Amendment rights of free speech, the exercise of religion, and the separation of church and state. He urged support of our Jewish institutions, including our libraries, schools, and synagogues. He reveled in the Yiddish language, Jewish music and literary works. Many would simply describe Jerry Wagner as a ‘mensch.’”
Wagner’s legacy is immortalized in the 1973 book, Travels Through Jewish America, in which author Harry Golden writes of the judge: “No matter what the subject I broached in Hartford, men said, ‘You gotta talk to Jerry Wagner about this.’ Wagner is more immersed in Jewish affairs than any other layman.”
Wagner’s efforts, however, were not limited to the Jewish community. As a state representative in the Connecticut General Assembly in the late ‘50s, he was an active proponent of state laws prohibiting discrimination in housing, employment, and education, and helped to create and expand the Commission of Human Rights and establish the fulltime circuit court.
In Bloomfield, he was Town Attorney and served on the Bloomfield Redevelopment Commission and as chairman of the town’s Bicentennial Commission. He was also a volunteer firefighter for more than 20 years.
A past president of the Wintonbury Historical Society, he wrote a pamphlet on the political history of Bloomfield and was an editor of From Wintonbury to Bloomfield: Bloomfield Sketches, published in 1983.
Wagner was prominent in judicial activities, serving as legislative chairman of the Connecticut Bar Association and on its Ethics Committee, as well as on the board of the Hartford County Bar Association and as a member of the Harvard Law School Association of Connecticut and the American Judicature Society. In 1971, he appeared before the United States Supreme Court in the case of Tilton v. Richardson.
He was a member of Hiram Lodge 12 Ancient Free & Accepted Masons, B’nai B’rith Ararat Lodge, Jewish War Veterans Laurel Post, and the Connecticut Historical Society, and was president of the Yale Club of Hartford.
“Judge Wagner was one of the last bastions of righteous heroes of his era,” notes Jeff Gaster, with whose father, former Connecticut Jewish Ledger publisher Bert Gaster z”l, Wagner was a close confidant for many years. “Judge Wagner remained a friend of our family until the end, masterfully using his singular compassion, wisdom, and persuasion to settle a seemingly intractable family matter that only he was capable of resolving. He and my father are now laid to rest with a physical proximity not unlike the close friendship they shared in life,” says Gaster.
Among the many awards with which he was honored, Wagner received the Isaiah Award from the Hartford Jewish Federation (1973), the B’nai Brith Humanism Award (1980), the NAACP Human Rights Award (1994), the Touro Synagogue of Newport, R.I. Memorial Award for Religious Freedom and Tolerance (2001), the Yale Club of Hartford Nathan Hale Award (2003), and the Lions Club Leadership Award (2007).
“When I became part of the Wagner family, I got to know Paula’s dad quite well,” says David Baram. “Like everybody who came into contact with him, I too, was immensely influenced by his wisdom, perspective and commitment. Jerry was brilliant, articulate, and possessed a photographic memory. He could speak about historic events of any period, legal theory, Jewish and biblical concepts, politics, and of course, Yankees baseball. He was a whirlwind of energy and drive. Our family lost its family patriarch, mentor, and role model. The Jewish community lost one of its most prestigious and distinguished leaders.”
Wagner was married to Sally Hurvitz Wagner for 63 years until her death in 2013. He is survived by their three children, Jonathan Wagner and his wife Lena of Brooklyn, N.Y.; Paula Baram and her husband David of Bloomfield; and Michael S. Wagner and his wife Laura of West Springfield, Mass.; his grandchildren, Daniel and Mathew Baram, and Rachel, Abigail and Arik Wagner; and two great-grandchildren.