By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – Mensch, mentor, gentleman, philanthropist. These are descriptions that come up again and again when describing Michael Suisman z”l, who died on Nov. 22 at age 88.
A West Hartford native, Suisman served as chairman of the board of The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, the Hartford Endowment Fund for Public Giving, and the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford. He also served on the boards of The Hartford Stage Company, Connecticut General, Connecticut Bank and Trust, and Hartford Hospital.
A life-long resident of West Hartford Suisman, graduated from Philips Academy Andover in 1947 and Yale in 1951, and returned to West Hartford to join and manage the family business, Suisman and Blumenthal (later renamed Aerospace Metal). Under his leadership, the business expanded from a local and regional company to one with a national reputation.
“He was rooted here, and with great pride,” Suisman’s son Douglas said, in eulogizing his father. “His own namesake, Michael Suisman, came in 1895, and now Michael Suisman has extended that family presence to 120 years in this city. He identified with Hartford and took pride in it. When some of us saw the bright lights of bigger cities and moved away, and would then say something mildly disparaging about Hartford as either small or provincial, he would just quietly say, ‘It’s a pretty good place to raise a family.’ Because in the end, I think that is what mattered most to him.”
Suisman’s philanthropic and community-minded track record comes as no surprise in light of his parents’ legacy — Edward and Etta Suisman, both Hartford natives. The Suismans were known for their generosity, both to Jewish causes and to the community at large.
In a 2004 interview with Betty Hoffman for the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford and Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford local history project, the younger Suisman described the roots of his family’s philanthropic inclination.
“My father became involved in Jewish philanthropy and ultimately the Federation because his mother and father were very active in Jewish life and in philanthropy,” he said. “His mother, Sarah P. Suisman, was extremely active. She was one of the founders of the Hebrew Home for the Aged and was involved in many activities and she herself went around in the early years with pushkes, with Anna Weiner who would become my grandmother on the other side, and they raised nickels and dimes for charities. My father learned from his mother and became active in the ‘30s and early ‘40s in what would be the Federation in 1945 or 1946.” Edward Suisman served as the first president of the Federation, and would discuss his volunteer work at the dinner table.
“My father was not afraid to ask anybody for money, and he did over the years and he was certainly one of the best solicitors around,” Suisman told Hoffman. “I learned from him that the first thing you have to do is give money yourself.”
Arnold Greenberg, who hailed from another prominent Jewish family rooted in Hartford, returned to his native city in 1958 after graduating from Harvard Law School and found Suisman waiting for him.
“Michael took me under his wing to make certain that among the first things I did was get involved with the Federation, and that meant not merely giving, but helping others to understand the importance of giving,” says Greenberg, who worked with Suisman on various committees and later, at the Jewish Community Foundation.
Greenberg was also inspired by Suisman’s broad definition of community.
“Michael realized that being a good Jew meant helping not only Jewish causes and Jewish people but the entire community,” Greenberg says. “In that sense, he really was a beacon for many of us, particularly those of us who were younger than he. Michael really could show the way and set a very good example for others and he certainly did, in my case and for other members of the Jewish community.”
Suisman made Israel a priority during his tenure on the Federation board. He first visited the Jewish state in 1967, returning there with a Federation mission in 1970, and again in 1973 for the Yom Kippur War.
“When the Yom Kippur War came, it was a surprise attack and we were all dumbfounded,” he told Hoffman. “We immediately called a meeting for that night, with the leaders of the Hartford Jewish community – about 10 or 12 families represented. I think we raised more than $2 million just from those families because we were all worried that Israel was going to be overrun and defeated.”
Suisman served on the board of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Hartford (now the Mandell JCC), where Bob Fishman joined the staff in 1974.
“When we started fundraising phonathons, five or six board members would come and make calls and he was always there,” Fishman recalls. “He didn’t just participate in the campaign for the largest donors; he also came and talked with the other volunteers, everyday people who cared about the community and gave what they could. Nobody asked him to be there; he wanted to be there.”
By the mid-‘90s, major gifts to the Federation had dwindled to the point that Suisman was moved to take action. In 1995, he approached Stephen Bayer, senior vice president and chief program officer.
“Mike said, ‘We really need to bring back the major donors to the Federation,’ people who were able to make very significant contributions to the annual campaign of at least $100,000,” Bayer recalls. “He was very concerned that there were only three families doing that at the time. We couldn’t figure out a name for the new group and he called me one day in August and said, ‘I’ve got the name: I’ve been listening to A Prairie Home Companion and it’s Raoul Wallenberg’s birthday, so let’s call it the Wallenberg Society.’ From that point, we’ve had the Wallenberg Society. At its peak, we had over 20 donor families, and much of that was due to Mike’s efforts. … He was always thinking about the community.”
In fact, notes Suisman’s widow, Elsa Haft Suisman, the Wallenberg Society was one of the two achievements of which her late husband was most proud. The other was “the fact that the people from whom he solicited large sums of money became very good friends afterwards. The latter, in my opinion, was his unique gift,” she says.
Suisman was one of the co-founders of what is today the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford. The Endowment Fund was launched in 1972 with $50,000 in seed money provided by the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford. Over the next 30 years, Suisman would serve in various leadership positions and was a lifetime trustee. He helped to educate the Jewish community about the importance of the fund, resulting in its remarkable growth.
“Mike was a visionary,” says Doreen Fundiller-Zweig, who served as executive director of the Foundation from 1993 to 2011. “He worked tirelessly to create an endowment that would serve Greater Hartford’s Jewish community by building and managing charitable funds and awarding grants to address its unmet and emergency needs. …Our community has a strong and vibrant Jewish Community Foundation because of Michael Suisman’s vision and perseverance. He cared deeply about the future of the Greater Hartford Jewish community and was a driver of positive change.”
In the 2004 oral history, Hoffman asks Suisman to name his proudest achievements in the Jewish community. “Woody Allen says success is 90 percent showing up, and I guess it’s a fact that I have had long continuity with the Federation,” he answered. “I’ve also been concerned about the lay leaders of it. And I guess I have raised some funds over the years. I’ve had a lot of enjoyment in raising because I’ve become friends with the people I’ve solicited.”
For Elsa Suisman, the admiration between her husband and his community made all the difference.
“Many people had warned me that moving into West Hartford could be difficult because anyone who wasn’t born here was an outsider no matter how long she stayed. I didn’t have that experience at all. I was immediately embraced and welcomed because I was Michael’s wife and he was so beloved by the community,” she says.
Douglas Suisman also spoke of his father’s many friends. “He continued to make friends throughout his life, and almost never lost one,” Douglas said in his eulogy. “That is a high achievement. It shows loyalty – a word I don’t ever remember him using, but which he embodied. He was, I learned over the years, admired by many people in Hartford. I would so often run into someone who would, unprompted, speak glowingly about ‘your dad.’”
Greenberg saw that impact develop over nearly 60 years of shared friendship and philanthropy with Suisman.
“There’s no question that Hartford was blessed for having Michael Suisman being a leader when he was – in the Jewish community and the entire community,” he says. “He’s left a legacy in terms of leadership, of inculcating in others the skills of leadership and the importance of picking up the torch, and having others who could follow him. He has done his job for the community.”
Michael Suisman is survived by his wife, Elsa Haft Suisman, and his children, Douglas and his wife Moye, Joy, Charlie, David and Sherry; his stepchildren, Jackie Haft and her husband Carl Yackel, and James Haft and his wife Simone; nine grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and his brothers, Richard Suisman and his wife Ingrid, and John Suisman and his wife Kathy. He was predeceased by his second wife Janet Schecter.