Friday, 16 March 2012 00:00
Irwin Grossman, a Roslyn resident for 65 years, a founder of local Jewish and recreational institutions, and a prominent men’s clothing manufacturer, died on March 1. He was 96 years old.
Grossman was born in Manhattan in 1915. In 1948, he, his wife Sylvia and their infant son Bill, moved from the city into a small newly constructed house in Roslyn’s East Park development, joining the wave of returning World War II veterans who were settling the suburbs across the country. Grossman had served five years in the Army, including a stint in Germany, attaining the rank of captain at discharge. His younger brother William, an Air Force veteran, his wife and young daughter moved nearby. Over the following six years, Irwin and Sylvia had two more sons, Edward and Richard.
More Jewish families arrived in the Roslyn area and decided to establish a synagogue. Grossman helped organize the Roslyn Jewish Community Center, which soon became the Reform congregation Temple Sinai. In 1951, with a small dissident group from the synagogue, Grossman founded the Conservative congregation, Temple Beth Sholom.
“Ten of us met in Irwin and Sylvia’s dining room in East Park,” said Monty Levin, a co-founder and friend. “We each put up $75 to form the congregation.” Subsequently, Grossman was elected the congregation’s second president, in which capacity he oversaw the building of the original temple (now part of the school) on 14 acres of land across the street from East Park.
“Irwin was noted for his wit,” Levin said, echoing just about everyone who knew him. “His remarks as president always brought on a torrent of laughter.”
Because the young temple could only employ a part time rabbi, during the early years Grossman often led services and Levin served as unpaid cantor. Grossman remained active in Temple affairs for decades. His funeral took place in the sanctuary on March 5, the same place as Sylvia’s memorial service four years before.
Avid tennis fans and players without a permanent place to play, in 1959 the Grossmans became charter members of the Shelter Rock Tennis and Country Club in Manhasset, which became a center of their social activities until Irwin had to give up playing tennis at age 92. “We were a real family there. Everyone knew everyone and actually had each other over to their houses,” said Sylvester Bernstein, a long time club member and close family friend.
Eventually, the Grossmans outgrew the small East Park house and, in 1961, moved to Roslyn Estates, where Irwin remained until his death.
After college, the Grossman brothers had joined their father in the family business, Grossman Clothing Company, a manufacturer of fine men’s suits. Irwin wanted to become a lawyer and with his graduation from Columbia College in 1936, already had a year of law school to his credit. But his father insisted. (Family lore has it that the elder Grossman pronounced, “There are enough starving lawyers in this family.”)
Grossman quickly learned all aspects of the business, both managing the factory at 79 Fifth Ave., in Manhattan and traveling the country selling the final product. His natural gregariousness and sharp wit made him an excellent salesman, his former colleagues recall. Back in the factory, he introduced some productivity improvements. Workers used to measure the space between each button, for example. He came up with a template to speed the process. He also introduced silk suits for men. A customer asked him to use a length of silk he had to make a suit. The result was so successful that orders for silk suits started rolling in—one from as far away as Saudi Arabia.
Grossman enjoyed mentoring younger members of the trade. Bob Bayer, who inherited his family’s clothing business at a young age, recalls weekly phone conversations in which Grossman helped him develop strategies and solve problems. “He would impart knowledge in a fashion that you could understand and enjoy,” he said. “He made the lessons humorous. He joked a lot, but his jokes were like fables—they always contained a lesson.”
Former employees remember Grossman as extremely concerned for their welfare. When the Grossman brothers closed the factory in 1980—a casualty of the downturn in domestic clothing manufacturing—Grossman fretted about the impact on his workers. “I think he kept the business going as long as he could because of the workers. He felt responsible for them,” Bayer said.
But Grossman never really retired. He kept the remnants of the business going until 2005. In the last months of his life, he expressed frustration at not being able to work in his home office. “On weekends, it is okay,” he said a few months ago. “But on weekdays, I feel I should be in my office.” His son Edward tried to persuade him that everyday was now a weekend. “I tell him over and over, but he didn’t believe it,” he said.
His eldest son, Bill died of cancer in 2010. Grossman is survived by his sons Edward (of Bethesda, MD) and Richard; his grandson David (of Washington, DC), his niece Laurie Gioia and nephews John and Robert and their families.