Isaiah Kuperstein, who served as executive director of the Baltimore District chapter of the Zionist Organization of America (now known as the Baltimore Zionist District) from 1990 to 1993, died on Apr. 4 after a 10-day battle with the coronavirus.
A resident of Carmel, Ind., Kuperstein was 70. Because of the pandemic, he died alone in a Indianapolis hospital’s intensive care unit, with family members listening to his last moments on a phone held by a nurse who was also holding his hand.
“He had a very strong personality,” Elana Kuperstein, his wife of 43 years, told National Public Radio on Apr. 11. “Anybody who would meet him remembers him almost like a force of nature. He was very loving, was never afraid to express his love to me and to his boys. And on a personal note, he was really the best thing that happened in my life. And I always relied on him.”
A Haifa native, Kuperstein was the son of Holocaust survivors who moved to Israel after World War II and then immigrated to the United States. He was a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, with a bachelor’s degree in history, and earned a master’s degree in Jewish history from Columbia University. He also had a diploma in Polish studies from Jagiellonian University in Krakow.
In September of 2017, Kuperstein was named a research fellow at the Jewish studies program at Indiana University. His topics of research focused on the Jews of Galicia in the 18th century and testimonies of Jewish Holocaust survivors.
Prior to coming to the Baltimore ZOA, Kuperstein served as the first director of education at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He was a co-curator of “Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story,” the museum’s primary exhibition for young people, which helped educate countless children about the Holocaust.
In addition, Kuperstein was the founding director of the Holocaust Center of Greater Pittsburgh. He also served as a High Holidays cantor at a congregation in Gloversville, N.Y.
During his tenure at the Baltimore ZOA, Kuperstein worked on myriad issues related to Israel, Zionism, and the local Jewish community and community at large. The issues included the Oslo Accords, the first Bush administration’s rejection of loan guarantees to Israel, and the United Nations’ decision to rescind its 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism.
“It’s long overdue, and I’m elated,” he told The Sun at that time about the U.N. decision. “How can anyone call Israel racist when it has recently rescued some 20,000 Ethiopian Jews and welcomed them in?”
After working in Baltimore, Kuperstein moved to the Indianapolis area and became president and owner of Double 8 Foods, a chain of grocery stores serving inner city neighborhoods. The business was started in 1957 by his wife’s great-uncle, Zoltan Weisz, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor.
During his decades in Indianapolis, Kuperstein’s lay leadership in the community included serving on the board of the Mapleton Fall-Creek Development Corp. and as president of the Temple Heritage Center. He also served on the board of Beth-El Zedek Congregation and on the Holocaust Memorial Committee of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council.
Besides his quick mind and lifelong love of Jewish learning, Kuperstein was known for his big, booming voice, amiable manner and big personality. But those closest to him appreciated his softer side, a quality that came across in the way he treated his Israeli-born wife, Elana, a former spokesperson for The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore.
Even after 43 years of marriage, Kuperstein still called her his “bride” and often held her hand in public.
Kuperstein’s son, Adam, said his father was highly committed to raising his own children with a strong sense of Jewish identity. Every Friday night, the family celebrated Shabbat by reciting the traditional blessings and telling stories about Israel.
“He can absolutely rest easy that he succeeded in starting Jewish family traditions that will be passed on,” said Adam Kuperstein, an Emmy Award-winning WNBC-TV anchor and reporter in New York.
As a grandfather, Kuperstein continued passing on Jewish traditions with his unique energy and gift for entertaining. At Passover seders, he would use silly voices for different characters in the Passover story, dazzling his grandchildren.
Kuperstein’s favorite holiday was Passover. The first Passover without him was difficult, Adam Kuperstein said, but the family honored his memory by holding a seder, which they knew would be important to him. They also watched videos of seders past.
“My dad videotaped everything,” Adam Kuperstein said. “We used to get annoyed about it, but now I’m so thankful that he did.”
Kuperstein is survived by his wife; his sons, Adam and Daniel; his sister, Leah; his mother, Rachel Markowitz; and his five grandchildren, Jordyn, Berkley, Rafaeli, Odelia and Chloe.
Contributions in his memory can be made to the Congregation Shaarey Tefilla, 3085 West 116th Street, Carmel, Ind. 46032.
This article was culled by a report from Jennifer Richler, who writes for the JTA global Jewish news source, and other media outlets.