By Mike Morsch, Executive editor
Sylvia Weiss and her granddaughter took a lot of walks together. During those walks, they would inevitably stop and chat with people along the way.
“She knew everyone and everyone liked her,” her granddaughter said. “I think she was such a pillar in the community because she was involved in so many activities and had made such a large contribution. She saw a need and filled it and her legacy remains in the many people who are continuing to benefit from her forward-thinking actions and ability to get things done.”
Getting things done. That’s what Sylvia Weiss did for her communities of East Windsor and Hightstown.
Ms. Weiss died Aug. 7 at the age of 101, and family, friends and colleagues have spent the past few weeks remembering what she meant to her family and her communities.
She volunteered for everything, it seemed, including the PTA of her children’s school, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Hadassah, the League of Women Voters, and more recently, at Better Beginnings in Hightstown.
Ms. Weiss initiated and developed East Windsor’s Senior Citizen program, was an East Windsor Township Council member, chairwoman of the East Windsor Township Commission on Aging, and a long-time national board member of Elder Hostel (now Road Scholar).
In recognition of her groundbreaking work that was a model for senior citizen programs throughout New Jersey, East Windsor established an award in her name called “The Sylvia Weiss Senior Citizen Award for Outstanding Service as a Volunteer,” given annually to a senior citizen who has exhibited outstanding service through volunteerism to the community by way of schools, religious institutions, service organizations or directly to the public.
The award was created at the suggestion of Mayor Janice Mironov and approved by the township council.
“Sylvia had over many years a particular commitment and dedication to our local senior citizens and to having a community program for seniors,” said Mayor Mironov. “She was the spark in starting up and helping to mold the original local senior program. In light of Sylvia’s vision, great commitment to seniors and her vitality and caring as a senior citizen community volunteer, we felt she provided a terrific model for others to emulate and this award served as a special means to honor her service.”
Among the many themes of the life of Sylvia Weiss was that the public Sylvia and the private Sylvia were one and the same.
“The private Sylvia was warm and generous, interested in everybody’s lives, was always asking about the kids,” said her son, Marc Weiss. “She was very much a people person. That was true in her family life and it was also true in her public life. My guess is anybody would tell you that.”
“She was extremely creative and thoughtful and just came up with amazing ideas,” said daughter Deb Meixler of East Windsor. “She was active and involved her whole life, always taking care of other people. She was always doing for others.”
Mayor Mironov echoed those sentiments.
“Sylvia was a great personal support and encouragement to me when I became politically involved in the community,” said the mayor. “She was a very special person full of positive spirit and energy and determination and opinions, who was a great advocate when she wanted to accomplish a goal. And she had an abundance of interests. Although I confess I haven’t tried out the recipes, I still have her cookbook ‘Hail to the Carrot,’ which she created as a benefit for Hadassah.”
Ms. Weiss was first elected to the East Windsor Township Committee in 1976 and served through 1979. One of the reasons she was elected was because many of the people in town knew her from her weekly newspaper column she wrote for the Windsor-Hights Herald.
Fortunately, we know why she ran for public office through her own words, which her granddaughter started recording on audio in 1990.
“Someone had said that it was time for a Democratic woman to be on council. I was asked by a couple of people if I would run. There had only been one other woman (on council) before, a Republican,” said Ms. Weiss on the tape. “These two fellas decided that I should run, and finally, I said I would discuss it with my husband and decide. By morning, I had decided to run. The committee chairman was supporting me. People knew me from the column I wrote. So I was the highest vote-getter in the primary. There were four people on the Republican side against me (in the general election) and one of the Republicans was also named Weiss. But I was the second-highest vote-getter.”
Although Ms. Weiss took her public service seriously, according to her son Marc, there were aspects of the job she didn’t particularly like.
“When she ran for town council, she had a very ambivalent attitude. She ran because she thought she could do some good in the community. She didn’t really love being on the council, all the politics and heavy briefing papers and stuff. That wasn’t her favorite thing at all. But she talked later about some of the things she was able to accomplish,” said Mr. Weiss.
What Ms. Weiss did like, was indeed what she was able to accomplish. It’s another thing that is revealed in her own words through the recordings made by her granddaughter.
“Which brings me to try at least for a partial answer as to why I think I am happy,” said Ms. Weiss on the tape. “Perhaps at the very base is the sense of loving and being loved by family. And now that I put my mind to the question, also the sense of being admired and approved of by friends, associates and even strangers. There’s this good feeling that my life has mattered, and in even in a small way, I’ve contributed my own measure of helpfulness.”
Born in 1914 in New York City, Ms. Weiss grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, with her brothers Manny and Benny and her sister Goldie (Gloria). She and her late husband Isadore were married on her 21st birthday, Oct. 27, 1935. After their marriage, they lived in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and Laurelton, Queens, before moving to East Windsor in 1972.
Over the past 25 years, Ms. Weiss lived in Rossmoor, then Meadow Lakes. Sylvia and Isadore had four children, Mona (Gottesman), Miriam (Zwerin), Deb (Meixler) and Marc; nine grandchildren and and 10 great-grandchildren.
The family gathered in 2014 at Meadow Lakes in East Windsor to celebrate Ms. Weiss’ 100th birthday, and inevitably, stories were shared, particularly those that involved Ms. Weiss’ service to her community.
“Long after she was no longer officially running the senior program, she would get phone calls at home from people asking for advice and help in negotiating some bureaucracy,” said son Marc. “She always took those calls. She told one story to Marci on the tapes about how sometimes people would call at dinnertime and my dad, who was still alive at the time, would not finish dinner until she came back to the table. And she would say, ‘Iz, go ahead and finish, I don’t want your food to get cold.’ And he’d say, ‘I’ll wait.’ And sometimes it would be a half-hour. She took whatever time was needed.”
Ms. Weiss’ commitment to community continues to be evident, even after her death. When her granddaughter was cleaning Ms. Weiss’ apartment recently, she found a book of the charities that Ms. Weiss had given to, organized by the first letter of each name of the charity.
“The first page was charities that started with A, second page with B, etc. Every page had multiple charities listed on it,” her granddaughter said. “When I was a teenager I spent my Tuesday afternoons with her and we often did giving projects together. We potted plants for the senior citizens, we cleaned picture frames for reuse, we turned trash into treasure for others to use. This giving spirit was big part of who she was and was a big part of who I’ve become through her example.”
“I was incredibly proud the whole range of things she did, from the uncelebrated to the very celebrated,” said son Marc. “In many ways, she and my father were both inspirations for me in terms of values about service to others. Mom wasn’t somebody who pretended that she didn’t like praise. More deeply than that, though, was that it was very fulfilling for her to be doing that work and to be touching people’s lives.”
A lifetime of helping others: Sylvia Weiss left a lasting legacy of community service
By Mike Morsch, Executive editor