‘Twas the year the Christmas lights went out for good: Joseph “Buddy” and Leonard Strelitz

by | May 27, 2021 | Trending News

This is the first in a series on generations of families in Jewish Tidewater.

Joseph “Buddy” Strelitz honored his mother’s single dying wish and became a trailblazer for the Jewish tribe in her memory.
Buddy’s son, John Strelitz, says that his grandmother’s only regret in life was that she never went to Israel. Spending time with Buddy in Switzerland before her death in 1956, Minnie Strelitz looked far into the future, and put her heart on the line. ‘Promise me you will go to Israel for me.’

1961 was the year of the Eichmann trial, also the year Buddy fulfilled that promise.

“My dad took my mother to Israel kicking and screaming. At that time, Israel was a third-world country and my mother wanted to get out on day one. By the end of the trip, both of my parents had fallen in love and couldn’t wait to tell everyone at home about this special place,” says John.

In a short time, ‘How do I get out of here’ upgraded to ‘what can we do to get everyone we love to come here?’

As new Zionists, Arlene and Buddy’s first move was tagging Buddy’s brother Leonard, and his wife, Joyce. “My parents saw what the Jewish immigrants faced trying to establish a Jewish homeland after the Holocaust. That epiphany led to an affinity for Israel and a sense of personal obligation to enlist others to raise funds along with them.”
John’s cousin, Brian Strelitz, is the son of Joyce and Leonard, and brother of EJ Strelitz and Bonnie Brand. “I would have loved being at dinner with my parents after hearing of Buddy and Arlene’s trip,” says Brian. “Not sure how the dinner went, so for future generations, I am calling their plan to follow Buddy and Arlene on that first trip to Israel, a joint decision. As kids, Bonnie and I still talk about how the Christmas tree (lights, tinsel and a 5 point star on top—and the wonderful pine smell with presents on the floor) in our family room got smaller the December after their trip, then the next year was a plastic table top tree, and then, the next December, and despite our strongest lobbying and opposition, the tree disappeared. POOF, forever.

Going to Israel changed the arc of Buddy and Leonard’s lives in many more ways and shaped them as future leaders. The brothers became national figures who left their jobs at Haynes Furniture, where they were business partners who made significant cash contributions and travelled around the world to raise funds for Israel, eventually kicking off what became the United Jewish Appeal and United Jewish Federation of Tidewater.

Other Jews jumped on board, while some resisted.

“Leonard and Buddy Strelitz, along with men like Sam Sandler, Mickey Kramer, Marvin Simon, Arnold Leon, Ron Dozoretz, and many more were men of action,” says Annie Sandler, JDC vice-president. “They knew that they must make support of a fledging, isolated, poor, and new nation whose existence was threatened—an imperative. ‘Give until it hurts,’ ‘deny pleasures for yourself in order to do more for the Jewish people.’ By those words and their deeds, they demanded support from themselves and strongly encouraged the community to follow their lead.”

The Strelitz name has been associated with Haynes Furniture for four generations. It triggers images of signature television ads and a presence at the intersection of philanthropy and innovation. Leonard Strelitz was an influencer before there was Instagram, or a word for people who leverage their brand identity to raise awareness for good causes or sell products.

Nathan Strelitz is Leonard’s grandson, and EJ and Randi Strelitz’s son. “’Pa’ was a larger-than-life character and stellar businessman who also had a knack for inspiring friends and strangers to campaign for important causes. His benevolence coupled with his influence helped build the Strelitz Diabetes Center in Norfolk, the first single source of diabetes-related care in Hampton Roads.”

Jewish parents in particular pray to see their sense of charitable purpose and passion carried out by their children and grandchildren. Younger generations might not show their philanthropic side until later in life, if at all, but when it does stick, there is no more potent form of parental pride and bliss.

“My father EJ demonstrates the same devotion to his community, family, friends, and business as his father. He has kept up the promise of my grandfather’s legacy through his support of Jewish causes and organizations, including United Jewish Federation of Tidewater, The Strelitz International Academy, and The Holocaust Memorial Museum. And through his leadership, EJ has grown his family’s furniture business into a national chain, while employing over 1,200 people.”

Nathan left law school in 2012 and joined the family business the next year. “I put aside the disagreements or ups and downs of working in a family business and focus on how much my father, EJ cares about the business and carrying on his family’s legacy.”
When children are given a road map and encouraged to express themselves as individuals, a new breed of Jewish heroics is free to emerge.

“There are many paths and many options we have to express, fulfill and live our Judaism and our love of Israel. As an adult, I had to find the path that was best for me. Israel-related organizations have been a part of my activities as an adult for years. Hebrew University, AIPAC, Jewish Federation(s), and others less well known, but each personally fulfilling. Those activities over the years have become part of my DNA,” says Brian.

“My childhood was filled with memories related to Israel and Am Yisrael that followed a timeline beginning with the 1967 war. I clearly remember, even at 11 years old, a significant transition that year in my attitude and feelings about being a Jew,” says Brian.

“My identity as a Jew had always been clear, and was always “there,” almost taken for granted. But the whirlwind of June ’67 brought a higher level of pride in that Judaism, allowing me to willingly and confidently “wear it” more publicly. That personal growth as a Jew in ’67 repeated itself, albeit in different ways, over and over with the parade of events of the next 20 years. This process was a direct result of my father’s (and mother’s) activities and leadership in our Jewish world that stretched from Tidewater across the USA and to Israel, of course. The significant relationships that they formed are etched in my mind: Golda, Rabin, Peres, Begin, Motta Gur. As I watched and experienced his involvement, passion, and leadership in action, it all trickled down to our household, and I became the beneficiary in so many ways that helped make me become the Jew I am today.”
John Strelitz and wife Renee Dozoretz Strelitz have three children. Julia, Jacqueline, and Joseph Strelitz were blessed with two entrepreneurial grandfathers who both blazed new trails on behalf of the Jewish and medical communities.

“I definitely see my father’s leadership ability as a core trait he got from his dad,” says Julia Strelitz. “He’s the first to step up in a time of crisis, like when the JCC was moving its campus and he became president.”

Julia and sister Jacqueline both admire their father’s compassion as a business owner who treats his employees with deep respect. “He has employees who have been with him for 20 years. That loyalty is a testament to his understanding of their needs and willingness to help. He’s loyal to them and they are loyal back.”

Joseph Strelitz inherited more than a name from his father’s father.

“Everyone loves Joseph. He was elected to several leadership roles, not just BBYO, for a reason. He got his composure from Buddy,” says Jacqueline Strelitz. “He’s just like Buddy, even-keeled. He’s a calming force in every situation.”

John says he’s the reactive one, which explains why he’s been taking yoga classes for 20 years. He didn’t inherit the calm gene from his father.

“Joseph reminds me of my dad,” says John. “He has his personality. My father was introspective and an intellect. He could sit down and read a 400-page book by Abba Eban. Joseph is also very kind and sensitive in a way I’m not.”

Julia and Jacqueline see their dad through a loving father filter. “He’s the best father and has always been there for us. He never missed a game or event and is so young at heart. Because he’s outspoken and very high-energy, people might not know that he’s also very sensitive. He sees the best in everyone.”

If a younger generation is guided by the strong character and deeds of parents—and grandparents they never met­—when they get that gift is not as important as how they get it.

“My children are very aware of and have heard many of the countless stories of their grandfather’s passion and involvement,” says Brian. “And they have grown up with parents that wear their Jewish/Israel “flags” high and proud—at home and in their communities. I could say that it has all already been baked into their DNA as well. Now will come the exciting part for me—and that is watching how they (Sasha, Matthew, Talia, Joshua, and Aryeh) chart their way and find their own special path to express themselves as Jews and to live as Jews, and moreover as Jews that are passionate about the miracle of modern day Israel.”

Joseph and Leonard Strelitz were founding ‘brothers’ who made their mark on the mid-size Tidewater Jewish community. Based on impact across the world, Tidewater’s community size is deceiving.

“The Strelitz brothers, along with men of their generation through our Federation, made support of Israel and overseas Jewish needs preeminent in our annual campaign,” says Sandler. “Their early support of Israel drove our community to be a leader in the national organized Jewish community. Anytime I attend national or international meetings and identify myself as being from “Tidewater” it immediately draws respect and admiration.”

The future of the Jewish tribe and this community is in the hands and hearts of altruistic late bloomers and never-too-late bloomers.

“My kids still need to learn about philanthropy and involvement,” says John. “The best thing I can do is lead by example. Right now I’m happy to see both of my girls headed into careers that serve others. Jacqueline is a speech pathologist who always wanted to do something meaningful. Julia just left a big sales job to become a registered dietician, because she realized she wanted to help people. Joseph is still in college, but he has a very strong connection to Israel and is currently saving money to take his girlfriend there.

“My kids will have to create their own philanthropic paths. We’ll just have to see what’s next for them. I think the best is yet to come,” says John.

Brian Strelitz takes pride in his family’s transition. “Some ask if we are embarrassed that we even had Christmas trees. NO,” he says. “We are proud of how our family found its way, and of course, we love the destination.”

– Lisa Richmon