Only in death, you know Irwin’s deeds

On Monday night, a 10-minute video will roll out at the Jewish Community Center during a special global gathering in Youngstown.

The video will include Valley leaders such as Barb Ewing and Jim Cossler of the Youngstown Business Incubator, Becky Keck of SMARTS, Tom Roberts of Hope Center, Penny Wells of Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past, and more.

And all of them will say one name over, and over, and over.

“If not for Thomases ...”

“Because of Thomases ...”

“Thomases has allowed ...”

Irwin Thomases died in 2011 at 87. Had he been alive, you never would have heard his name. He’s been helping for decades, and most people never knew. It was upon his death in 2011 that the Thomases Family Endowment was created through the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation. Irwin took part in its structuring while he was alive.

That’s how Irwin lived life and carried out his will to help mankind. He had plenty of will.

“During the 1960s and 1970s, both of my parents were active in social justice causes, especially the American Civil Liberties Union. My mom was president of the local chapter for a time. Most vividly, I remember her getting hateful phone calls after Kent State,” said Martha Thomases, one of Irwin’s daughters.

With that courage and righteousness, Irwin tackled life. Today, six years after his life ended, about $1 million per year is gifted to organizations in the Mahoning Valley and across the world.

Raised in the Bronx, he lived for a time in James-town, N.Y., before finding Youngstown in 1957. He built a national real-estate development company with partners. It was called Center Associates.

With wife Ada, they raised daughters Martha and Elisa Thomases. Ada died in 1980, and Irwin married Jane, who also had three daughters, Andi Baroff, Jodie Stein and Leslie Katz. Jane died in 2008.

“If you were having a conversation with him, he would come out with this one-liner,” said Andi. “We called those ‘Irwinisms.’”

Starting in 1996, gifts from him would come anonymously through the Jewish Federation via a special fund.

“In terms of giving away money, it was important to my dad that those things be anonymous,” Martha said. “He thought it was terrible to put people in a position where they felt indebted to him.”

“His mission was to make the world a better place – whether social justice, race or women’s issues,” said Debbi Grinstein, director of the fund. “He was so progressive in his thinking. He pushed us to get out in the community to learn what was going on and what was needed.”

In the video to be shown Monday, you see a common theme in which organizations gets funds: changed populations; challenged norms; saved ventures.

“We would not have made the transition without Thomases. SMARTS was let go in 2013. Thomases came to us immediately,” said Keck.

“Without the gift, it would be questionable if some of our programs would exist,” said Cossler.

“Thomases support gave us critical momentum early on [when project was just notes on paper], said Roberts of Hope, located in Sharon, Pa. “It established and legitimized us as we were going to talk to other funders.”

“The endowment was one of the earliest funders of the new building we are getting ready to open,” said Ewing.

“The fund allowed us to establish the first day camp for Jewish and Arab teens to be together,” said Mirit Sulema of Israel.

The fund launched in 2012 without much fanfare. It just went to work – like Irwin.

Monday is that fanfare.

The Federation will salute Irwin and the fund Monday while also hosting the 2017 Partnership 2Gether Summit.

More than 70 people from 14 Midwest cities, and Budapest and Israel are in town for several days for this gathering.

P2G connects Jewish communities in 46 partnerships, engaging more than 350,000 participants each year.

The P2G effort fits well with Irwin’s thinking.

“It was important to Irwin that the general community know that the Jewish community was involved in the general community. That’s why he wanted his money to be used in non-Jewish causes,” said Sam Kooperman, an endowment adviser.

Said Andi of Irwin: “He saved our community in a lot of ways, and he believed he was setting an example for others to follow.”

“He wanted us to be the best small Jewish community in the nation,” said Bruce Sherman, fund trustee. “We think we have the human and financial resources to make that happen, thanks to the Thomases.”

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at He blogs, too, on Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.

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