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Robert Beren, donor to Orthodox causes and head of prominent philanthropic family, dies at 97

‘He instilled in all of us such a sense of responsibility to the Jewish community,’ his grandson tells eJewishPhilanthropy

Robert Beren, a prolific philanthropist, oil magnate and Republican donor who funded Jewish schools, yeshivas, agencies and synagogues in the United States and Israel, died on Wednesday. He was 97.

Beren’s grandson Jonah Platt reflected on Wednesday afternoon on his grandfather’s “tremendous” impact, telling eJewishPhilanthopy, “He instilled in all of us such a sense of responsibility to the Jewish community, to give back always and to always put an emphasis on philanthropy and education and Jewish values.”

Family, Platt said, was central to Beren’s values. “He really set the tone, the way he revered his family and those who came before him so much. So we try with everything we do to honor him and his legacy.”

Born to Adolph and Ethel Beren in 1925, he grew up in Marietta, Ohio. After high school, Beren attended Harvard University, but his freshman year was interrupted as he enlisted in the U.S. military to fight in World War II, serving in General George Patton’s 3rd Army. After the war, he returned to Harvard to complete his undergraduate degree and then returned to earn a master’s in business administration from Harvard Business School.

His uncle, Israel Henry Beren, helped found the Okmar Oil Company in the early 20th century and led it through the Great Depression. Continuing the family’s ties to the oil industry, Beren founded the oil and gas firm Berexco in the 1960s. His son, Adam, serves as chairman and president of Berexco today.

During his time as president of the Wichita school board, Beren worked with the Urban League and other Jewish community leaders to desegregate Wichita’s elementary schools.

Beren was president of the Mid-Kansas Jewish Federation and the Hebrew Congregation in Wichita. His late ex-wife, Joan Schiff Beren, also served as president of the Mid-Kansas Federation. The Joan Beren Jewish Community School in Wichita is named in her memory.

The Robert M. Beren Academy, a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school in Houston; Yeshiva University; the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, whose campus is named for the Beren family; the Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J., which has a building named for Beren’s parents and a study hall named for his uncle; and the Ohr Torah Stone network in Israel, including its Robert M. Beren Machanaim Yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Migdal Oz, are among the numerous beneficiaries of Beren’s charitable giving, many of which bear his name or those of his family members.

Yeshiva University’s Robert M. Beren Department of History was also named in his honor. Its midtown campus, the Israel Henry Beren Campus, was named in honor of Beren’s uncle, as was the Israel Henry Beren Floor at Cardozo Law School. (Ner Israel’s high school is also named for Israel Henry Beren.)

“Inspired by his own experience, Mr. Beren was deeply committed to both Jewish and secular education, leaving his imprint on many institutions through his support,” Yeshiva University President Ari Berman and board Chair Ira Mitzner wrote in an obituary notice they placed in The New York Times on Thursday.

Rabbi Kenneth Brander, president and Rosh Yeshiva of the Ohr Torah Stone network of institutions, hailed Beren’s dedication to his organization throughout the years, saying he was more than just a funder.

“The worldwide Jewish community mourns the loss of a true champion, Robert M. Beren, a man of unwavering principles, of a dedication to the Jewish people, and of extraordinary generosity,” Brander said in a statement to eJewishPhilanthropy. “His commitment to excellence and to education had a profound impact on Ohr Torah Stone’s development, enabling us to pioneer transformative initiatives which continue to impact the Jewish landscape. Mr. Beren was more than just a philanthropic donor — he was an involved partner whose strategic insights guided our growth, and he will be missed.”

In 2016, a five-story addition to Harvard’s Winthrop House, which included additional undergraduate housing and space for social activities, was named in Beren’s honor as part of the Winthrop renewal project. 

Beren supported Harvard through a variety of programs, including Jewish student life by funding the university’s Hillel. At the time of the Winthrop House project, Beren reflected on his years at Harvard. 

“My time as an undergraduate — as was the case with so many of my classmates — was interrupted by World War II. On my return, I spent summers making up for the time missed while serving in the Army. But in spite of those hurried years, I left college for the Business School with warm memories and a soft spot for both the College and Winthrop House,” Beren recalled to the Harvard Gazette.

A sports lover, Beren was a limited partner of the Chicago White Sox and a general partner of the Wichita Wings Indoor Soccer Team. He also supported multiple tennis centers around the world.

When he moved from Kansas to Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., Beren became involved in that community as well, working with and donating to the Palm Beach Synagogue, Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County, Meyer Jewish Preparatory School and Chabad of Palm Beach Gardens.

Beren is survived by daughters Nancy Beren, an active member of Jewish organizations in Houston; Julie Platt, board chair of Jewish Federations of North America; Amy Bressman; former president of UJA-Federation of New York; and son Adam Beren, a former president of the Mid-Kansas Jewish Federation, member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and founder of the Combat Antisemitism Movement.

“Each learned from him the value of excellent work, dedication to a world greater than themselves and the importance of giving back to one’s community both Jewishly and secularly,” his children wrote in an obituary shared with eJP.

His grandchildren, in addition to Jonah Platt, include actors Ben and Henry Platt, Hollywood writer Theodore Bressman, Sophie Beren, Irene Beren Jefferson and Punchbowl co-founder Jake Sherman (by marriage).

Funeral services will be held on Thursday in Wichita. 

Melissa Weiss contributed reporting.