Longtime American Jewish Leader, Lawyer Kenneth Bialkin, Is Mourned
When I was working with a few partners and potential investors nearly 20 years ago on a plan for what became The New York Sun, one of them asked if we had a preference on who to use as a lawyer to create the company. I shrugged. The partner went on to suggest that we use Kenneth Bialkin, a partner at Skadden, Arps.
People will be impressed, the partner predicted. I went on to add Bialkin’s name to the final slide of the presentation we were using as we went around to promote the idea of a new daily newspaper in New York City.
Whether it helped us raise any of the capital we eventually did raise, I have no idea. What I do know for sure, though, is that Bialkin’s involvement allowed me what I now realize was a real privilege — the chance to get to know and work with someone who wasn’t only an excellent lawyer but was also one of the most dedicated, decent, hardworking, and passionate lovers of Israel on the American Jewish scene.
Bialkin, who died last week at age 89, was warmly remembered Monday at his funeral in Manhattan for, among other things, his service as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, the America-Israel Friendship League, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, the American Jewish Historical Society, the Jerusalem Foundation, and the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Prime Minister Netanyahu sent a note via the Israeli consul general in New York, Dani Dayan, describing Bialkin as “a true friend of the State of Israel” and paying special tribute to “the constancy of his support.”
Dayan said Bialkin combined the “knowledge of a diplomat, grace of a statesman, and feeling of a lover.”
As Rabbi Arthur Schneier of the Park East Synagogue put it, Bialkin made his first trip to Israel in 1959, “fell in love and didn’t stop loving Israel.”
A former Israeli ambassador at the United Nations, Dan Gillerman, who flew from Israel to New York to attend Bialkin’s funeral, described Bialkin as “the best friend Israel could ever wish for.” He spoke of how, as a corporate lawyer, Bialkin helped in “opening the doors of New York and Wall Street to Israeli companies.” Sure enough, visiting Bialkin’s office at Skadden meant glimpsing shelves and windowsills lined with Lucite-encased “tombstones” marking not only giant financial-industry deals such as the $70 billion merger of Citigroup and Travelers but also offerings for many Israeli firms.
The editor and writer Norman Podhoretz praised Bialkin as “unfailingly loyal” and as the ideal living embodiment of Louis Brandeis’s idea that “to be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.”
The journalist Lally Weymouth said she had met Bialkin after a reporting trip to Israel 40 years ago, when the Israeli spy David Kimche recommended that she look Bialkin up when she returned to New York.
The pews of Park East were full of prominent American Jews mourning Bialkin. Among them were an emeritus professor of Yiddish at Harvard, Ruth Wisse; a former attorney general of the United States, Michael Mukasey; the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass; and the head of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School, Ariela Dubler.
When Bialkin was providing the legal advice on creating The New York Sun I was less than 30 years old. Bialkin was already a star lawyer and senior figure in the world of Jewish philanthropic leadership. What I still find particularly touching was that Bialkin went out of his way to include me notwithstanding my youth, whether it was an invitation to opening night at Carnegie Hall, where he was deeply involved, or to his and his wife Ann’s apartment for an event in honor of some visiting Israeli, or to one of the Jewish charitable galas that he seemed to be constantly deep in the midst of organizing all the details for, or to breakfasts he held at Skadden with eminent European visitors. If Bialkin wanted an update about the Sun, he would phrase it as “how are we doing?” with the pronoun “we” conveying the essential point that Ken wasn’t just your lawyer, he was right there on your team.
The Jewish people were blessed to have had him on our team.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. More of his media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.