John Jacobs
John Jacobs (Photo: John Hardwick)

John E. Jacobs’ legendary dedication to the Jewish community lasted all his adult life.

As soon as John Jacobs graduated law school in 1971, he set his sights on making the world a better place — and doing his utmost to benefit the Jewish community.

“John really blossomed as an adult,” said longtime friend Marcy Feldman of Huntington Woods. “He got involved in so many community organizations. He really championed the underdog.”

It was Marcy, along with mutual friend Ken Bertin, who fixed up John with his future wife in 1968. “I saw Kenny and John standing on the street, and I went over to say hello,” remembers Marcy. “John said, ‘Do you have a girl for me to take out on Saturday night?’ and I said, “Yeah, sure, my friend Gilda.’”

Three years later, John and Gilda married, and the two set out on an idealistic quest to better the community — Gilda Jacobs through public service as a state representative and state senator and John using his grit and brainpower to aid Jewish people in need.

John E. Jacobs, 73, of Huntington Woods, a 2017 recipient of the William Davidson Lifetime Achievement Award of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, died July 1, 2020.

John and Gilda Jacobs
John and Gilda Jacobs Courtesy of John Hardwick

By day, John was a corporate and real estate lawyer. But after hours, he held leadership positions with Jewish Family Service, JVS, ADL, Temple Emanu-El, Tamarack Camps, Federation’s Annual Campaign and Federation’s Community Services Division, among other organizations.

John’s legendary dedication to the Jewish community lasted all his adult life. He was relentlessly available when there was work to be done.

“John always said yes,” said Federation President Beverly Liss. “He was tireless; very bright, very astute. He was able to strategize — a real problem solver.

“John was a true mensch,” Liss said. “He had a very big heart and a love for the Jewish community, for Israel and for his family.”

Recalled Gilda, “John didn’t just show up at meetings. When he took on a responsibility on a committee or a board, he really got involved. He wasn’t the rubber-stamp kind of board member. People respected him for that. He asked great questions and worked for creative solutions.

“He also led two missions of state legislators to Israel to help them better understand Federation’s programs. It was a natural milieu for John because he knew many legislators and he so well understood Federation and its agencies.”

As part of Federation’s Government Relations Oversight Committee, he lobbied legislators to win financial allocations for the Jewish, Chaldean and Arab-American communities.

An Open Heart

John served as president of Jewish Family Service from 1990-1992, said Perry Ohren, its current CEO.

“He was passionate about helping people alleviate their impoverished situations,” said Ohren. “He was also very helpful in the early ’90s raising funds for the Windows Program, which was about domestic abuse prevention and intervention.

“Many people thought that we Jews don’t have social problems like poverty and domestic violence,” Ohren said. “John was aware of this and helped many Jewish agencies start programs to help people who were hurting.

“He was also very involved with our community’s efforts to help older adults. John was outspoken that the Jewish community should be there until the bitter end for older adults.”

It was John’s efforts with the Committee on Jewish Eldercare Services (COJES) to assist seniors aging at home that eventually came back to benefit him when he was ailing.

“All of a sudden, the community was there to provide the services for John and for our family,” said Gilda.

“How lucky we are that our community has these resources when families are in need as well as the leadership of people like John and his Federation peers.

“John was an important part of creating an incredible support system and safety net for folks that need services. That is the beauty of all of this.”

After graduating from the University of Michigan Law School, John worked for several firms, including serving as the managing partner of Mason, Steinhardt, Jacobs, Perlman & Pesick and practicing for the past 15 years at Maddin, Hauser, Roth & Heller in Southfield.

“John was a very respected, excellent lawyer — and very humble,” said Rob Kaplow, a friend and fellow lawyer at Maddin Hauser.

“He was a lawyer’s lawyer,” said attorney and friend Barbara Rom of Beverly Hills. “Other lawyers would turn to him for advice.

“He wouldn’t brag about himself, but he would brag about his daughters, Rachel and Jessica, and Gilda,” Rom said.

Family Values

A major tragedy in John’s life was the death of his daughter Rachel at age 39 in an Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia in 2015.

Rachel, who lived in New York with husband Todd Waldman and son Jacob, was an education executive and also co-founder of the group Detroit Nation, an organization to enable native Detroiters living elsewhere to contribute to their hometown’s economic and cultural development. Rachel had a strong sense of community ties, Jewish values and social justice.

When John was ailing during the past year, daughter Jessica moved back to Metro Detroit from New York City with her husband, Joshua Steinhart, and children Lyle and Ruby. Jessica, a population health administrator, wanted to assist her parents in their time of need.

John and Gilda brought Jewish values into their home. Every year at Chanukah, the family would pick a charity to contribute to instead of buying gifts. The family were members of Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park, where John once served as president.

“My dad gave to the Jewish community and, through his example, he instilled in us a commitment to service,” Jessica said. “People probably assume that my mom was the one who set that example, but it was actually both of them. My dad believed strongly in taking care of his community.”

Longtime friend Ken Bertin of West Bloomfield said, “John was not only my hero, but he was a hero to thousands of people.”

Added Gilda, “John was a giant in our Jewish community. Giving back to the community helped drive him every day. He left a great legacy, and I am very proud I was by his side all these years.”

John Jacobs is survived by his beloved wife of 49 years, Gilda Z. Jacobs; cherished daughter, Jessica (Joshua) Steinhart; and son-in-law Todd Waldman. He was the loving grandfather of Jacob Waldman, Lyle and Ruby Steinhart; dear brother of Elizabeth Jacobs and Charles Jacobs; brother-in-law of Karen and Robert Wildau; he was also survived by loving nieces, a nephew and a world of friends.

He was the loving father of the late Rachel H. Jacobs; devoted son of the late Morton and the late Gilberta Jacobs; dear son-in-law of the late Hyman and the late Lillian Zalenko.

Interment was at Machpelah Cemetery. Contributions may be made to the Rachel Jacobs Fund at JVS, Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network or a charity of one’s choice. Arrangements were by Ira Kaufman Chapel.