A Role Model To The End, Harold Smith Passes At 104

In 2019, Harold Smith quipped that he had no one to golf with; after all, he was 101 years old. 

“We played 9 holes and he hit the ball down the middle,” said Jerry Waldman, formerly CEO of Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis and major gift officer at Herzl Camp. “And if he hit in the sand, he would kick it out. But he was over 100 and still playing.”

Smith passed away Saturday night at 104 years old. He is one of the most significant donors in Herzl Camp history, with the camp address in Webster, Wis., named Mickey Smith Parkway – in honor of his late wife. In 2018, he donated Mickey’s Mitbach, the kitchen where campers learn to cook. The infirmary bears the name of Smith’s in-laws, Al and Daisy Mains.

Even after his wife’s passing in 2010, Herzl Development Director Holly Guncheon said that Smith never talked about himself separately from Mickey.

“They did everything together, and they were very aligned and committed to their priorities,” she said. He was deeply interested in Jewish education, and never saw a difference between formal and informal education. They got from the get-go that kids learned by playing. They were lifelong learners long before that was something we talked about.”

Smith was instrumental in Herzl’s first capital campaign in 2009, making a $250,000 pledge that was dependent on raising a matching $250,000. But he did the work to help raise that – and so much more.

Unable to come to Herzl Camp, Harold Smith went to Beth El Synagogue to watch the campers return home. He's pictured here with the Ozrim (Photo courtesy Herzl Camp).

Unable to come to Herzl Camp, Harold Smith went to Beth El Synagogue to watch the campers return home. He’s pictured here with the Ozrim (Photo courtesy Herzl Camp).

“He was soliciting gifts right up to COVID,” Guncheon said. “He never missed an opportunity to promote camp and to specifically get camp supporters. He made it happen. We have other great board members, but Harold, at 103, was checking every box.”

Waldman said that when Herzl board meetings were held in the upstairs conference room at the Minneapolis branch of the Minnesota JCC, at nearly 100 years old, Smith would climb the steps and be on his game throughout the meeting. 

“He didn’t miss a beat. He’d make a point and was always right on,” he said.

Said Beth Jacob Congregation Rabbi Emeritus Morris Allen: “He called it as he saw it.”

Harold was born in 1918 to parents William B. and Fannie (Feldman) in St. Paul, and as an infant, survived the flu epidemic of that year. He graduated from Humboldt High School in 1934 before attending the University of Minnesota. He joined the business his father-in-law started, Tradehome Shoes, after getting out of the Navy in 1946. He and his brother-in-law, Don Mains, worked together until they both retired in 1999, and helped grow the chain from nine stores to 65.

“It was a great association,” Mains said. “We’re different people and our personalities are different. But we worked well together and he was key to building a strong organization.”

His love of the St. Paul community was displayed in being one of the founders of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights. Allen said that the Smiths were supporters of the congregation for many years, and had sponsored an annual scholar-in-residence weekend.

“His connection was to the Jewish community of the Twin Cities, and it was wide and broad,” Allen said. “Our piece of that was a blessing for us and I think a real blessing for Harold as well. I think he found a home that he could dive in and could study and could learn.”

Even after moving across the river, Allen said that Smith regularly drove in to his congregation for morning minyan.

“I was honored to be his rabbi for many years,” Allen said. “He would lead services from the [lectern]. He was one of a kind. There will not be another Harold Smith that passes our way.”

Rabbi Alexander Davis of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, where Smith was a member later in life, said that Smith had logged on for virtual services Saturday morning before passing away later that day.

“Beth El was just one of many, many synagogues that Harold was a member of and a supporter of,” Davis said. “One of the things that makes him so incredibly unique is that he collected rabbis, he collected shuls. And in each of those places, he was absolutely beloved, and valued.”

Education focused

That love of learning manifested itself in 2018, when Smith met a group of Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School students at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, giving the students a tour of the Harold and Mickey Smith Gallery of Jewish Arts and Culture, which Smith funded as a place to make sure the Judaica he and Mickey collected around the world could benefit the public.

“Evan Maurer (MIA director emeritus) at the time was building an addition and he had set aside one segment for a Judaic gallery,” Smith said in an HMJDS video. “So we got together and he said, ‘If you’ll pay for the gallery, we’ll allow you to put your artifacts in there.’ I said okay.”

But in addition to that gift, Smith set aside funding to bring school groups to tour the exhibition. In the HMJDS video, which is from 2018, Smith is walking students through the gallery and showing off items that he and Mickey collected.

In 2019, Harold and Mickey’s son, Rabbi Mitchell Smith made a $2.5 million pledge to Heilicher to endow a significant portion of the Judaic Studies program. This gift renamed the department The Harold and Mickey Smith Judaic Studies Department. 

“Harold understood the intimate connection between Jewish living and Jewish learning,” said the department head, Dr. David Ackerman, in a statement. “In that way, he was an exemplary role model for Heilicher students.

The Talmud Torah St. Paul building bears the name of Smith’s daughter, Margie, who passed away from breast cancer in 1981. Their daughter’s plight led to generous donations to Hadassah Hospital in Israel, where Allen said they provided a center for women who were dealing with cancer and need substitutes for their hair as a result of cancer treatment.

“If there was, anything that Harold should be remembered for it was his love of Jewish learning,” Allen said. “There was never a class that I taught that he didn’t try to make. During the last few years when COVID forced people to be so isolated, it was very difficult for Harold, but he found classes online. And that was really important.”

Method to the philanthropy

Jim Smith, Harold and Mickey’s son, said that his father first got involved with Herzl Camp when he was staff in the mid-1960s. 

“His true philanthropy began when his children got involved in activities,” Jim Smith said. “He had three concepts. He was a knowledgeable Jew, he believed in philanthropy, and he was opinionated.”

Among those opinions, Allen said, was how the organized Jewish community operated. He wasn’t a supporter of the Jewish Federations in the Twin Cities “railing against the duplication of resources of two Federations,” and that the Jewish community spent “way too much of its resources on consultants, and not on actual application.

“But,” Allen said, “he was a major proponent of the Jewish community.”

Davis said that Smith was a ba’al tzedakah, that giving and philanthropy were at the core of who he was.

“As old as he was, he was not someone who simply looked backward at years gone by; he always looked forward and he carried in his heart the kind of dreams of the Jewish people, and so was passionate about ensuring the future of the Jewish people,” Davis said. “There’s such an enormous list of ways that he has left a mark on this community, on life, on his beloved family. Really the list is endless.”

Funeral service at 1 p.m., Friday, Sept. 16 at Beth El Synagogue, 5225 Barry Street W., St. Louis Park. Memorials are preferred to Herzl Camp, Hadassah, and the Harold and Mickey Smith Judaic Studies Department at Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School. Shiva 7 p.m., Sunday-Wednesday at Beth Jacob Congregation, 1179 Victoria Curve, Mendota Heights. Masks are mandatory at all services. Funeral and Shiva are available on zoom. For links, email [email protected]