Arnold Wagner, a dedicated Zionist who worked from Pittsburgh to nurture a nascent Jewish state, died on Feb. 13. Wagner was 84.
Born in the Hill District on April 10, 1935, to Maury and Pauline Wagner, Arnold and his family eventually moved to Melvin Street and then Bartlett Street in Squirrel Hill. At 14, Wagner was introduced to Jacklyn Kanowitz of South Oakland. The two eventually married and created a partnership committed to furthering the growth of their family, the community and the State of Israel.
Years before Wagner or his wife would devote countless evenings to Zionist endeavors, he was a student at the University of Pittsburgh who enjoyed cheerleading and membership in the Pi Lambda Phi Fraternity. Before completing his studies, Wagner enlisted in the military and proposed to Kanowitz. He was sent to Fort Riley, Kansas, but returned on leave to marry Kanowitz at Congregation Beth Shalom on June 26, 1955. They honeymooned at the Neville before Wagner was sent to Germany for military duties.
“The family quickly raised money to send my mom overseas to be with Dad,” and it was there in Europe “my parents’ love for travel began,” said son Jimmy Wagner.
Early years of marriage involved touring the continent in a 1935 Mercedes convertible and enjoying European culture, food and art. After returning to the States, Wagner joined his uncle’s insurance firm, and eventually, alongside family members, established the Wagner Agency, an independent business proudly boasting four generations of family involvement.
Success at work, along with encouragement from home, enabled Wagner to pursue communal ventures. Following their move to Stanton Heights in 1963, the Wagners became increasingly involved in Congregation B’nai Israel. Arnold eventually served as congregational president and Jacklyn headed the sisterhood.
The couple’s engagements extended throughout the city as they began volunteering with Pittsburgh’s ZOA, JNF and Israel Bonds chapters.
Stuart Pavilack, executive director of Zionist Organization of America: Pittsburgh, recalled meeting Wagner decades ago: “When I was at Israel Bonds as a professional, Arnold was on the board of governors. He was 100% dedicated to Israel. No ifs, ands or buts about it.”
Some of their desire for giving long hours to various Zionist causes stemmed from “the creation of the State of Israel and its role in helping those who escaped the Holocaust,” said their son. Part of it was due to their “absolute love of travel.”
Between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s, Arnold and Jacklyn made 25 trips to Israel.
Observing such dedication to life abroad was impactful, but so too was witnessing their efforts at home, noted Amy Perilstein, Wagner’s daughter.
Following the death of Jacklyn’s father, Harry Kanowitz, Jacklyn and Arnold invited her mother, Millie, affectionately termed “Ma,” to live with them. While Ma helped raise the grandchildren (Amy, Jimmy and Harry), Arnold and Jackie spent evenings advancing Zionist ideals.
“We knew that they were working towards building the State of Israel, participating in the building of the State of Israel, promoting the State of Israel and inspiring others to visit and to participate,” said Jimmy Wagner of his childhood. “For my parents, it was truly a love of Israel. It was important for them to see this country grow. It was exciting for them to return and see tremendous growth, and they wanted to be influencers. They wanted to show their commitment, both in their leadership, as well as their financial support to the growth of the State of Israel.”
Wagner participated in several World Zionist Congresses as well as volunteered locally on behalf of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Such posts cemented his place as a communal leader, but his impact was also personal, explained Perilstein: “He was very good at training somebody or helping them if they wanted to be a volunteer. He was the first to take them to lunch and give them insight on how to do this. I have found … at my synagogue when young people come in, they are afraid and they don’t know how to come and volunteer,” said Perilstein, an active member of Adat Shalom.
Perilstein’s brother, Jimmy, whose communal involvements have included roles at B’nai Zion, the Federation and local chapters of ZOA, JNF and Israel Bonds, similarly praised their father’s example: “My dad’s the kind of guy that when somebody called him and asked him for money, one, he didn’t say no, and two, he thanked the caller for calling him and thanked the caller for their efforts in fundraising and development. My father recognized the act of asking for money is greater than the act of giving.”
Such dedication was recognized during a 2015 ceremony at Rodef Shalom Congregation when the Wagner family was given Federation’s PNC Community Builders Award.
In presenting the prize, Sy Holzer, then president and CEO of PNC Bank, said, “For 70 years, the Wagners have been a Pittsburgh Jewish community institution, defining philanthropic engagement for four generations … They are deserving of this honor in every way.”
Arnold, a founding member of the Federation’s overseas funding committee who also helped found Adat Shalom and supported Israel Elwyn, an organization that trains special needs adults and children for employment, told the Chronicle at the time, “I trained my family to be involved.”
Arnold Wagner is survived by children Amy (Steven) Perilstein and James (Rochelle) Wagner; sister Sandra “Sissie” (late Gerald) Margolis; grandchildren Joshua (Nicole) Perilstein, Evan (Amanda Posteraro) Perilstein, Samantha (Anthony) Iellimo, Michael (Kyle Oldfield) Wagner and David (Rebecca) Wagner; and great-grandchildren Haylee and Ethan Perilstein. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.