Fighter pilot and philanthropist succumbs to wounds

Fighter pilot and philanthropist succumbs to wounds

Ira Saligman, 53, was in Pittsburgh on his way to Wisconsin when his plane caught fire.

Photo courtesy of the Jewish Exponent
Ira Saligman, 53, was in Pittsburgh on his way to Wisconsin when his plane caught fire. Photo courtesy of the Jewish Exponent

PHILADELPHIA — Ira Saligman was a pilot and a fighter until the end.

On July 31, Saligman passed away at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Mercy in Pittsburgh following a plane accident. He was 53.

The Philadelphia Jewish community is mourning his loss, with friends and associates pointing to Saligman’s support of those less fortunate and the State of Israel.

A naval aviator and flying enthusiast, Saligman was on his way to his yearly trip to AirVenture, the annual aviation enthusiasts gathering put on by the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wis., piloting a Yak-11 — a World War II-era single-propeller aircraft — when he landed at Allegheny County Airport on July 25.

Upon his landing, airport staff noticed flames coming from the aircraft.

“At that time, there was no indication of any type of stress or emergency,” an airport spokesman had said, according to news reports. Saligman had suffered burn injuries on his face and body.

For his family, while Saligman’s loss is a shock, they referenced the great memories they shared, like yearly trips to places like Lake Placid with the whole family — all 19 of them. They’ve gone to Israel many times together, and two of Saligman’s children had their bar and bat mitzvahs there, which was important for Saligman.

“He had a terrific sense of humor,” noted his mother, Alice. “It’s not that he was always cracking jokes, but he did come up with things that were funny, and when he did, they were so funny and clever. All I know is sometimes we’d be talking about something, and Ira would make a little comment and we’d all fall into hysterics. Not stupid funny, it was intelligent funny.”

His sister, Carolyn Saligman, remembered a fun and — like any big sibling — protective brother for their younger siblings, Peter and Laury.

“He was my best friend,” Saligman said. “He was very protective to my younger sister.”

Saligman also noted her brother’s support of Jewish causes, the importance of which he stressed to his three children through projects they all participated in.

“He was very devoted and committed to the Jewish community,” said Saligman. “When he wanted to do something, he did it with laser sharp focus.

“He did a lot of teaching his kids how to be philanthropic through different types of projects around holidays,” she continued. “They did a lot of food pantry projects. He always paid it forward and he just had a lot of very devoted friends in the community.”

He taught his family many lasting lessons, including “how to be humble, be good to others and to give 100 percent of whatever you do.”

He had a keen mind and a caring heart, she added, and he was a critical thinker. Saligman enjoyed hiking and being outdoors, but it was his passion for flying that stands out, she said.

Saligman was a household name in the Philadelphia housing industry. With his own career in real estate — both at his own company as well as previous work with his family’s real estate firm — Saligman became heavily involved with Federation Housing.

He’d been a board member for many years and served at one point on its executive committee, according to Executive Vice President Eric Naftulin.

Most recently, Saligman served on its fundraising development committee as a co-chair.

“He was the kindest human being anybody could ever associate with,” Naftulin said. “We have a 40-plus member board and he was that one guy who — regardless of what was happening — he was always complimentary of the staff, the work we do, the compassion we bring. He would talk to you like he was your best friend. He was a warm, caring individual. It came out of every pore.”

A “true mensch,” Saligman was also a “true American hero,” Naftulin said. Saligman was a naval aviator, and was stationed on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. America during the Persian Gulf War. “I guess the Lord needed a pilot.”

Saligman was also active with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, having served on a few of its boards, including its Center for Israel and Overseas.

“He was smart, he was kind, he was thoughtful, and he was incisive,” said Gary Erlbaum, who had served as founding chair of the Israel and Overseas board when Saligman was a member. “His loss to the community is immeasurable.”

Erlbaum, who knew Saligman through both business and philanthropy, remembers Saligman as a “stalwart” who gave to many Jewish causes.

Saligman was a founding member of Jewish Federation Real Estate (JFRE), along with real estate moguls like Bill Glazer, who had known him for more than a decade.

“Ira was a dear friend, inspirational peer and important pillar of our community,” Glazer said. “As one of the founding members of JFRE, Ira is one of the most important people who helped make the vision of JFRE a reality.”

Added current JFRE Chair Jeff Bartos, “Personally, I have had the privilege of traveling in Israel with Ira. We became good friends during these travels, and I was inspired by Ira’s optimism, gentle spirit, generosity and genuine care for everyone around him. He was a true friend to everyone he met.”

His family name is probably familiar to the many who have ever been to the Kaiserman Jewish Community Center in Wynnewood, which sits on the Federation’s Saligman campus named after Ira’s late father, Robert.

Kaiserman JCC Board President Cindy Smukler Ben Hamo had gotten to know Ira on a mission trip to Israel.

“He’s the best person I know,” she said, audibly upset. “I never saw him get angry or say a bad word about anyone. He always had an answer, always had a let’s-figure-it-out kind of attitude.”

Marissa Stern writes for the Jewish Exponent, an affiliated publication of The Jewish Chronicle.