A High Powered Family That Keeps on Giving
The twins - like so many CUNY students, the children of immigrants - joined the first entering class at Queens College, worked on the Manhattan Project and, with two other brothers, founded what has become a leading electronics manufacturing firm.
They never forgot where they came from. One twin endowed cultural programming and refurbished performance and museum venues at Queens
College. The other's widow endowed Holocaust programs at Queensborough Community College (story Page 5).
"I credit Queens College with all of the things I've been able to do," says Max Kupferberg, 90, who with his wife of 63 years donated $10 million for programs, exhibitions and renovations at what is now called the Selma and Max Kupferberg Center for the Visual and Performing Arts. It includes Colden Auditorium, the Godwin-Ternbach Museum, the Art Center and the Louis Armstrong House Museum and Archives. When Colden had a board, Max was its only president.
Harriet Kupferberg, widow of his twin Ken, gave $1 million to kick-start an anticipated $5 million program endowment. Her goal was to ensure that far into the future, students would connect the slaughter of the Jews in World War II with the broader ramifications of prejudice, racism and stereotyping. The programs are now based
in a spanking, new, publicly financed building, the Harriet and Kenneth Kupferberg Holocaust Resource Center and Archives.
Besides these personal gifts, Kupferberg family foundations have long supported more than 40 organizations in Queens and beyond.
"I was brought up in Flushing when it was a small town," says Max, speaking at his firm's modest building in jam-packed Flushing. "When we moved here in 1926, there was only one apartment house in Flushing and a lot of farms."
His father, a cabinetmaker, and homemaker mother came from Romania in 1903 and raised seven children. His other brothers, Jesse and Jack, opened a radio repair business at home, which they ran until they were drafted into World War II.
Queens College was just opening when Max and Ken graduated from Flushing High School in 1937. "It was perfect for me. All we had to pay for was our books and lab fees. And they provided work for us, so we'd have enough money to get back and forth to college, maybe $10 a month," he recalled. To earn that money, they photographed students at registration and recorded students' voices both when they started the required public speaking course and when they finished it.
They majored in physics, but Max stressed the importance of their broad liberal arts education. "Queens College taught me how to speak, how to read, how to understand - all the things that are most important in one's life," he says.
Ken graduated in 1941 and attended Columbia University until he was drafted. Accomplished in physics and math, he was assigned to Los Alamos, NM, the headquarters of the top secret Manhattan Project, which developed the first atom bombs. When scientists considered detonating them with an FM radio signal, Ken said his brother Jesse had the needed expertise; Jesse, too, was summoned to Los Alamos.
Max graduated in 1942, headed to NYU and was draft-deferred while working on a Navy project. Nevertheless, he applied to Los Alamos and joined his brothers.
The Manhattan Project's scientific director, J. Robert Oppenheimer, suggested that Max spend two weeks visiting different research teams to decide what interested him. He later attended seminars with renowned physicists Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller and Niels Bohr. "When I was 26 years old, to have that kind of exposure was fabulous," he says.
When the world's first nuclear weapon was tested in the New Mexico desert, Ken was in a bunker a thousand yards away, while Max was five miles distant, both measuring radioactivity. "We could feel the heat on our faces," he recalled.
Max, Ken and Jesse devised and built new instruments to advance Manhattan Project research. After the war, they and brother Jack founded Kepco, which manufactures electronic power-supply controls. The family-owned company is now run by their children.
Ken, who died in 1993, received a doctorate from NYU, where he taught physics besides being Kepco's director of engineering. He held 14 patents relating to regulated power supplies.
His wife, Harriet, who died in 2008, was a teacher, served on the Queensborough Community College Fund Board for more than 30 years and chaired the college's campaign for the Holocaust center, which was founded in 1983 in two basement rooms.
She had grown up in a household that fought against Hitler's attacks on and then slaughter of Jews, for before the war her father struggled to extricate Jews from Eastern Europe, according to center executive director Arthur Flug. Sixteen years old when the war started, she understood the passion and motivation of young people faced with crisis. That helps explain why she became personally involved with the center's interns, who come from a student body that speaks more than 50 languages and represents more than 135 nationalities.
"She used to say, 'I had my internship in my living room'" before and during the war, Flug says. The student internships she championed, which include meeting Holocaust survivors, make those terrible events real.
"She said that if you teach the Holocaust as a history lesson you are doing a disservice to the people who died in it. We teach it as the greatest hate crime ever perpetrated" – a crime, Flug added, that unfortunately has too many modern parallels.
Experience, passion and a concern for the well-being of other people have been at the center of the Kupferbergs' lives.
"You've got to give back so other people can follow," says Max Kupferberg, who survives his brothers and still works at Kepco. "That's how you build a strong community."