My beloved father, Jacob W. Heller – Yaakov ben Moshe Ze’ev, z”l – passed away on Rosh Chodesh Iyar. Though it is quite difficult to find the right words to publicly convey feelings that are so personal, I felt strongly that this needed to be written, as my father was a man who left a profound legacy and affected many lives.
Jacob Heller can fairly be described as the model of the 20th-century Jewish American attorney – and someone who blazed a trail that many others would subsequently follow. His formative years, in the 1940s and 1950s, were a time when Torah Judaism in America was still struggling to gain traction. Many Jews during that era believed the “American Dream” could be accomplished only through assimilation and the abandonment of Jewish tradition.
Even as a very young man my father was driven to achieve professional success. So extraordinary was his early academic performance that upon his graduation from high school, both Harvard and Yale pursued him with offers of full academic scholarships. This was unusual enough, but the offers were made during a period in which Jewish students were largely unwelcome in those institutions.
Though these scholarships seemed to be the prize my father had worked for, his parents, Elsie and Elias Heller, pioneers of the Young Israel movement and staunch supporters of Yeshiva University, felt strongly that the place for a Jewish student with my father’s abilities was YU.
Not surprisingly, my father’s academic performance at Yeshiva University was exemplary. In 1955 he was elected president of the Student Council (fellow officers on the council were classmates Julius Berman and Nathan Lewin). He was also appointed captain of the Yeshiva debating team, which was a hot ticket: That year, the Yeshiva debating team faced off against the top universities in the nation, almost all of whom YU roundly defeated – including Harvard.
That same year, my father took Yeshiva University debating into the national spotlight when he competed in the individual National Collegiate Debate finals, held at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City (then-vice president Richard Nixon was one of the judges). My father took second place in that competition, but people who were present that night assert it was Jacob Heller who won the competition hands down. Apparently, given the social climate that existed back then, the judges simply could not bring themselves to award first place to the contestant from Yeshiva University.
When his storied academic career at Yeshiva University came to a close, my father put in his applications to law school – and Harvard and Yale were back at his door with scholarship offers. My father chose Yale and went on to graduate 8th in his class.
After receiving his law degree in 1959, my father applied to the major law firms, which at the time were still largely closed to Jewish applicants, even those with my father’s impeccable credentials. Fortunately, he caught the eye of John P. McGrath, senior partner at Reavis & McGrath, who felt that hiring this promising young attorney was worth breaking with accepted convention. My father became a prized assistant to Mr. McGrath in several high profile cases, likely another factor in blowing open the doors of the major law firms to hundreds of aspiring Jewish attorneys who would follow.
Having already established himself as a brilliant and fierce litigator, my father was offered a senior partnership at one of the larger Madison Avenue law firms, which he accepted. Only 33 years of age, he was one of the youngest attorneys ever offered a senior partnership of this magnitude. After heading the litigation department at Weiss, Rosenthal, Heller & Schwartzman for eleven years, he formed his own firm in 1979 – Heller, Horowitz & Feit, a commercial litigation practice that established a reputation for the highest standards of integrity and excellence.
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He was always sharply dressed and elegant, and had a magnificent, resonating baritone voice that could make a room stand still. He also had a beautiful singing voice, and many people fondly remember how he masterfully led the davening on the Yamim Noraim for so many years at the Young Israel of Woodmere.