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$15 million gift to JTS to restore burned tower

NEW YORK, April 2 (JTA) — Inside the fortresslike tower over the entrance to the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City is a narrow passage linking one part of the building to another. The passage is all that stands within a much larger, 7-story space lying empty since a fire in 1966 rendered the tower all but useless. Now a $15 million gift from an octogenarian Conservative rabbi and his wife will turn that space back into classrooms for the training of the next generation of rabbis. The gift is unusual not only in magnitude, but because it is rooted both in the history of contemporary American Judaism and in the world of big business. Rabbi Myer Kripke, ordained by the seminary in 1937, met his wife, Dorothy, while both were studying with Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who taught at JTS and went on to found the Reconstructionist movement. Dorothy was enrolled in JTS’s College of Jewish Studies. The couple was married at the seminary. Kripke served pulpits in Racine, Wisc.; Patchogue, N.Y.; and New London, Conn., before moving to Omaha, where he became spiritual leader of Beth El Synagogue in 1946. There he stayed, leading his flock for 29 years until his retirement in 1975. During those years, Dorothy Kripke wrote a series of children’s books titled “Let’s Talk About … ” Financier Warren Buffett’s wife, Susie, saw Kripke’s book “Let’s Talk About God” and arranged to meet the author. Through the wives, the couples became close friends and the Kripkes scraped together money to invest in the fledgling company owned by Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway. By the 1990s, Berkshire Hathaway stock was so valuable that the Kripkes had themselves an extraordinary nest egg. Buffett built Berkshire Hathaway into a conglomerate that, by 1996, owned a multitude of companies from the insurer Geico to fine jewelry retail chains, and is a major investor in corporations ranging from Coca-Cola to American Express. In 1996, they decided to make a major gift — $7 million in cash to JTS to restore the damaged tower — and a deferred gift of some $8 million more, which the seminary will receive after the Kripkes’ deaths. The Kripkes had been slated to attend a reception Tuesday in their honor at JTS but were unable to come because the rabbi was hospitalized with a minor illness.