Rosalyn Borg, former local AJC Director, dies at 85

Rosalyn+Borg

Rosalyn Borg

Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Jewish leader and human-rights advocate Rosalyn Borg, who served as area director of the American Jewish Committee in St. Louis and previously Portland, Ore., died at her St. Louis home on Sunday, June 27. The cause was lung cancer, her son David Biespiel, of Portland, told the Jewish Light.

“My mother was a major force for good,” said Biespiel. In addition, she was a pioneering female executive in the commercial waste management industry, was instrumental in bringing “Sesame Street” to Houston public television and was active and deeply connected to the Tulsa Jewish community since the 1940s.

As the daughter and granddaughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Ukraine, Ms. Borg, while director of the St. Louis branch of AJC from 1988-2001, focused on combatting human trafficking, building coalitions among the St. Louis area’s diverse ethnic, racial, and religious groups, and expanding the AJC’s annual Interfaith Lecture Series for Jews and Christians.

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Michael Newmark, St. Louis attorney and a past president of the St. Louis Region of AJC, said, “Rosalyn Borg was an effective professional leader of the AJC’s St. Louis AJC.  She was guided by the principles of AJC in her many roles in the community.  She will be deeply missed.”

This writer remembers Ms. Borg as a longtime colleague and friend. She was soft-spoken and sweet, but also a forceful advocate for Jewish values in her personal and professional activities.  She was the author of thoughtful letters to the editor in the Jewish Light and a good sounding board to discuss local, national and global issues.

It was while Ms. Borg was director of the Portland branch of AJC, from 1986-1988, that she was instrumental in establishing the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment. She also served on the board of a five-state coalition of private citizens and government officials whose purpose was to address the problem and threat of religious and racial harassment and violence in the Northwest through united action.

In 1987, she led AJC’s advocacy for redress legislation for Japanese Americans who were interned in the United States during World War II. She was recognized in the Congressional Record by U.S. Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Calif., for her efforts to bring about passage of the legislation in the House of Representatives, publishing Ms. Borg’s editorial, “Internment of Japanese-Americans Needs Redress,” first published in the Catholic Sentinel, in support of “recognition of a grave injustice and an apology for that injustice, pardon to those who were convicted of violating the evacuation and curfew laws, financial compensation to the 60,000 survivors, and the establishment of an educational trust fund.”

In every city she lived in—Tulsa, Houston, Portland, and St. Louis—she served on numerous boards, including the Tulsa City-County Citizens Advisory Committee to the Mayor, University City Plan Commission, University of Missouri St. Louis Chancellors Advisory Committee on International Relations, and she was a long-time member of the board of directors of the National Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies.

Before starting her professional non-profit career, Ms. Borg was president of Containerized, Inc. from 1976-1986. Owning a private roll-off and rear-loader company, she was a rare female executive in the typically all-male industry, featured in the Houston Business Journal and profiled in the industry’s international periodical, Waste Age.

“As a woman in the refuse business,” she said in an interview in 1984, “I do everything a man does. We have the same problems, we make the same kinds of decisions. In that sense, nothing is different, and it should not be.”

Ms. Borg’s work promoting women in the workplace began long before she was in private business. As president of the Houston chapter of National Council of Jewish Women in the 1970s, she was instrumental in creating Career Branch to open doors for young women for civic, philanthropic, and private sector advancement.

Rosalyn Borg was born in Decorah, Iowa, on Sept. 6, 1935, to Joe Borg, president of Borg Compressed Steel, and Ruth (Lenske) Borg, a homemaker and volunteer. She was the oldest of four sisters.

Ms. Borg graduated from Central High School in Tulsa, where the Borg family settled in 1946. She graduated with a degree in political science from the University of Michigan in 1957 and married fellow Tulsan Stephen E. Biespiel. The marriage ended in divorce.

While raising her three sons in Houston, Ms. Borg became active in Citizens for Good Schools, the coalition that, in 1969, defeated the all-white male school board by electing a slate of progressive, female, Jewish and African American candidates. Ms. Borg later was active in HISD’s Volunteers in Public Schools, serving as founding president. The same year, Ms. Borg participated in a National Council of Jewish Women program to bring the newly created “Sesame Street” to Houston’s KUHT public television.

Building opportunities and bridging differences was at the heart of Ms. Borg’s life. “Human relations,” she once said in a public address, “is the art of making strangers into friends.”

Throughout, Judaism was the center of her soul: “My parents were Jewish to the core of their being. Having known the discomfort of anti-Semitism, they were proud of being Jewish, proud of a long heritage, proud of the traditions, rituals, ethics of their Judaism,” Borg said. “They brought into our family as part of who we were and who they expected us to be. Judaism was not an afterthought; it was not just observing holidays to maintain a reputation. Synagogue, home observation, Jewish organizations, were part and parcel of who we were; it was our identity, it was where we belonged and were accepted. It was community, home, family.”

She is survived by her three sons, David Biespiel of Portland, Scott Biespiel of Houston, Matthew Biespiel of Chicago, two sisters, seven grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Rose Borg Sukkoth Fund at Congregation B’nai Emunah, 1719 S. Owasso Ave., Tulsa, Okla. 74120.

Funeral services will be held at 10:30 a.m., Thursday, July 1 at Rose Hill Cemetery. Evening minyan services to be held at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, July 1 in Tulsa at Congregation B’nai Emunah.