By Carl Zebrowski
The Lehigh Valley Jewish community suffered a heartrending loss when Bobby Hammel died at age 71 on December 13 after a seven-year battle with brain cancer.
For a hint of what he meant to the community, look no further than the name of the Allentown JCC property: the Hammel Campus. This past June the JCC rededicated its city block at the corner of 22nd and Tilghman Streets in honor of Bobby and his wife, Bonnie.
Back in 2019, when the JCC went into default on the loan on its property, the Hammels donated $1 million and provided a $900,000 interest-free loan to pay off the bank. A year later, Bobby forgave the loan.
“Simply put,” said JCC Executive Director Eric Lightman, “without Bobby, there would not be a JCC today. If you benefit from the JCC’s programs and services, if you have friends that you’ve met at the JCC, if your children have developed their Jewish identity here, you have Bobby to thank.”
Hammel was well known for his giving nature. That and his positive attitude, especially in the face of problems and other obstacles. “He always conducted himself with tremendous optimism, and there’s obviously the incredible generosity,” said Robby Wax, president of the board of the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley. “You put those two together and that’s what really defined Bobby: generosity and optimism.”
Wendy and Ross Born, pillars of this community as the Hammels have been, told Hakol, “Bobby’s big smile and optimistic attitude that almost everything in life is terrific inspired us. He loved engaging in philanthropy and volunteerism without the need for recognition. Bobby was a mensch gadol—a great mensch.”
Hammel was just as generous with his time as he was with his upbeat outlook and his donations. At a time when no one else wanted to take the position of the JCC board president, he served for three terms. He also was president and an honorary vice president of the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley and was active in Jewish Family Service and the Jewish Day School.
“Bobby was known for his extraordinary generosity, compassion and his kindness was only exceeded by his humility” said Jeri Zimmerman, executive director of Federation.
He attended Temple Beth El, served as president there, and led the fundraising effort to construct its current building. Meanwhile, he was a member of Congregation Keneseth Israel and Congregation Sons of Israel.
All of this is on top of his enormous success in the business world. Born in Pottsville, Hammel and his brothers started working early on at the Reading shop of the family business, J.C. Ehrlich Pest Control.
In 1969 he headed off to college at Penn State with more questions than answers. “The only thing I knew for sure at that time in my life was that I did not want to go into the pest management industry,” he told a writer for the trade organization Pest Control Technology.
He took one class in entomology—the study of insects—along the way to a degree in political science. He hated the class. But when his cousin reached out to persuade him to join Ehrlich, he decided to give it a shot. It turned out that he loved it, all of it: the people, the technology, and even the bugs.
In 1974 Hammel moved to Allentown, a single guy who worked his first few months in town without a day off, weekends included. He’d go to a diner every morning for breakfast and met a girl who was earning money as a waitress while she studied for a teaching degree.
“When are you going to buy me breakfast,” he eventually asked her.
“When you buy me dinner?” she responded.
He did that, and Bonnie Stitts eventually became his wife. They had four sons together—Simon, Aaron, Benjamin, and Nathan—who in turn gave their parents five grandkids.
With hard work and a focus on quality assurance and customer satisfaction at Ehrlich, Bobby went to become a co-owner. By the time the company was sold in 2006, it was the largest family-owned pest control business in North America.
His legacy in his industry continues to this day, as it does in the Valley’s Jewish community. “We do what we can to help support this community and to make sure the same community that we moved into decades ago will still be thriving years later,” Hammel told Hakol in 2020.
“That’s the whole idea, that old adage of someone planted a tree for me, so we’re planting a tree again. I do believe in God, and I am grateful for the life we’ve been given. We are fulfilling our obligation to give as a means of trying to pay back everything we have received. And it’s a real pleasure.”