Abraham and Sarah. Their names evoke a picture of the founders of the Jewish people – a couple known for their dedication to their flock, and to each other. Abraham and Sarah brought people together, taught them about G-d, and built a people and a community.
As a boy growing up in the Woodside neighborhood of Silver Spring, Maryland, I met another Abraham and Sarah, Landesman, (he was actually known as “Avrom”) who influenced our small community, and me, in a way similar to the Abraham and Sarah of old. Allow me to share my story.
Sixty-two years ago, Silver Spring, Maryland was a very pleasant, somewhat rustic suburban community of Washington, D.C. Although Silver Spring was my home, somehow I felt like an outsider.
My parents, Victor and Margot Wasser, were recent immigrants. My father had escaped from Austria and my mother from Germany. My father had fought in the US Army and later went on to university at NYU. He moved to Washington, D.C., to attend Howard University Dental School.
My parents met at a Jewish Community Center dance. Not long after, they married and moved to Silver Spring. There they set up my father’s dental practice, and a number of years later I was born. My parents were fiercely American. They had been forced to leave Europe as teenagers and were determined to never look back.
My father was an agnostic, perhaps even an atheist, based on his upbringing in Austria and his refugee experience. He often took my mother and me to meetings at the local Ethical Culture center. I grew up attending the local public school where I could learn to be a proper American.
My mother was raised in an Orthodox community close to Frankfurt. She kept a kosher home. She and her parents were closely tied to the German refugee community group, “Achdus.” I remember attending the Conservative synagogue in our neighborhood every Shabbat. On the high holidays, my mother and her parents would attend services with Achdus, which were usually held in a Washington D.C. church. My mother and I regularly would visit my grandmother on Shabbat, after my grandfather died.
Since the age of five, I attended Hebrew School every Sunday. In time, after most of the other kids lost interest, I continued to have private lessons with the rabbi. Eventually my family stopped driving to the synagogue. Every Shabbat I walked for over an hour to attend the small old Orthodox synagogue in Washington proper.
In the summer of 1963, when I was ten-years-old, fifteen families got together to establish an Orthodox synagogue near our home. They named it Summit Hill Synagogue, which later moved to the adjacent community to become Woodside-Ahavas Torah Synagogue. The founding families rented the recreation room in the local apartment complex for Shabbat services. It was there that I first met Avrom and Sarah Landesman.
They were among the founding members of the synagogue, and Avrom became the congregation’s first president. My father refused to go to services, and so my mother walked me there every Shabbat. At first I felt a uncomfortable, since I was the only boy there without a father, but Avrom and the other men “adopted” me and made me feel welcome. Before long I enthusiastically joined in all the activities.
The men were all highly educated. They had strong Torah backgrounds, and held advanced degrees in their various fields. Avrom himself had smicha from Torah V’daat as well as a prestigious law degree. He was a highly respected attorney, and worked for the US Department of Energy.
I became the unofficial Junior Assistant Director of the shul, setting up the chairs and prayer books for the services. I even started attending minyan every day. On Shabbat, I helped set up the kiddush which took place after shul. Avrom gave a wonderful chumash shiur. His explanations of the weekly Torah portion were both innovative and clear. Even I was able to understand Avrom’s discussions.
Sarah was at his side at every turn. She baked cookies and cakes for the kiddush, and hosted guests frequently at their home. Avrom and Sarah were the ultimate community organizers. In short order the shul had a membership of over 150 families.
The high holidays were especially awesome. The overflow crowd necessitated extra chairs, which were all carefully labeled. I helped affix labels to dozens of chairs in the men’s and the women’s section, checking with the directory, which ensured that everyone could find his or her seat easily.
The shul was a welcoming place: people from the neighborhood would “drop in” either for all the services or just for yizkor. The hazzanim were breathtakingly inspiring. They each brought the melodies from their various traditions. All the men officiating at the Rosh HaShana services dressed in white. On Yom Kippur all the men in the shul wore white kittles. Avrom always led the high holyday shaharit or mussaf services.
Sarah and the children were fixtures in the ladies section, together with my mother. The melodies, the prayers, and words of Torah we heard during those holy days allowed our minds to wander to the times of past Jewish grandeur and to hopes for an even more brilliant Jewish future.
When it came time for me to study for my bar mitzvah, there was no question that Avrom would teach me. He was a wonderful teacher. He was knowledgeable and patient, and a talented Torah reader. I was less than a wonderful student. I was not so comfortable with Hebrew, and I was not so diligent with my homework. Although my performance reading from the Torah at my bar mitzvah was not stellar, I don’t think I disappointed Avrom too much. Later I went on to become a fairly accomplished Torah reader.
My bar mitzvah lessons took place at Avrom and Sarah’s home. I also enjoyed playing with their young son while I was there. He was very cute and quite bright. He had been diagnosed with hemophilia, and required regular transfusions to help prevent him from bleeding. Avrom and Sarah showered him with love and attention. They viewed life’s difficulties as challenges to be overcome, not as obstacles.
Avrom and Sarah constantly turned their attention to the needs of others, and the needs of the community as a whole. They were blessed with three other children, each as talented as the older son. All of their children were educated in the ways of community service just like their parents.
Soon after my bar mitzvah, I left public school to attend the local Jewish day school, then high school. When I graduated from twelfth grade, I left Silver Spring to go to Yeshiva University in New York. I continued on to medical school and medical practice. As a busy physician, I visited my parents’ home and the shul when I could, but perhaps not as frequently as I might have liked. The synagogue moved to the adjacent neighborhood, with Avrom and Sarah’s home serving as the initial location. After twenty years, the shul hired an esteemed rabbi and legal scholar, Rav Yitzchok Breitowitz, as their first official rav. Only a man of his immense stature was worthy to lead such a stellar group of educated congregants. Throughout the years, I have sorely missed the spirituality, scholarship, and authenticity of these unique individuals, who were very much present in my mind as role models.
I moved with my family to Israel thirteen years ago. Some time ago I heard that Sarah had developed breast cancer and was later in remission. .A long while after that her cancer returned.
Sarah passed away at the age of seventy-eight, a few hours before Yom Kippur. Tradition states that the death of the tsaddik atones for the sins of the congregation. I thought that, surely, in her death, Sarah was doing just that.
Although I was saddened by the news, I thought that it was not by chance that such a righteous woman had passed away at such a holy time. The day before Yom Kippur is infused with holiness on earth and in heaven: a person who eats the day before Yom Kippur is considered as having fasted both days, and that day’s afternoon services contains the holy confessional prayer of viduy, which we say on Yom Kippur itself.
Sarah’s funeral was scheduled for 3:00PM, Friday afternoon. Despite the difficult timing, so close to Shabbat, I wanted to go to show my respect for Sarah and her wonderful family. When we arrived in Bet Shemesh. I expected to see a handful of people. There had been a funeral in Silver Spring the day before, with hundreds in attendance. I did not expect to see close to 500 people overflowing the small Bet Shemesh funeral chapel.
Sarah was brought out in a white shroud. She seemed even smaller than I remembered her in life. Rav Breitowitz, who had made aliya from Silver Spring, conducted the service. Avrom and Sarah’s son delivered a beautiful eulogy. Avrom, quietly listened and looked a bit worn after the long plane trip. Although he must be close to eighty-years-old, he appeared to be much younger.
The large group left the chapel to bury Sarah in the grave that her husband, Avrom, had purchased. We were reminded of Avrom’s forefather who also purchased a grave for his beloved Sarah in Israel and buried her in the Cave of Mechpelah in Hevron.
As we shoveled the earth on top of the small body, I looked around at the nearby head stones. There in a large cluster, were a group of graves which reminded me eerily of the seats that I had set up fifty years ago as a youth for the high holy day services. Many of the people whose names were on those labels were there together — in death as in life. Avrom and the other officers of the shul had arranged to purchase burial plots for the congregation together. I was totally overwhelmed.
After the funeral I retold the amazing stories of Sarah’s life and death to my wife. How striking it was, that a woman would come to be buried in Israel, a place she never lived, and have hundreds of people come to her funeral. They felt so connected to her, even in a faraway place, that they felt the need to come to bury her.
“For you and me,” my wife said, “we will probably just have to hire mourners.”
Walter Wasser, M.D, is a specialist in nephrology and internal medicine. He lives with his wife and children in Jerusalem.