As president of Kesher Israel in Georgetown, Michael Gelfand’s Shabbat announcements were legendary.
Gelfand’s announcements were an extension of himself, members say. He shared joy and sorrow with each member of the Orthodox congregation. When a couple who had lost an infant shared with him that they were expecting another child, he let the whole congregation know that a sonogram showed there would soon be a healthy baby.
His delight in the many couples who met at the synagogue — dozens during his presidency — was showcased in his exuberance when he announced the engagements.
“Michael was the first person we told in the synagogue that we were engaged,” said Saul Newman and Naomi Baum, now of Silver Spring. “And he wrote a poem for his announcements to share our happy news.”
“I never before or since have looked forward to the presidential announcements at the end of Shabbos davening, but I did with Michael and he never disappointed,” said former Sen. Joe Lieberman, a longtime congregant.
Gelfand, a physician, longtime Washington-area resident and Kesher Israel president from 1985 to 1992 and 1996 to 1998, died on April 26 at the age of 80. Most recently, Gelfand and his wife, Edith, lived in Palm Beach, Fla., where he had also served as a synagogue president.
During a Zoom shivah visit last week, joined by dozens of current and former members of Kesher Israel, Lieberman recalled that he and Gelfand were two of four freshmen at Yale College “out of a class of 1,000” that kept kosher.
Gary Winters, a former Kesher Israel president and current vice president of Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring, called Gelfand “the beating heart of Kesher Israel, representing at once its youthful vitality and its seriousness of religious purpose. He adored the institution, and more importantly, the people who made it up, serving in many leadership roles over the years with endless dedication, excellent judgment, and above all good humor,” Winters said.
The Gelfands were legendary for attending members’ simchahs and always presented a coin from the Israel mint for new babies. When they were honored by the synagogue at a dinner in 1990, the congregation presented them with a coin from the mint as well, a tribute to their great love for the land of Israel.
At the funeral, Michael’s nephew and business partner, Brian Gelfand, said his uncle “respected people regardless of their status” and said that while the two worked in business together daily, that all took a backseat when Friday night prayers began.
Michael Gelfand was born in New York City and attended the Ethical Culture and Horace Mann schools. He attended Yale College, where he met Lieberman, his friend of 60 years.
Gelfand attended the SUNY-Downstate Medical Center College where he also did his internships and residency.
(He met Edith, who later become an attorney, when she worked at Downstate for a department chair.)
He came to Washington in 1970 as an army physician to work at Walter Reed Medical Center. In 1978, after Gelfand’s father passed away, Gelfand began going to Kesher Israel to say Kaddish. He remained an active member of the synagogue, “wrapping his life around its growth,” said his sister Bobbi during the funeral in Israel last week.
Gelfand was a nephrologist and businessman and, together with his wife, a philanthropist for area Jewish causes.
Those included the Dr. H. Harold Gelfand Memorial Institute of Adult Education at Kesher Israel Congregation, the synagogue’s Jewish education arm, begun in 1989.
“It’s on that foundation that our community education still functions. We continue to stand on Michael’s shoulders,” said Rabbi Hyim Shafner during the funeral last week.
Gelfand was also active in the D.C. Chapter of Israel Bonds and the Foundation for Jewish Studies (now the Haberman Institute for Jewish Studies in Rockville).
He presided over the expansion of the synagogue including the purchase of a brownstone around the corner from the synagogue that is used for classes and some services, and a rabbinical residence.
Gelfand’s last trip to Israel 10 years ago, before a severe stroke in 2012 curtailed his travel, was filled with visits with former and current Kesher members. And when the Gelfands attended a wedding near their home four years ago for a couple whose groom had his brit milah in the Kesher Israel sanctuary during Gelfand’s presidency, the dozens of Kesher members attending the wedding greeted their former president and his wife by dancing around them during the festivities.
Gelfand was buried in Beit Shemesh, Israel, on April 27. Survivors include his wife, Edith; sisters Bobbi Coller (Barry) and Lyn Diamond; brother, Richard (Pam); eight nieces and nephews; 13 great-nieces and –nephews; three great-great-nieces and –nephews; and generations of Kesher Israel members and their descendants whose lives Gelfand touched.
Updated, May 5, 2022, 12:30 p.m. The location of the Haberman Institute for Jewish Studies was corrected.