In the Washington area, the annual Good Deeds Day of community service is itself the product of a good deed. Stuart Lessans, a retired ophthalmologist and member of B’nai Israel Congregation, got the day rolling along with the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington in 2014.
Lessans has since underwritten a long list of Jewish community initiatives, all in the name of his parents, Sara and Samuel J. Lessans. Samuel Lessans, like Stuart Lessans, was born in Baltimore. “My mother, Sara, was born in London,” Lessans says. “She graduated from the famous Jews Free School where she was Class Valedictorian! Her father was the Royal Cabinet Maker!”
While extolling his parents, Lessans is characteristically self-effacing about his own accomplishments.
“My claim to fame is that I’m 78 and the father of 20 year old twins, Matthew and Faye,” he says.
His children, too, are objects of his love and admiration. This year, with Good Deeds Day extended to a whole week — April 11-18 — it was time to turn the spotlight onto Lessans himself.
For health reasons, we conversed by email, about Good Deeds Day, Lessans’ strong feelings for the Jewish community and about his illness.
This year, it’s Good Deeds Week. Why the change and what do you anticipate happening during the week?
We extended to a full week this year to ensure that as many people as possible would be able to participate. Through hundreds of in-person (socially-distanced) and virtual volunteer projects, we have the chance to offer new and different ways for even more people to give back to and care for the community.
The main issue we wanted to address this year is local food insecurity which has worsened because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Local food insecurity has increased by 50 percent overall and there has been a 92 percent increase in food insecurity among children since 2018.
Using data from its Emergency Response to the Pandemic, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington is convening over 60 partnering agencies, synagogues, schools and organizations during the week of April 11 to 18 to combat this issue head-on. We’ll see thousands of community members of all ages and abilities across D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia filling the shelves of local food pantries, sorting and packing food boxes, distributing meals and working collectively to feed those who are hungry.
Is it true that on an ordinary Good Deeds Day, you show up at every event?
I try to attend as many events as possible! I feel that, as the sponsor, it’s important that I’m there to encourage and thank our amazing volunteers for all they do! My wife, Ellen, and my twins (Matthew and Faye) usually join me. We occasionally split up to cover more events.
How and when did you get involved with Good Deeds Day?
In May 2014 when the Sara and Samuel J. Lessans Good Deeds Day was conceived by then-Jewish Federation of Greater Washington CEO Steve Rakitt and myself, I felt certain it would resonate well with our community and also with my parents. I felt it would serve to unite the entire Greater Washington Jewish community, secular and religious, old and young, affiliated and non-affiliated, working together to improve the lives of those less fortunate, Jew and gentile alike.
I also felt that by publicizing the Israeli origin of Good Deeds Day we could help to counter some of the vitriol directed against Israel and the increase in anti-Semitism here in the U.S. [This day of community service was launched in Israel in 2007 by businesswoman and philanthropist, Shari Arison,]
Do you underwrite Sara and Samuel J. Lessans Good Deeds Day’s cost?
Yes, via an endowment I set up in memory of my parents through The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s United Jewish Endowment Fund. I also attend Good Deeds Day planning meetings and try to help as much as I can, but I think I really function more as a cheerleader for the truly talented people in the room: our CEO, Gil Preuss, and his fabulous Jewish Federation team!
You sponsor it (and the Bender JCC’s literary series) in memory of your parents. They must loom large in who you are as a person and as a Jew.
David, you are so correct! Some feel the commandment to Honor Thy Father and Mother only applies when parents are alive. I feel the true meaning of this commandment is that every day of our lives, in all we do, we reflect on the impact our parents have had on us.
Besides their unconditional love, my remarkable parents gave me the greatest gift a Jewish parent can give to a child: the gift of a strong Jewish identity and an unwavering love for my people and my ancestral homeland, Israel, for which I’m eternally grateful.
But, David, I must tell you that, as I approach 80 and, keeping in mind my serious health issues, every day I pray that I will be successful in passing on to my Matthew and Faye that precious gift given to me by my parents, of blessed memory.
What have you seen Good Deeds Day accomplish? Where would we be without it?
I feel the Sara and Samuel J Lessans Good Deeds Day is such a remarkable celebration of the Jewish soul and spirit, and it honors the memory of my beloved parents.
Since it started, we have shown tens of thousands of community members that they have the power to help. No matter their age, physical ability, financial position or otherwise, they can make a difference. This knowledge is powerful and has not only helped us accomplish thousands of good deed projects through the event each year, my hope is that it has inspired people to continue serving beyond just the day (or week).
Another of your interests is the literary series at the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington. What draws you to Jewish book fairs?
I grew up in a home filled with books, and my mom and dad were always reading and reading out loud to me and my sisters.
My dad was an early riser, and I can picture him sitting in the den at 6 a.m. reading a book. In fact, my dad was fond of saying, “Jews are the People of the Book.” He would say English is a magnificent language because you can express yourself so exactly, and he would write short stories that were published in various literary magazines.
My mom was more of a night owl, and I can picture her sitting at the dining room table, reading ‘til about 1 a.m. To keep up with current events, she would read the Baltimore Sun, the New York Times and the London Jewish Chronicle. She had such a beautiful British accent.
So, my sponsorship of the Bender JCC’s Lessans Family Book Festival and then the Lessans Family Literary Series is a perfect fit.
[He goes on to name seven more Jewish community projects that he’s endowed.]
You seem to have a very personal connection to our Jewish community. “Emotional” might be a better word. Could you talk about that?
David, you are right on target. My connection to our Jewish community is very emotional and personal.
I truly love my people, the Jewish people! And the older I get, the feeling gets stronger!
When I watch an excellent show on Netflix and the credits say it was written by a Cohen or a Levy or a Weinberg, I say to my wife or kids: “You see, it had to be good — it was written by a Jew!!” If it was written by a non-Jew, I keep quiet!
Also, my father of blessed memory always said to me: “If Jews don’t help their fellow Jews, who else will?”
I remember when I first went with my dad into a new car showroom to buy a new car. He’d ask at the reception desk, “Is Mr. Goldberg still working here?” The receptionist replied, “Mr. Goldberg isn’t here, but Mr. Weinstein is available.” Later, I realized what my father was doing: He wanted to be sure a fellow Jew would get the sales commission!
I’d like to return to you and your parents for a moment. You have consistently honored them in your good works. I wonder if it’s time for you to step out in front of them and be honored for your good works yourself.
David, because of my health problems, I think it is time. I’ve already started working on my estate and thinking about making legacy gifts in my name. In fact, just a few weeks ago, I made a substantial legacy gift in my name to the Charles E Smith Jewish Day School. My twins graduated from there in 2019. In recognition, the annual senior class siyum ceremony will be named the “Dr. Stuart Lessans Class of 2021 (or current year) Siyum.”
As this pandemic recedes, I plan to make additional legacy gifts in my name to many of my major charities.
I’m very sorry to hear that you’re ill. Would you please talk about your illness and how you’re feeling?
David, I wish I could say all is going well, but sadly I’ve been diagnosed in late September 2019 with a very rare, very terrible disease, Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF).
Basically, IPF causes progressive, irreversible scarring of my lungs, and the prognosis is death by lung failure in 2-4 years.
Sadly, IPF’s cause is unknown, it’s progressive and there is no cure except for lung transplant, for which I’m ineligible because I’m 78 — 70 is the usual cutoff. I’m taking a drug called Ofev (Nintedanib) which doesn’t cure, but can slow down the rate of scarring by as much as 30 percent per year, which could give me more time.
However, it has many side effects, including liver failure and platelet destruction, but the worst for most people is that it tears up the stomach.
Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis also is associated with weight loss, loss of the sense of taste and feeling cold most of the time. I have all three.
My immediate goal is to see my precious twins, Matthew and Faye, graduate college in May 2023.
I know I have to think positively, and I’ve started an anti-depressant, which is helping. I have been participating in an online support group, but lately it’s been making me more depressed, so I’ve stopped it.
I plan to follow by mother’s advice — she would say: “No matter what, keep smiling and keep moving! Try to keep a positive attitude!”
On the positive side, I cling to hope because of an unusual experience I had when Ellen and I visited our kids in Jerusalem for Pesach 2019. This was five months before I was diagnosed with IPF.
I had gone to pray at the Western Wall in the morning and had spent the rest of the day sightseeing and shopping in Jerusalem with Ellen.
Later that day, we met up with Matthew and Faye. Matthew asked me to go with him to the Kotel, but I told him I was very tired from walking all day. However, he was persistent, and something told me to go along with him.
The passages going to the Kotel were packed, since it was Pesach and the police were closing down some of them, but Matthew was confident, occasionally speaking to a policeman in Hebrew. I decided to put myself in his hands. I remember feeling myself “floating along with him” and feeling so happy every time I heard him speaking in Hebrew!
When we arrived at our destination, it took a while, but we finally got places to stand and pray at the Wall. He was standing about 10 places away from me, to my left. I repeated the same prayer I made that morning, asking God to let me live long enough to see my Matthew and Faye married under the chuppah.
Suddenly I felt warm all over and started to sob uncontrollably. I looked over and saw that Matthew’s face was also bright red and he was sobbing and sobbing. He walked over to me, hugged me and said, “I love you, Daddy.” Then we walked back to the hotel.
Five months later, when I received the diagnosis of IPF, this experience at the Wall came back to me and gives me some hope. I remembered reading that if God has decided to grant a prayer, He sends a shaliach, a messenger. Could Matthew have been that messenger?
Could that be the reason he was so persistent that I come to the Wall with him?
The key question: Could God have decided to grant my prayer and sent Matthew to bring me to the Western Wall?
Either way, this is a hope I cling to.
If I could be there when Matthew and Faye are married under the chuppah, I could say to myself: “Mom and Dad, Mission Accomplished!”
Good Deeds Week is April 11-18. For information and to register, to go http://shalomdc.org/gooddeedsweek