Trailblazers and ‘shul friends’ celebrate 101st and 102nd birthdays

Lucy Ozarin, left, and Esther Isralow celebrate their birthdays together in August. Photo provided
Lucy Ozarin, left, and Esther Isralow celebrate their birthdays together in August.
Photo provided

There are longtime shul friends and then there are longtime shul friends.

Dr. Lucy Ozarin and Esther Isralow have attended Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County since the 1950s. In August they celebrated their 102nd and 101st birthdays together at the synagogue.

When asked to describe Isralow in three words, Ozarin smiled and said simply, “my good friend.”

Isralow took a different approach to describing Ozarin. She described her as “brilliant, good and humble.”

Beyond their warm friendship both women have been trailblazers in their own ways. Ozarin was one of the first women psychiatrists for the Navy, and later worked for the National Institutes of Health and contributed to the transformation of mental health care in this country. In the mid-1950s, Isralow was one of the first Jews to move into Chevy Chase after restrictive covenants vanished from real estate titles and was one of the founding members of Beth El.

The two regularly attend early morning Shabbat services at Beth El, and Ricardo Munster, the synagogue’s seniors program coordinator, called both “inspirations.”

He said, “Esther is such an optimistic person. If you speak to her when you’re depressed, she’ll cheer you up in less than three minutes. She is a strong believer in miracles and God, and that’s what keeps her going.”

Munster said that it is “really uplifting and encouraging” to watch Ozarin as she warmly interacts with the Beth El community.

Born in Brooklyn to an Orthodox family, Ozarin served as a psychiatrist in the Navy during World War II and then worked for the Veterans Administration. In addition to breaking down gender barriers, Ozarin is also a pioneer in the fields of mental health rehabilitation and community treatment programs.

Before World War II, mentally ill people were kept mostly in state mental hospitals that were in a “sorry state” and that following the war Congress provided funding that transformed the way mental healthcare worked, she said.

Over the course of a long career with the National Institute of Mental Health, she traveled to every state in the country to visit mental hospitals. She also served as a consultant for the World Health Organization, studying the use of alcohol and drugs in Europe.

After retiring from the NIMH in 1981, she volunteered at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, in the library of the National Library of Medicine and at Beth El.

Isralow grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania and had to stop attending Pennsylvania State University when the Great Depression hit in order to earn money.

She ended up working for the Pennsylvania Railroad (now Conrail) for almost 30 years. Isralow met her husband, Bernie, at the Harrisburg Jewish Community Center, and she married him after knowing him only three months.

Gesturing to a shelf full of books in the living room of the Chevy Chase house she’s lived in since the 1950s, she said that spirituality has always been very important to her.

“I’m very religious — I’m not the kosher kind of religious. I’m the spiritual kind of religious,” she said. “My whole life has been devoted to spiritual thinking.”

Isralow is a longtime volunteer at Beth El, and she still serves as treasurer of the synagogue’s seniors’ group, collecting donations after every lunch. She has also stuffed envelopes during the shul’s big mailings. And she has no plans to stop.

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