One of my heroes died last week, on October 7, erev Yom Kippur.
Leonard Wasserman was unique in my experience. He is the only Jewish lay leader I’ve ever known who became passionate about engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and then created an organization that works to do just that – Interfaithways.
I first met Leonard when the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly was last held in Philadelphia, in 2002. Rabbi Rayzel Raphael was escorting Leonard around the GA; he was on a mission to learn as much as he could about what was being done around the country to engage interfaith families. I don’t know exactly how old Leonard was, but even back in 2002 he appeared to be pretty elderly, and he was quite hard of hearing, but he was insatiably curious about our field.
That was a common theme over the nine years that I knew him – he always wanted to be current, to know if anything new was happening that could be put into use in Philadelphia. I think he attend every JOI national conference on outreach. He regularly wanted to take a train up to New York to meet with me there. A year or two ago Leonard asked if I could set up a meeting for him with Barry Shrage, head of the Boston federation and the most visionary leader in the federation world when it comes to engaging interfaith families. Probably well into his 80’s by then, Leonard flew to Boston with his wonderful colleague Rabbi Mayer Selekman, and continued to ask what the best practices were and how he could bring them to his home town.
I asked Leonard once why he cared so much about engaging interfaith families. The amazing thing to me is that none of Leonard’s four children were intermarried. He told me that he and his beloved wife Dorothy were honored one year by Philadelphia’s Jewish Family & Children’s Service. He said, smiling, that of course when one is honored, one is expected to give more money. He asked what the JF&CS needed, and the executive director at the time, Drew Staffenberg, said they wanted to get into providing programming for interfaith couples. So Leonard and Dorothy agree to fund the program that eventually grew into Interfaithways, housed for several years at the JF&CS, and then as an independent non-profit.
Leonard was unique in that he didn’t come to the issue out of personal experience – it was suggested to him, he studied it, he realized how important it was, and he took it way beyond the expected initial gift, to many years of supporting the organization that he created. And, sadly, he was unique in that I’m not aware of any other Jewish lay leader who single-handedly created and largely funded an organization dedicated to the cause of engaging interfaith families. It is too bad that there haven’t been any other leaders like him.
Over the years Leonard had some wonderful people working at Interfaithways. He did attract some foundation and individual support, but he was disappointed that the cause of engaging interfaith families did not attract significant funding from the Philadelphia community as a whole. Despite those setbacks, he never gave up and was determined to keep Interfaithways going.
This summer when I learned Leonard was failing I sent him a note. I told him I was sorry that the progress towards engaging interfaith families had been so slow, but that I was confident that we would get there some day, and when we did, he would have played an important role.
On a personal level, Leonard was a kind and gracious and generous man. I remember very well visiting him at his homes in Florida and in Bala Cynwyd, and I remember him driving me to lunch at the nearby Jewish deli– I don’t know if it was Hymie’s, or Murray’s, or Katz’s, but it was good. I will miss him very much.