Monday, January 9, 2023
16 Tevet 5783
There are some people who demand respect from others.
And then, there are some, a much smaller, rarer group, to which the titan we remember today belonged, whose sheer presence, and gravitas, command respect, without ever having to say a word.
For over 96 years Leo Gans, Eliezer ben Shimshon, personified and radiated those old world qualities of the pre-war German Jewish community: reverence, responsibility, integrity, diligence, precision, and, unfailingly, dignity.
But, before we attempt, in our limited and modest way, to try and bring some measure of honor, inevitably inadequate, to a towering figure of Jewish communal leadership, let us remember that all of it almost never came to pass.
Leo was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1926. On the eightieth anniversary of Kristallnacht, just over four years ago, I asked Leo to tell us, firsthand, his experience on that dark day, the beginning of the end of German, and indeed, European Jewry. And he obliged.
In this week’s Torah portion, we read of midwives who are prepared to risk their lives to save Jewish babies, contravening the decree of the wicked Pharaoh. While there is much ambiguity surrounding their identity, the simple reading of the biblical text suggests that these were righteous gentiles, who risked everything, as the Torah says, for they feared the Lord more than they feared a human who imagined himself a deity.
Leo’s father had an accountant, Mr. Schipman, who, fast-forwarding some four millennia, helped save the family that night, offering them refuge. The young Leo Gans, and his family, by the grace of G-d, and the courage of this righteous gentile, would live to see another day.
Over the last year, Eva, Leo, and I spent many Friday mornings together in their apartment overlooking the Hudson, and one of the things that was most important to me to discuss with Leo, as the end came nearer, was this story. I wanted to review some of the details with him, to make sure that I had it just right for posterity.
I knew what we all know — the day is coming when those who lived these things will no longer be amongst us, and the stories of their salvation have become a sacred trust for us to bequeath future generations of our people, and all of humanity.
Leo’s Hebrew name, as you have heard, was Eliezer. And it is fitting that he should have been so called, for much of his story mirrors his Biblical namesake.
Our Sages tell us that Eliezer was the name of the anonymous servant to whom Abraham entrusted his most critical mission, of leaving the native soil of Canaan, entering a foreign culture, and with a wife for Isaac. As such, it is he who guarantees the future of the inchoate Jewish people. As we know, Eliezer achieves his mission with astounding success.
Leo, Eliezer ben Shimshon, began his very own mission into a completely foreign and new culture — he never completely lost his German accent — arriving on these shores in time for his bar mitzvah, and living in what was often called Frankfurt on the Hudson, in Washington Heights, at 125 Cabrini Boulevard.
He attended the George Washington High School, and, thanks to his keen mind and supreme work ethic, went on to become a chemical engineer. He studied at New York University, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, where he was assigned as a member of the United States Armed Forces as part of the Army Specialized Training Programs, and, then, after honorable discharge, he earned his master’s degree at Columbia University.
Like the molecules and materials that he studied, he was the perfect synthesis of creative and pragmatic, holding many patents in corrugated tubing, including many that were used in life-saving medical devices, and he rose to become president of Action Technology.
Leo wasn’t only building devices, and, by extension, a career, but a family as well. He met his beloved Eva, and together they raised their boys, Steven, Andrew, and Ron, of whom he was so proud.
I reminded Eva on Saturday night that one of the first things Leo ever told me, with a smile, and a twinkle in his eye, that he considered it amongst his greatest accomplishments that he paid four tuitions in higher education simultaneously, his three children, and Eva, who returned to school for a degree in computer science. They raised their family right here, in Teaneck, and watched with enormous pride as their sons, and grandchildren, carry on their legacy.
One of the strangest dimensions of the Biblical narrative surrounding Eliezer and his crucial mission is that his name is actually never mentioned. He is simply referred to as the servant, the eved, or the man, the ish.
In time, I came to appreciate how fitting this sense of anonymity was to Leo, our own Eliezer. Leo’s giving, his philanthropic endeavors, from right here in Northern New Jersey, at the Federation, to the community center he founded in Haifa, were done in his own way, quietly, without attention or fanfare, without calling any attention at all to his name.
And yet, perhaps nowhere did this sense of selfless giving express itself more than in his beloved synagogue, the Jewish Center of Teaneck. When our community faced dire financial straits, quietly, Leo stood in the breach. It is no exaggeration whatsoever to say that without his leadership, of course, along with Eva, I certainly would not be here, and we, as an institution, could not exist.
May we resolve that his modesty never blind us to the full magnitude of our debt of gratitude.
Leo’s departure leaves us all with a sense, as we read in Lamentations, on the darkest day of the year, yetomim hayinu v’ein av, we have become orphans, fatherless.
The loss of Leo is the loss of our communal pillar, a man upon whom one could rely, whose experience and judgment and sense of devotion to the Jewish community is simply not replaceable.
There is a startling, confounding rabbinic tradition that always bothered me. The Torah tells us that when Abraham heard of the capture of his nephew Lot, he took the 318 students of his household and pursued Lot’s captors until he was able to rescue Lot. The rabbinic tradition maintains that based on the numerical value of Eliezer, which happens to be 318, that it was really only one man who joined Abraham — Eliezer, his most trusted aide.
This tradition always bothered me. Numerical values aside, if the Torah wished to communicate that Abraham went on this most dangerous of missions only with Eliezer, it surely could have done so, by using his proper name.
I am no longer bothered by this tradition. The privilege of knowing Eliezer ben Shimshon, Leo Gans, resolved the difficulty. For the Torah seeks to tell us that every now and again, a single man comes along, who, in his motivation, in his service to the community, in his wisdom and vision, does the work of hundreds of men. Our Eliezer, our Leo, was one such man.
May his soul be bound in the bonds of eternal life.