Rabbis, teachers, friends: 18 Jews whose deaths diminished our communities in 2021


This article was made possible by the generous support of Riverside Memorial Chapel, serving Jewish families across the  New York area since 1897. Riverside is dedicated to honoring customs and traditions in accordance with Jewish law, helping each family design a meaningful funeral that honors life’s memories. 

(JTA) — All year long, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports about the deaths of Jewish newsmakers in our community. To close out the year, we wanted to turn our attention to people who may not have been household names but whose stories deserve to be remembered.

We invited readers to share their remembrances of people they lost in 2021. Here, with their help, we recall 18 Jews who shaped their local communities and made a difference in the lives of those close to them. They include rabbis whose impact extended for decades, teachers who inspired generations of students and parents and grandparents who were the backbones of their families. May their memories be a blessing.

Rabbi Bent Melchior

Chief rabbi of Denmark from 1969 to 1996

Rabbi Bent Melchior and author Rachael Cerrotti exchange loving words during a visit in his Copenhagen home in 2019. (Courtesy of Cerrotti)

“I met Bent for the first time in 2015 when I was researching my grandmother’s war story. She and Bent were rescued on the same boat during the 1943 rescue operation of the Danish Jews. I walked into Bent’s home as a journalist and left with an adopted grandfather. We became increasingly close in the years after and even held each other’s hands as each of us lost our spouses.

“Bent was a beacon of light in this world — an example of how to live a life with purpose, with kindness, with reflection and with conviction. He helped me understand life after death, always encouraging me to lean into the sadness of my experiences as a young widow while simultaneously making room for and welcoming joy. In spite of being three times my age, he respected me as a thinker and as a question-asker. Bent and I traveled together. We revisited history together. We built memories together. He helped me uncover what it is that I love about my Jewish identity.

“No matter how serious the topic, Bent brought me down to earth. He validated my feelings while giving me guidance. He was a gifted listener and generous with his reflections. His liveliness will forever be missed and legacy will never be forgotten.” Rabbi Melchior died on July 28 at age 92. — Rachael Cerotti, author of “We Share the Same Sky

Rabbi Henry Cohen

A longtime social justice activist

“Henry was well known as the rabbi of Beth David Reform Congregation in suburban Philadelphia, and as an early advocate of social justice activism for American Jews. But for me personally, he was always there for me, first as a congregant and synagogue leader, then as I decided to enter Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as a rabbinical student later in life. He was a gentle soul with strong convictions, and had a real impact on my children as well.” Rabbi Cohen died June 18 at age 93.  — Rabbi Linda Steigman, Kansas City

Betty Kalikow

A balabusta in Kansas City

Betty Kalikow, whose catering business made her an institution in Kansas City. (Courtesy)

“​​It’s often said that in the Jewish communities, the caterer is more important than the rabbi. My mother, Betty Kalikow, who ran a Jewish catering company for 40 years in Kansas City,  died Dec. 6. She was 95. She was the author of two popular Jewish cookbooks, ‘Mom’s Best Recipes: 151 Jewish-American Dishes’ (1958) and ‘Grandma’s Kosher Recipes’ (1961). In 1999, she retired from catering, but continued cooking for the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City’s Heritage Center. When she retired (again!) in 2013, a colleague remembered, ‘Betty got along with everyone, never letting someone else’s ill temper get the best of her. Betty always has a kind word to say, and the most wonderful attitude of anyone I’ve ever known.’” — Nancy Kalikow Maxwell, Kansas City

Rabbi Reuven Bulka

As leader of Machzikei Hadas, an Orthodox congregation in Ottawa, he was known as “Canada’s rabbi”

Rabbi Reuven Bulka, seen in an undated photo, said people should ask themselves as early as possible in life: “What can I do to make this world a better place?” (Michelle Valberg/Machzikei Hadas)

“He not only did more to establish the Jewish community of Ottawa over more than half a century as its de facto chief rabbi, but his work at spreading kindness among all of Ottawa’s citizens, and, indeed, all of Canada, resulted in the government’s establishment of a national “Kindness Week” to take place the third week of February every year. After I moved to Ottawa to take up the position of director of education of the largest day school in Ottawa, I returned to the United States to take some more things in my car to my apartment. When I got to the border, the border guard asked me why I was going to Canada. I told him that I was beginning a job as director of a Jewish day school. He asked me if I had any proof, like a letter. As it turned out, I had nothing on me. He asked if there was anything else I could tell him that might convince him to let me go through. I thought for a minute and then said, ‘Well, I’ve become a member of Rabbi Bulka’s synagogue.’ He said, ‘Rabbi Bulka! Why didn’t you say so? Go right in!’ That was the respect for Rabbi Bulka that was held by the man on the street.” Rabbi Bulka died June 27 at age 77. — Jeremiah Unterman, former director of Association of Modern Orthodox Day Schools and Yeshiva High Schools in North America

Shura Vaisman

An immigrant from the Soviet Union who had an impact in science and Yiddish culture

Shura Vaisman was part of a group of scientists who studied the mechanisms of DNA repair, and she created some of the first websites devoted to Yiddish culture. (Courtesy)

“My mother was an accomplished scientist, a devoted wife, daughter, mother and grandmother, a faithful friend and colleague, an avid traveler, a talented maker of art and culture, a prodigious animator, illustrator, and creator. My mother displayed boundless determination, energy, and generosity in every part of her life — at home, in the laboratory, in her creative endeavors. And she insisted on doing it all with the rare combination of efficiency and exactitude, getting things done fast but right, quickly but perfectly. And she expected no less from everyone she cared about, pushing us towards excellence and inspiring us to reach far beyond what we set out to accomplish in our lives.

“My mother was ill for my entire life. But her characteristic persistence meant that sickness never prevented her from living every moment of the last several decades to the absolute fullest. She fought fiercely and beat back the cancer again and again, defying prognosis after prognosis until the very end, a few months short of her 60th birthday.

“In everything she did, my mother was exceedingly giving of herself, sharing her many forms of expertise and talent to the benefit of others. What an immense loss in what she could have yet achieved, and what a tremendous gift in all that she has left behind.” Shura Vaisman died Sept. 28.  — Asya Vaisman Schulman, director of the Yiddish Language Institute and the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program at the Yiddish Book Center

Dan Cedarbaum

An attorney and philanthropist who left his mark on Jewish education throughout the Chicago area 

“Daniel Cedarbaum, aged 62, passed away in July. Dan spent many years in lay leadership positions in the Reconstructionist movement, both locally in Evanston and Chicago as well as on the national scene. He loved Jewish learning, starting a Talmud study group in Evanston that I was privileged to lead for over 25 years.

“For many years he studied Hebrew with Professor Bernard Grossfeld from the Spertus Institute, and he also looked forward each year to being able to study in New York at Hadar. Through my involvement with the Chicago Board of Rabbis and Dan’s leadership role for two years on a federation synagogue committee, we established a series of study sessions crossing denominations that brought folks together for intensive Jewish learning. Dan ran with this and was the force behind One Jewish Evanston, which periodically brought together Evanston congregations and minyanim for joint meals and study and separate minyanim from which to choose. We worked together to bring leading teachers into Chicago for classes and lectures, always sharing the scholars with the rabbis for high level learning.

“His crowning achievement was the creation of the Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood, which has sponsored conferences and broader educational events. Dan loved davening, founded an egalitarian minyan in Evanston and was at home attending services across the denominational spectrum. Dan was a modest and brilliant colleague, loved and respected across our community by rabbis, scholars and lay people.” — Michael Balinsky, former executive vice president for Chicago Board of Rabbis

Avi West

A central figure in Washington-area Jewish education institutions for more than 40 years

Avi West was remembered as a “teacher of teachers.” (Jewish Federation of Greater Washington via Washington Jewish Week)

“Avi was one of the very first adults who I felt took me seriously as a Jew in my own right – not just as a kid, or a student, or as yet another participant/client in one of the Jewish institutions that he helped serve and service in his long tenure as part of the Board of Jewish Education in Baltimore. Whether it was through working together in Bnei Akiva, or when I was a participant in the March of the Living, or just as a Jewishly interested teen in the community, I always felt seen by Avi and I’ve always in turn felt that he was ‘the’ role model for how adult Jews can seriously engage with younger Jews — not through condescension or fear, which predominate in many Jewish educational environments, but just with seriousness and love for who they are and what they can become.

“In recent years Avi and I reconnected through the Hartman Institute’s partnership with The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, where West served as senior education officer and master teacher. I think we both got a kick out of working together as colleagues, so many years on; I certainly hoped he was proud of me, and I hope I was able to convey to him my appreciation for the quiet leadership and humility which meant so much to me and my journey, and left an imprint on thousands of Jewish lives in the greater DC area – probably on more than know it, and more than he had the benefit of knowing.” West died Aug. 4 at the age of 68, of complications from COVID-19. — Yehuda Kurtzer, president, Shalom Hartman Institute of North America

Howard Goldstein

An attorney and leader of Boston-area Jewish life who raised awareness about the risks of inheriting hereditary cancers 

Howard Goldstein was a relentless advocate for funding for prostate cancer research and awareness. (Courtesy of Goldstein family)

“Howie — my father — was so many things to so many people, and the world does not look the same without him in it.

“He was a pioneer in the field of collaborative law in Massachusetts, working as a compassionate and gifted family law attorney for decades and serving clients in their most challenging moments through his enduring belief in mediation as a tool to keep families emotionally intact at the end of a marriage.

“After his initial cancer diagnosis in 2007, he became a relentless advocate for funding for prostate cancer research and awareness. He also served on the board and was deeply committed to the work of Oneinforty, a nonprofit that raises awareness about the risk of inheriting BRCA gene mutations (which he had and made his cancer far more challenging to treat).

“Howie was also a committed political volunteer and advocate, and believed in politics as a means of uplifting leaders committed to the fight for justice, civil rights and fairness. He was also incredibly passionate about his Jewish faith and advocacy within Boston’s vibrant Jewish community — serving at different times in leadership roles within his synagogue, Temple Emanuel of Newton, and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, among many others. Howie’s final trip before his cancer made travel impossible was a long-awaited journey to Israel with me and my sister Jennifer. He was able to walk the streets of Jerusalem one last time, eat a good falafel (or six), and pray with and for his family at the Western Wall.

“Howie lived a life of authenticity and humility, eschewing fancy people and fancy things for the simple pleasures in life. He loved a good piece of lemon pound cake, a cup of decaf coffee and the privilege of being present around the table with good friends and his adoring family. He was a peacemaker and the purest of souls who could put people at ease by his mere presence, and the reverberations of his loss will be felt for many, many years to come.” Howard Ira Goldstein, 73, passed away on July 29. — Alex Goldstein, creator of Faces of COVID

Miriam Remz

Intrepid traveler and loving grandmother 

Miriam Remz was among the founders of the North Shore Jewish Center, then in East Setauket, New York. (Courtesy of Tamar Remz)

“Grandma Miriam laid the foundation for my love of travel and my commitment to Judaism. One of the most gratifying initiatives I’ve worked on as part of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s leadership team is bringing PJ Library to countries around the world. After visiting Jewish communities in far-flung locales, I would return, eager to share what I learned with Grandma Miriam. Inevitably she had been there too and would know more than I did about the community and its history.

“She took me to Spain and Morocco when I was 8, then to the United Kingdom, Spain again, France, and Italy, all before I was 20. After escaping Europe in the nick of time as a child, she arrived in the United States at 11, started college at 15, charted a professional career in accounting and business administration at a time when that was a rarity for women, and became a citizen of the world, traveling to more than 150 countries in her lifetime.

“Fiercely independent and filled with chutzpah, Grandma Miriam even traveled to places of questionable safety after being encouraged to reconsider. She never settled. I carry her lessons with me — in my work life, my personal life and my spiritual life, and never more than when I am on the road.” Miriam (Groman) Remz passed away from COVID-19 on Feb. 21 at the age of 94.— Tamar Remz, director, Harold Grinspoon Foundation

Michael Jeser

A consummate community fundraiser and role model

Michael Jeser was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of San Diego. (Courtesy Jewish Federation of San Diego County)

“My friend and colleague, Michael Lieb Jeser, died July 24 at the age of 45, after a multi-year battle with esophageal cancer. All of those who knew him as family, friends, lay leaders and colleagues are profoundly heartbroken. He was so smart and fun, so visionary, so young, with an adored wife, Laura, and young daughter, Eleanore.

“I first knew Michael when he was a student at Hebrew Union College and the University of Southern California. He received the same master’s degrees in Jewish communal service and social work that I had a number of years before. I followed Michael through his many professional accomplishments at the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, USC Hillel, Jewish World Watch, and as the director of the annual campaign for the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland. During the last three years, Michael was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of San Diego.

“Michael went through his life, his career and his illness like no one else I have known. Michael was a visionary, a Zionist and a skilled and devoted communal servant. When he understood how ill he was, he handpicked an interim executive, mentored her, and now she has been made CEO.

“Michael was brutally honest throughout his illness. His openness tore open everyone else to feel and to live and to love and finally, to grieve. One of the last things Michael did was set up a GoFundMe account to support Eleanore and Laura, once he could no longer do so. He raised almost $400,000 from 1400 donors from every corner of his life. His fraternity brothers started another account as a college fund for Eleanore. Until the end, Michael was the consummate community fundraiser and role model.” — Lois Nagy Weinsaft, nonprofit consultant, Executive Service Corps of Southern California

Arthur Rosen

 A diplomat devoted to the Chinese-American relationship and the Jewish connection to China 

“Art was a founding member of the Sino-Judaic Institute and long-time chairman of its board.  He was executive director of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations for over 20 years.

“A devoted Conservative Jew, Art managed to find synagogues around the world and to keep kosher during all of his Foreign Service postings and many trips to the People’s Republic of China for the Committee — including his first in 1975 when he accompanied our World Affairs Delegation headed by then-Rockefeller Foundation President Cy Vance, and had the opportunity to introduce U.S. Liaison Office Chief George H.W. Bush to Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping (an introduction Mr. Bush had been trying to get since his arrival several months previously).

“After retiring in 1998, Art continued to remain active with the Sino-Judaic Institute, promoting research on ancient Jewish communities in China and helping Chinese Jewish descendants reconnect with their cultural heritage. He served on its International Advisory Committee and offering his wise counsel to guide its programs. A mensch to the end, Art donated his body to science.” Rosen died Dec. 6. He was 99. — Anson Laytner, president, Sino-Judaic Institute

Bernie Alpert

A globe-trotter who made archaeology accessible to tourists in Israel

Bernie Alpert and his wife Fran founded Archaeological Seminars, offering tourists in Israel a chance to explore and dig for ancient artifacts. (Facebook)

For decades, Archaeological Seminars, the tour company that Bernie Alpert and his wife Fran founded in 1981, offered an essential stop for Americans visiting Israel: a live dig to excavate antiquities in Beit Guvrin. The Archaeological Seminars T-shirts they took home became an enduring souvenir that spread Alpert’s influence far beyond his hometown of Chicago. That was in keeping with Alpert’s globe-trotting lifestyle. An entrepreneur and marketing expert, he lived in Israel and England, volunteering with American Jewish World Service in India and Uganda and taking part in missions to bring Judaica to Jews living in the Soviet Union. (One of those missions ended with a daylong interrogation by the KGB.) Returning to Chicago in their retirement, Alpert and his wife devoted themselves to their children and supporting Jewish institutions, including their synagogue and grandchildren’s day school. Alpert, age 79, passed away Oct. 16.

Herbert Wander, Eddie Fox, Leonard Sherman 

Three local Chicago leaders who made a national impact

Leonard Sherman, Herbert Wander and Eddie Fox were stalwarts of the Chicago Jewish community. (Courtesy of Robert Kusel)

“This year I was privileged to deliver eulogies for three legendary volunteer leaders of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago and many other national and international Jewish organizations. They were also my friends.

Herbert Wander was always breaking new ground, whether helping to launch an innovative savings program that has sent countless teens to Israel, or pioneering our political lobbying efforts that have secured billions of dollars in government funding to help our city’s most unfortunate. Herb, a partner at the law firm of Katten Muchin Rosenman, also led a nationwide Jewish effort to fight apartheid South Africa, leading to his being one of four national Jewish leaders invited to meet with Nelson Mandela shortly after his release from prison. He died May 23 at age 86.

Eddie Fox was a Chicago guy. He loved the Bears and the Bulls, but the Cubs were his most favorite. (Two out of three choices is pretty good.) He also loved music. Our families began our seders each year by standing and singing ‘God Bless America’ and we ended with ‘Hatikvah.’ In many ways, those two anthems defined Eddie, who founded and co-owned Parkway Drugs, the last chain of independent drugstores in the Chicago area. He was a proud American and grateful to be one, and a proud Jew and lover of Israel. He played a key role in the establishment of the Illinois Holocaust Museum. And when scholar Deborah Lipstadt found herself facing a defamation lawsuit from a Holocaust denier, it was Eddie who insisted that our federation help her – and, so we did, becoming the first Jewish organization in America to support her legal defense. Fox, 81, died Sept. 26 at his home in Delray Beach, Florida.

“I remember real estate executive Leonard Sherman in a familiar look – beautiful suit, starched collar shirt, lovely cufflinks, gorgeous tie with matching pocket handkerchief – speaking at a dinner honoring ’36 Under 36′ recipients. The room was silent and enthralled, as he recalled years spent slogging through the South Pacific during World War II, where the only skill he learned was how to use mortars. When he mustered out, he couldn’t find a job as a mortar sergeant in Chicago, so he went to Palestine to see what he could do to help his fellow Jews. When he arrived, he quickly joined a military unit and trained others to make and use mortars. In 1897, his grandmother had been with Theodore Herzl at the first Zionist Congress in Basel. Fifty years later, on November 29, 1947, he was one of the thousands who stood all night outside the Jewish Agency building in Jerusalem awaiting word that the United Nations had approved the partition of Palestine. He went on to talk about May 14, 1948, when Israel formally declared independence, and how they were attacked on all sides by Arab armies. During the siege of Jerusalem Leonard was on a street with his unit battling to hold back the enemy forces. ‘There were a lot of shots, and the Jordanians were lobbing mortars from behind the walls in the Old City,’ he said. ‘We had no helmets, and so lying on the street I was struck in the head.’

“Those were the wounds that sent him back to Chicago. But he returned to Israel over 90 times during his life, becoming a major supporter of the Technion, and, in 2008, the State of Israel awarded Leonard honorary citizenship for his roles in building the nation and in the War of Independence. He died Nov. 17 at his winter home in Rancho Mirage, California, at age 97. – Steven Nasatir, vice chairman and former longtime president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago

Ida Nudel

A public face for Soviet Jewry

Ida Nudel and her faithful dog arrive on a private Boeing jet, owned by American oil billionaire Armand Hammer, at Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport on Oct. 15, 1987. (Wikimedia Commons/Israel Government Press Office.)

Ida Nudel was working as an accountant when the Soviet Union denied her request to move to Israel in the 1970s. The denial turned her into an activist and a small but powerful public face for the persecution of Soviet Jewry. She supported Jews imprisoned for their activism and their families, delivering needed supplies and making representations on their behalf. Soviet authorities twice sent her into exile, once to Siberia and then to Moldova. Her 16-year effort to leave the Soviet Union moved figures as diverse as Republican U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz and activist actress Jane Fonda. She finally arrived in Israel with her dog in 1987 to a hero’s welcome, flown in on a private jet belonging to Jewish billionaire Armand Hammer. Over time, she became critical of Israel, saying that it had not done enough to absorb Soviet immigrants like her. A dissident to the end, she died in September at 90 and was buried in Tel Aviv.

Margo Klein

A survivor who found joy and humor in a world that had shown her its worst

“My grandmother, Margareta ‘Margo’ Klein, was a Holocaust survivor who died on Nov. 10 at her home in Lod, Israel, a month shy of her 100th birthday. She was brave, boisterous, deeply wise, and had an enormous heart. She was also hilarious and incredibly hopeful.

“I was blessed to grow up knowing my four grandparents, each of whom survived concentration camps, returned to little or no family after the war, and rebuilt their lives. More than my other three grandparents, Savta Margo talked a lot about her experiences during the war. She told her story at my high school on Holocaust Remembrance Day and recorded her survivor testimony for Holocaust video archives in Israel and the United States. Even though I’m not sure she ever quite understood the social justice work I do professionally, I do know it made her proud that my family’s history of persecution motivated me to work for a better world.

“Margo was relentlessly optimistic and had a wonderfully mischievous sense of humor. Somehow, that hopefulness and capacity to find joy and humor in the world lived alongside the deep pain she always carried at losing her parents at a young age. Over the years, I became accustomed to her sudden return to that most awful moment when she was pushed off the cattle car upon arriving at Auschwitz and felt her mother’s hand slip away.

“She loved Hungarian stuffed cabbage — the more sour, the better — falafel stuffed in pita with french fries, and chocolate cake. She loved her home in Moshav Ben Shemen where she and my late grandfather raised my father and his two younger brothers after the family moved from Baie-Mare in Transylvania to Israel in 1961. My grandparents lived in a tiny stone cottage surrounded by palm trees, bougainvillea and eucalyptus. To me, the wild, exuberant growth felt like the triumph of my Savta’s life. She survived what she was never meant to survive as a 22-year-old woman and then rebuilt her life with determination and hope. A month after she died, I toasted her with a shot of her pomegranate liqueur (‘a la Margo,’ she called it) — sweetness and warmth, with a kick. That was Margo.” — Idit Klein, president and CEO of Keshet 

Joyce Newmark

A rabbi who won on “Jeopardy!”

Rabbi Joyce Newmark, shown with “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek, won $29,200 and the championship in her first appearance on the game show, which aired May 16, 2011. (Courtesy of Jeopardy Productions, Inc.)

“I considered Joyce a ‘kiddush’ friend, the kind you run into once a week after services and chat up over kugel and tuna fish. I always enjoyed our conversations, so long as we steered clear of politics (we didn’t agree on much). She’d reminisce about her career before she became a rabbi (she spent more than 15 years in management consulting and banking). And she’d share a little Torah, often quoting herself — which I, a habitual self-quoter, found endearing.

“But the most significant moment I spent with Joyce in our synagogue’s social hall was on May 16, 2011. That was when she won $29,200 on ‘Jeopardy! with her fellow congregants cheering her on.

“The victory was especially sweet if you knew Joyce: She could come off as forbidding, especially if you couldn’t keep up with her knowledge of Torah, science fiction and current events. She lived alone and suffered from various ailments, which contributed to her death in October at 73. But those who got to know her appreciated her sharp mind and keen wit, which she showed off when she chatted with Alex Trebek.

“Joyce reveled in her attention as a ‘Jeopardy!’ winner and the flurry of media attention that followed. She would spin tales of the process, from auditions to taping to the community of former players who met and chatted online. She was part of an elite club, and knew it, and nobody could begrudge her. When Alex Trebek died last year, I spoke to her about what he meant to her.

“‘He was the kind of person who competes on “Jeopardy!”‘ she told me. ‘He loved odd facts and read books and appreciated “knowledge lishma” [for its own sake]. He just loved learning.’ I am pretty sure she was also describing herself.” — Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor in chief, New York Jewish Week

Recommended from JTA