On Yom HaShoah, I was talking to someone at JW3 about Corrie ten Boom, the incredible Dutch woman who saved hundreds of Jews’ lives in the Shoah, and was later honoured by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.
I mentioned her famous response to being asked why as a Christian she risked her life to save Jews: “You can’t love God without loving the Jewish People”. And I quipped, as I have often done in the past, that whilst I absolutely love the Jewish People, truth is, as a Jewish communal professional, it’s not always as easy to love all Jewish people.
My phone didn’t stop pinging with messages from friends and colleagues across the community sharing the tragic news of the untimely death of a really outstanding Jewish communal professional, Leonie Lewis z”l.
Leonie was someone who epitomised ten Boom’s belief, and who loved the Jewish People, and Jewish people. She took joy and energy from people and from community, and she served the community with such devotion that can only come from real love.
We learn in Parasha Vayekhel that when the Children of Israel collectively built the Mishkan – the holy dwelling place of God – they did you with “nedivut lev” – generosity of heart – and “nesiut lev” – because their hearts stirred them to do so. In all the years I knew Leonie and watched her build community, I believe she did so with absolute nedivut lev and nesiut lev.
I remember clearly over 15 years ago when she invited me to give a key note at a JVN conference she was running, that I used the full text from that parasha, focusing on the idea of how Jewish community can only be built by a critical mass of people – volunteers and professionals – working together, stirred by the generosity of their hearts.
After the talk Leonie made a beeline for me and was, as ever, extraordinarily generous in her praise and feedback. And I remember saying to her that it was in fact she herself who had inspired my talk as she was the living embodiment of this concept.
Leonie’s passing is a devastating loss to the community. She was a dedicated, passionate, hard-working leader, completely committed to community, and in my experience, extremely humble and unassuming. More than that, she was one of the loveliest, friendliest communal leaders you could ever hope to meet and serve alongside. I’ve known her for pretty much my whole professional career, over at least 25 years, and I had the honour to sit on various committees and panels with her over that time.
She was always one of my champions over my career, so supportive to me (and about me, behind my back as I discovered a number of times after the event). And every single time I saw her, no matter what was going on, she would great me with open arms and that huge beaming smile of hers, and say how good it was to see me, and ask how my children were and how I was – and I always knew she actually wanted to know, and that she cared about the answer.
Like a few other great women in our community who have died before their time due to illness in recent years, there may only have been a small percentage of the wider community who actually knew her name or had dealings with her, but believe me when I say that everyone who worked with her, knew or had any encounters with Leonie will, like with those over phenomenal women, be mourning her deeply. And that whether you ever met or had never even heard of Leonie Lewis, you will have almost definitely, one way or another, have been impacted directly or indirectly by her generosity of heart, her leadership and her contribution to the building of community life.
May her name and her memory and her legacy be forever a blessing.
Baruch Dayan Ha’emet.