Maureen Kendler: The lady on the bus, who led by example
I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones. I had the pleasure of Maureen Kendler z”l in my life for 20 or so years.
I had the privilege of teaching and learning with and from her in a variety of settings – from JW3 to Limmud, to LSJS, and more – and also the delight of working alongside her, and even, for a couple of years, the honour of being her boss when she became my Head of Jewish Literacy at the UJIA’s Department of Informal Jewish Education. During that period, she brought grace, wit and mischief to our team.
She made me laugh more than I ever thanked her for, and she showed herself to be a real leader, regardless of her position or title. She didn’t need a formal leadership title; she simply taught and influenced and led by example.
Like thousands of others, I have also listened to and learned from many of Maureen’s Pause for Thought contributions in recent years. I loved the calm, measured way that she articulated potentially complex moral and philosophical Jewish concepts in easily digestible radio broadcasts that made me proud to call her a friend. I recall one from a year or two ago where she taught “ve’ahavta leraycha c’mocha” (love your neighbour as yourself) in such a simple and beautiful way that all the listeners at home could understand – no matter what their background or level of knowledge.
She spoke about how her mother taught her to live life facing outwards by treating everyone well, and that she had taught her this by literally being an exceptionally good neighbour. She summarised by explaining that in this way, her mother taught her critical values by personal example – the Jewish value of “dugma ishit”
This particular Pause for Thought stayed with me because it felt perfectly appropriate that it was Maureen who taught it to the many thousands of listeners, because anyone who had the honour and privilege of knowing her, knew first-hand that she always taught us by example.
One thing that she taught by her example, was humility. She never sought the spotlight or the public recognition craved by so many others.
When I last sat with her, just last month, over a cuppa at JW3, I reminded her of the time a couple of years ago when I got on a bus outside the Centre, and spotted her sitting with the great Jewish poet and playwright, Bernard Kops.
I knew Maureen was a fan of his, and I’d sat in classes where she’d taught his “Whitechapel Library” brilliantly.
I assumed they knew each other well and were off to a meeting together. As I knew them both, I went over to embrace them.
I cheekily asked them what they were plotting, and only then discovered that it was just coincidence they were sitting together, that Bernard didn’t know Maureen, and that they hadn’t been in conversation at all.
I introduced Maureen to Bernard, told him that she was a fantastic teacher of literature, including of his works.
He was thrilled and flattered, and Maureen was modest, and slightly embarrassed. When I got off the bus, I left them deep in warm conversation.
Later that week I received an email from Maureen thanking me for introducing them and telling me they’d exchanged contact details.
She copied me in on their first email exchange, which she began with “Dear Bernard (if I may), I am the lady who sat opposite you and your wife on the 82 bus on Wednesday – on your way to the park- who was a little too shy to speak to you, despite being such a fan of your “Whitechapel Library” poem….”
To us, Maureen Kendler was one of the warmest and wittiest people, and one of most incredible and inspiring Jewish educators and leaders.
I suspect that to her, she was just the lady on the bus who was a little too shy to speak to the writer whose work she adored.
She will be missed by thousands.
Her passing is a huge loss to the entire community.
May her memory be forever a blessing, and may her very special family be comforted by their memories and her teachings.