It’s a dark, overcast day as I reminisce about my maternal grandmother, Gussie (Golda) Langer Burstein. We shared a special bond: I was born on her birthday in Brooklyn, NY (Mom was en route to my grandmother’s birthday party when she went into labor).
I was named Leah Hannah after two of my Polish grandaunts, Leja and Chana, who perished in the Holocaust.
Raised in the hilly northwestern hinterlands of New Jersey, I had an upbringing that was starkly different from what it would have been in my grandparents’ neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Newark. Jews made up a tiny part of the population in my town. With few synagogues and limited opportunities to obtain a Hebrew education or kosher food, we were raised as secular Jews. Most of what I learned about being Jewish came from interacting with nearby Jewish families and classmates.
The remainder of my exposure to Judaism came from Grandma Gussie and Grandpa Morris, who were shomer shabbas (observant of the Sabbath) and belonged to a tiny shtibl (a small, informal place for communal Jewish prayer). Grandpa was a kohen — a member of the ancient Israelite priesthood whose members were descended from Aharon, Moses’ brother. Grandpa often served as a Torah reader or a gabbai, assisting with the Torah service. From the lace-curtained balcony, I could hear his sonorous chanting.
My grandparents had arrived in America in the mid-1920s. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and other agencies helped them settle in. They spoke almost unaccented English and their penmanship was beautifully distinctive.
Through my Brooklyn grandparents’ observance of Shabbat traditions, I learned how to kindle Shabbat lights, set a Shabbat table and put coins into the tzedaka boxes to benefit various charities. On Shabbat afternoons, I read issues of Gussie’s brightly colored Hadassah Magazine, which we stacked next to Reader’s Digest, The Forward newspaper and the Tanakh (Hebrew bible).
Whenever she could, Grandma took me along on her Hadassah “outings,” whether to solicit ads, collect donations of money or merchandise or attend a meeting of her Hadassah chapter. Those Hadassah women were a lot like my grandmother. Gussie was grateful for their acceptance, and she was legendary for the prodigious amount of change she won each week playing canasta and other games with her Hadassah friends. In addition, both my mother and I attended Hadassah events at the vaunted Catskill hotels (my paternal grandaunt Sylvia Glick Helfner lived in nearby Mountaindale).
When I was in high school and college, I participated in interfaith as well as interracial groups. I was one of the few Jewish attendees. I learned about other faiths as I delved into my own, trying to answer the many questions that arose in my mind. Joining Hadassah as a young married woman, I became part of a lively cohort in White Plains, NY, and, as the years went by, I was active in my local group, the Elana Chapter, and Hadassah’s Westchester Region, where I have served proudly in almost every capacity during the past 46 years!
On June 15, 1980, my beloved grandmother Gussie handed me a handkerchief with a Hadassah Life Membership pin inside; she passed away that night. After the burial and the week of mourning, I contacted National Hadassah Membership, which reached out to Gussie’s Brooklyn chapter to see if there was a record of the life membership she had given me. Indeed, there was. She had left me a true legacy. L’dor v’ d’or, from generation to generation.
My mother became a second-generation Hadassah life member and I a third-generation life member. I proudly made my daughter a fourth-generation life member when she turned 18 and I look forward to making my granddaughter a fifth-generation life member soon!
After 20 years on Hadassah’s Westchester Region board as the vice president of communications, I am now focusing on combatting antisemitism through social media posts and chats. I am teaching others how to understand peers who are different from them and reminding them of our shared humanity.
Hadassah is my home, my passion. It is my family and my creed. And it governs how I lead my life.