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Recollections of Herb Weiss

My connection to LSS goes back almost to the beginning. In the 1960s I lived on West 99th Street, and came down for Friday nights oneg Shabbats to the LSS, where a very young Rabbi Riskin was serving. In 1970 I moved to West 71st Street, and soon joined the shul. I was attracted by the crowds, enthusiasm and charismatic rabbi. The shul attracted huge crowds of singles from everywhere, not only New York. People would call the shul for Shabbat meals or a place to stay. A hospitality committee headed for a long time by Miriam Axelrod would come to the shul to make arrangements, and I got involved. There was a general feeling of hospitality at LSS. In contrast, I'd been a member for 20 years at another shul uptown, and probably invited only twice to Shabbat meals. At LSS I was invited almost from the beginning. I helped provide meals and sleeping in my apartment.

There were so many singles at LSS it used to be called Wink and Stare Synagogue. There was huge crowds at the Wednesday night lectures by Rabbi Riskin or guest speakers. As time went on, though, and rents in the area became higher, people had to move out, and the Jewish Center and Ohab Zedek have taken over singles groups.

There have been many interesting people visiting LSS, such as then vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman and members of his family, and Cameron Kerry, Sen. John Kerry's younger brother, who is a convert. One of the Kerry's grandfathers was Jewish. Barbara Streisand came before she acted in the film “Yentl”. Women said, “there's Barbara Streisand, wearing a mink coat”.

At one point, I noticed a little black boy coming to shul by himself, and once he sat next to me. I asked him his name; I don't recall his first name, but his family name was Baldwin. A few weeks later was his bar mitzvah. During the announcements, the president acknowledged the presence of his uncle, the famous writer James Baldwin.

There were interesting people involved in the shul as well. One was Charlie “Buttons” Nasofer. I understand that as a young child he was involved in an accident and unconscious for a long time, which changed his mental condition. He said he'd worked for the Post Office and was fired. He was very helpful to the shul in many ways, and even gave them money. He always wore overalls covered with buttons. Several people gave him suits but he never wore them.

Rabbi Herschel Cohen, who died some years ago at a comparatively young age, was a mainstay of the shul. He was my halachic advisor on food problems. A story: I'd bought some kugel with just a K. I called the manufacturer, and had to go through four people, but I was given the name of the kosher supervisor. I saw Rabbi Cohen in shul and asked him if the kashrut was sufficient. He didn't say a word, but just put his thumb down.

Rabbi Riskin has become one of the best known rabbis in the world for his scholarship and erudition. He's always been a very friendly man. One story: when my brother Al and I were sitting shiva in 1983 in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania for our third brother, a car came to the 7:30 am minyan. It was Rabbi Riskin, who had traveled with a couple of others some 100 miles.

The origin of my involvement with the LSS bikur cholim was through Dennis Nakonechny, of Ukrainian background. For almost two years, he was my Friday night guest. He started to go to Roosevelt Hospital on Shabbat to visit patients, and I followed him. I kept going for 29 years. (He made aliya to Israel some 30 years ago, studied at Brovenders, married, had seven children and five or six grandchildren.) The long term leader who's been going for at least 35 years is Howie Ziesel. What motivated us? We thought we're doing a bit of good, and it didn't take that much time from our Shabbat, when many of the patients, especially those who were religious, wouldn't have visitors.

Binny and Chashi Freedman, sons of Rabbi Paul and Nina Freedman, used to go on bikur cholim. Binny would come more regularly, and looked small for his age. He was bright and outgoing. The elderly patients would go gaga over him, he was so cute. When he was 16 he looked 13.

I think highly of Rabbi Robinson, a very warm man with a keen sense of humor. So too was Rabbi Saul Berman, a warm and friendly man.

I'm going to miss 200 Amsterdam Avenue; I'll remember it very well. I'll miss the davening. I remember the friendships I've made there, such as with Joe and Shari Sonnenberg, Cyrus and Judy Abbe, Barbara Ribakove, and Bill and Hadassah Greenbaum who were kind also to my brother Al when he moved to New York.

I've met up, sometimes by accident, with people whom I've hosted. A gentleman in a postal uniform stopped me on Broadway and asked if I was Herb. He said, “I was at your place 20 years ago”. There were a couple of shidduchim that began in my home.

One of the most interesting stories: I have a book in my home tracing my mother's family, the Kleins, going back to 1750. There was a young man who came to LSS, became observant, and I invited him many times to my home for Friday night dinners. At one point he told me he'd become engaged to a young lady from LSS, who joined him at my home on a Friday night. She saw my Klein family history book, and said “I saw this book also in Czechoslovakia”. On the way to a Holocaust conference in Israel, she and her family had stopped off in Czechoslovakia to visit a woman who'd been one of her mother's closest friends. That woman happened to be my cousin, and she saw the Klein family history book there. This young lady's mother had been in Auschwitz, and her father a partisan. I attended the young couple's wedding; there were about a half-dozen of us from LSS. I sat at a table with strangers, but saw a woman with a concentration camp number on her arm. She had been a roommate of the bride's mother in Auschwitz. I got goosepimples.

In November 1988, I spent about six days in Spain. I took a day trip from Madrid in a tour bus with about a dozen people to what was called the Valley of the Fallen. There's a huge plaza with a basilica built into the side of a small mountain where Francisco Franco is buried. A couple asked me to take their photo in the nearly empty plaza, and we began talking. The husband was Israeli, the wife American. I told them I was from the West Side of Manhattan. They said that they lived in the East 40s – but they attended LSS' beginners service. The wife was studying for conversion. When I came home, Rabbi Herschel Cohen said, “I understand you met my student”. On Shabbat, I waited to the end of the beginners service, and sure enough they were there! I invited them to Shabbat meals, and we became very friendly.

Al Weiss adds: I enjoy choral music. When I was living in Pennsylvania, the Zamir Chorale had a choral festival in the Catskills, and I'd drive up each year to attend. On the first night, there's a reception. At one reception, I was chatting with people I didn't know. I said my name was Alvin Weiss from Pottstown, PA. A young lady asked, “are you the brother of Herb Weiss?” I replied that I was not only his brother, but his twin, but why would you think this since I'm from Pennsylvania and Weiss is a common name? She responded that she just remembered that your brother mentioned he had a twin in Pennsylvania, and she'd been a guest at one of his Friday night dinners.

Wed, November 29 2023 16 Kislev 5784