We lost several icons and leaders over the past few weeks, many of whom we can learn from.

Among them were RABBI HAROLD M. SCHULWEIS, who passed away at 89, in December. A rabbi’s rabbi and mentor to many, he was an erudite man who enticed others to be better people. His message was that each person should discover the divinity within themselves. Some imagined that his voice was that of god. Over fifteen hundred friend attended the funeral of this leader of Temple Valley Beth Shalom in Encino CA; and no, it is not true that Rabbi Schulweis delivered his own pre-taped eulogy.

Schulweis, a graduate of yeshiva College and the Jewish Theological Seminary led Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, CA, a hop away from UC Berkeley for two decades, before heading south to Los Angeles where he grew VBS into one of the largest synagogues in the United States. He also co-founded Mazon; The Jewish Response to Hunger; the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous; and Jewish World Watch, a coalition of Jewish groups that supports survivors of atrocities in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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RUTH (Willon) POPKIN, a leader of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist organization of America, passed away this week at the age of 101. In the mid-1980’s, she served as the national president of Hadassah for half a decade; and helped the group to focus on advances in healthcare delivery, the use of imaging and lasers, and genetic engineering. In 1978, she served as the co-chair of Hadassah’s first National Convention in Israel (not a bad idea for a Zionist group). Three thousand delegates attended. In 1987, she was elected Chair of the Presidium and President of the World Zionist Congress, the first woman ever to hold those positions.

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Los Angeles also lost another leading rabbi in December. RABBI LEONARD BEERMAN, the founding rabbi and moral voice of the Leo Baeck Temple passed away at 93. A militant pacifist, he was a vocal critic of many Israeli policies, which made him a pariah to some. In his last public speech – during Yom Kippur services – he took the opportunity to lambast Hamas, but to also criticize the Israeli government for its was in Gaza. Although a pacifist, he served in the U.S. Marines during WWII and was a member of the Haganah while living and studying in Jerusalem. Beerman was active in the civil rights, labor, nuclear disarmament, and anti Vietnam War movements, and fought against the execution of the Rosenbergs. While nearly all U.S. synagogues have an Israeli and U.S. flag on their bimahs, he banned the flags from his pulpit.

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LUISE RAINER, a Hollywood ingenue, actress and award winning star, passed away at 104. The daughter of Heinrich and Emilie Königsberger Rainer, she was the first actress to receive back-to-back Oscars (in 1936 and 1937). She quit her film career, an autocratic Louis B. Mayer, and a Hollywood that she saw as dysfunctional at the peak of her fame. The daughter of a Jewish businessman, she was raised in Dusseldorf and Hamburg, and she fled Nazi Germany in the 1935. Albert Einstein was smitten with her, as was Clifford Odets, who married and then divorced her after a rage-filled relationship. In an interview four years ago in The Scotsman, Rainer said that Louis B. Mayer would not give her serious roles. “I was one of the horses of the Louis B. Mayer stable, and I thought the films I was given after my Academy Awards were not worthy,” she said. “I couldn’t stand it anymore. Like a fire, it went to Louis B. Mayer, and I was called to him. He said, ‘We made you, and we are going to kill you.’ “And I said: ‘Mr. Mayer, you did not make me. God made me. I am now in my 20s. You are an old man,’ which of course was an insult. ‘By the time I am 40 you will be dead.’”

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BESS MYERSON, the first Jewish “Miss America,” passed away at the age of 90 in Santa Monica, CA. on December 14. The three week delay in the public announcement of her death is an example of how the woman who once lived in the public eye lived her later years in obscurity. Ms. Myerson was crowned Miss America in August 1945, just days after the end of WWII. To some, it heralded a new post-War time in America when anti-Semitic barriers and hatred would fall. It wasn’t completely true, since many venues barred her from appearing and few sponsors wanted to use her to pitch their products due to her Jewish faith. The crown made her a national celebrity and a star of the nascent TV show, “I’ve Got A Secret,” but it also defined her so narrowly that she saw it as a hindrance. Myerson advised three U.S. President on commissions; led two New York City government agencies; was a candidate for U.S. Senate; and served as a successful cutting-edge consumer protection advocate. She also served briefly as a “beard” or assumed girlfriend for mayoral candidate Edward I. Koch; it helped him become NYC mayor. He later distanced himself from her when she was accused of trying to bribe a judge to help reduce the alimony payments for her boyfriend. An arrest for shoplifting, her involvement in a divorce, and the bribery scandal and indictment sullied her image which prompted her retreat to a quiet retirement and silence.

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Robert Wolfe passed away at 93 on December 9. For more than 30 years, Wolfe was the chief U.S. custodian and scholar of the millions of German documents the Allies seized during World War II. These records were stored at the National Archives. As the Washington Post noted, “Few people in the world knew more about the paper trail of the Third Reich than Mr. Wolfe, a son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and an Army veteran of the Pacific and European theaters of the Second World War. Trained as a historian, he became a leader among the postwar archivists who took on the enormous job of cataloguing and copying the military and government documents captured in Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Mr. Wolfe “provided for a whole generation or two of historians access to this remarkable trove of records that fell into Allied hands,” said David Marwell, a noted investigator of Nazi war crimes and director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. “There was no one who appreciated the importance of documents more than Bob Wolfe and the importance of [their] being available and well described.””

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Also lost was Mr. Ben Ammi Ben-Israel, 75, a former Chicago metal worker who led a migration of hundreds of fellow black Americans to what they consider their ancestral homeland, Israel. The followers of his African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem – currently numbering about 3,000 – referred to him as the father or the holy father. His followers first began to arrive in Dimona in the Negev in 1969. Many had sojourned in Liberia for two years first before proceeding to their promised land. The African Hebrews do not consider themselves Jews or adherents to Judaism. After many yeas of tensions, protests, anti-Israel speeches and immigration issues, in 1990, the Israeli government offered the African Hebrews a path to citizenship. Over the past two decades, the community has become famous for its tofu cheese and vegan products.

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One of Harvard’s most eminent scholars and teachers, Dr. Sacvan Bercovitch, passed away at 81. The child of left wing progressive Montreal Jews, he was named Sacvan for the convicted and executed anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. A resident of Brookline, Massachusetts, the former kibbutznik was an American Studies scholar whose most influential work, “The Puritan Origins of the American Self (1975)” argued that unlike other colonists in the New World, the Puritans saw New England as “a city upon the hill.” This “exceptionalist” rhetoric came to influence several successful political speeches in American discourse.

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