In 2003, my new friend and UNC Charlotte colleague Brian Cutler came over to tutor my son, Erik, for his bar mitzvah. At the time, we were both members of a havurah in Charlotte, North Carolina. We had met there during High Holy Days. Since Brian had just moved to Concord, where we both lived, he offered to help teach Erik.
To get to Sunday school or services entailed at least a forty-five-minute drive, if not, at times, a full hour.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to shlepp so far?” Brian asked. “It would be so cool to have our own havurah in Concord.”
“What,” I said, “you, me, and who else?”
I’d been living in Concord for twelve years. Until Brian arrived, I had never heard of any other Jew living in my adopted town.
Still, we agreed to look around. A week later Brian showed up for Erik’s next lesson and announced happily that he had a contact. I was thrilled. We might double our number from two to four right away – I had been given a name, too.
“I’ve heard there is a Jewish accountant somewhere in town,” I said triumphantly.
Brian started laughing. We had both spent a week looking, inquiring, sleuthing… and found exactly the same person: Samuel Leder.
Samuel had grown up in Whiteville, North Carolina. His Jewish upbringing included traveling rabbis and a small group of Jewish families. It was a tiny community, and close-knit. Samuel was intimately familiar with congregational life.
I knew and taught Jewish history; Samuel knew and taught me liturgical practice. When I forgot to give a page number, Samuel would riffle through the pages and kindly announce it, softly, himself. When I neglected to remember to remind everyone to stand, Samuel would rise firmly, signaling others, leading from his seat.
Samuel nourished our every effort; he supported our best hopes. He was invariably kind and gentle when we hit a bump in the road. He helped make a community. In truth, he helped make a rabbi.
I watched as Samuel went from one of Concord’s most respected business people to the first Jewish member of the Concord City Council and mayor pro tem. He became a close friend.
Two weeks ago today, Samuel died suddenly and without any warning from cardiac arrest. He was just fifty-one.
It was an unbearable shock. Unreal, surreal, impossible.
Members wrote me: He knew all the prayers they didn’t know. He helped when one of us was out of a job and went through multiple job searches. He was invariably gentle, kind, a mensch in every respect. How would we do without his booming, open laughter?
The town of Concord knew Samuel in so many ways. He was a respected and ethical leader, someone who cared deeply about the town he chose to live in—and all its people.
We at Temple Or Olam will remember Samuel as the only member who could chant Torah with a southern accent; Samuel’s leyning was both unforgettable and delightful. We will remember how he performed hagbah; when Samuel lifted the Torah, we’d see those three columns high and clear and our own spirits were elevated. We will remember him as the professional we relied on for communal help and advice. Samuel did our congregational taxes. He took care so that we could take care to remain ethical, transparent, and consistent.
As he was, so he helped us be.
Samuel Leder was a person of chesed, of sheer, unmitigated kindness. He was reliable, steadfast, and true.
Last night, our havurah held a separate memorial service of our own for Samuel. Neighbors and family members attended, including Samuel’s open-hearted wife Shannon, and his two teenage sons, Matthew and Bennett.
Whenever I led Shalom Aleychem, Samuel sang with a devoted, full-throated energy. Every Hebrew word was accented Southern, every note unforgettable for the love of God it contained.
In his honor and memory, we called in angels of peace, angels of lovingkindness. We asked them: Come in peace, bless us in peace, depart in peace.
We thanked Samuel for the peace and the lovingkindness he gave to all who knew him.
We will not forget what you gave us, Samuel. We will never forget you.