Remembering Samuel Mayer Leder, z”l

Samuel Mayer Leder, z”l

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.

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Little Shulamit

Little ShulamitShe is one of the best gifts I have ever gotten. Naturally, she came home and immediately found herself a space on my desk, just to the side of the computer screen.

She was given to me by two of my congregants after Yom Kippur ended.

“She looks just like you!” he said.

“We couldn’t resist,” she added.

Indeed, the first thing I noticed about Little Shulamit (besides the Torah scroll she held in her arms) was the fact that she was clearly either smiling a really huge grin or singing her heart out.

That would be me, at Kabbalat Shabbat services. Or at Religious School, dancing around with our kids. Or at… any number of congregational settings where the thing I most feel and most need is joy.

Perhaps this is what others need most, too? Last Friday, I watched a guest at our service dance with her little girl to a sweet and rousing rendition of Oseh Shalom. She clearly longed for the shalom she was dancing for. Her daughter felt as much, I suspect.

And then, this past Sunday, our newest member at Temple Or Olam sent me a note she had written to her adult children.

“We just returned from Friday services,” she told them. “Like nothing either of us have ever experienced – or imagined occurring – in a synagogue! It was like being at a wedding: food, dancing and singing… We smiled, laughed and sang throughout! The spirit of goodness, sharing and love was intoxicating. I am so glad I found this place.”

Is it possible to make an entire congregation drunk on kindness and goodness?

I could wish for such inebriation. I long for us to remember our vows at Yom Kippur to do better in the coming year, to listen and to forgive, to love.

Every time new members join Temple Or Olam, I take some time to speak to them personally about congregational life. It is hard work to maintain a community, to work with different personalities, to keep the spiritual flames alive while accomplishing the more mundane tasks that are so necessary to each get-together, each program, each communal moment.

I ask new congregants to remember, if they are hurt or disturbed by something I have done, to come to me, to speak with me or “softly and soon.” Go directly to those you might be having any kind of miscommunication with, I ask. Trust them to be able to listen and respond just as you would – with love, with hope, with conviction in the essential goodness and kind intentions of all parties.

Joining a congregation is easy. Staying with one is hard.

Congregations are made of fallible human beings. New congregants who believe (not infrequently) that I am their ideal rabbi will find out in no time that I am just as human as they are.

We all make mistakes and they are often serious.

But most mistakes are also less grievous than they may seem, and much more forgivable than we want to admit. It is, after all, mostly our pride that makes it so difficult for us to forgive others when we feel hurt.

So here, right on my desk, stands my little Shulamit figurine. She is innocent and happy and she loves her Torah.

I want to be like my little figurine: Singing my heart’s hopes to the Holy One of Blessing, wrapping the Torah to me, body and soul.

I want to be just like her.

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