A Life Of Kindness And Torah
Rav Goldman was the last of the European rabbonim in this city. He witnessed a world that no longer exists, and he planted seeds for the next world.”
That is how Rabbi Shmuel Irons, head of the Kollel Institute of Greater Detroit, eulogized Rabbi Dr. Leo Y. Goldman, 94, who died Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012. The rabbi’s funeral was held Saturday night at Hebrew Memorial Chapel in Oak Park. Burial was Monday in Israel.
Born in eastern Poland, Rabbi Goldman lost many family members in the Holocaust. The longtime rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Shomayim on 10 Mile in Oak Park, he attracted a following, including many Holocaust survivors.
“[In the 1950s], survivors started to come from Europe,” recalled the rabbi’s friend Michael Weiss, who spoke at the funeral. “They found a home in Shaarey Shomayim. They found a home in the home of Rabbi Goldman.
“And then the Russian people started to come. Again, they found a home in Shaarey Shomayim. Especially, he could speak their language.”
Son Joseph Goldman said of his father, “He epitomized what chesed [lovingkindness] should be. He also epitomized what Torah should be.”
One incident just after World War II ended had a profound effect on Rabbi Goldman’s life.
On Sept. 30, 1945, inside the near-ruin that once was the Great Shul of Vilna, Lithuania, Rabbi Goldman, then a Russian army officer in his 20s, approached a father holding his 5-year-old son.
It was Simchat Torah and, in a city that once called itself home to 100,000 Jews, of which 3,000 survived, the shul has been stripped of almost everything, including the Torahs.
Rabbi Goldman asked if the boy were Jewish, then said, “During the war, I traveled many kilometers as a soldier, and I did not see many Jewish children alive. May I take him as my Sefer Torah?”
In place of dancing while holding the Torah, the soldier danced while hoisting the boy who, to everyone in the sanctuary, represented the rebirth of the Jewish people.
Although they parted ways after that day, the experience had a huge impact on both their lives. Rabbi Goldman would devote his life to teaching and comforting the Jewish people. And the boy, who had been hidden by a Polish nanny and raised Catholic until the end of the war, began his return to Yiddishkeit that day. Today, he is well-known as Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League in New York City, who serves as a protector of the Jewish people and fighter against bigotry.
Although he never heard what happened to the boy, Rabbi Goldman’s memory of the story became the subject of a song, “The Man From Vilna,” which was written in 2004 after he met a Toronto songwriter on an airplane. The song turned out to be pivotal in reuniting the two survivors.
In 2007, Foxman shared his story with a group of Israeli soldiers and Birthright Israel participants at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel. Someone asked him if the soldier were still alive.
A woman who worked at Yad Vashem said she would do some research and find out. She found a story about the song in a Chabad-Lubavitch newspaper. Connections were made and, in January 2010, Foxman met Rabbi Goldman’s daughter Vivian Aronson in Indianapolis.
When she showed him a 1945 photo of her father as a Russian soldier, Foxman was overwhelmed.
On April 8, 2010, Foxman walked into Rabbi Goldman’s Oak Park home. The little boy and the Jewish soldier would be able to hold each other again.
“I’ve been waiting a long time,” Foxman said at the time. “It’s so emotional.”
Said the rabbi’s grandson David Brystowski, then 15, “It was an emotional and inspirational moment, like long-lost family members reconnecting. It is a feeling and a moment that I will keep with me for the rest of my life.”
Coming To Detroit
Rabbi Goldman was born in Poland in 1918, became a rabbi in 1938 and was drafted into the Russian army during the war.
He saw action, was significantly wounded and was moved further east to recuperate in an Uzbekistan hospital. It was there he met his wife, Sonia, a Lithuanian refugee. They were married in 1943.
After the war, they moved to Sweden and eventually to Oslo, where Rabbi Goldman became chief rabbi of Norway.
After a period in Oslo, the couple realized that Norway wasn’t a place to raise a Jewish family. Working through a Lithuanian refugee organization, they moved to Detroit in 1948, with the financial help of local philanthropist Louis Berry. There, the rabbi and Sonia raised three children — Joseph, Rose and Vivian
In Detroit, Rabbi Goldman became rabbi at several shuls, including the Tyler Shul and Young Israel of Northwest in Detroit.
In 1959, he built Shaarey Shomayim in Oak Park. After the synagogue was torn down to make way for the I-696 freeway, he led services at the Jewish Community Center in Oak Park as well as in his home.
Although Rabbi Goldman knew no English when he came to the U.S., less than a decade later, in 1957, he earned a Ph.D. in education from Wayne State University. He also served as a mohel for 40 years until the 1990s.
“For many years, I sat next to him in the Vaad HaRabbonim [the local board of Orthodox rabbis], many, many meetings, many hours dealing with the many concerns of this community,” said Rabbi Irons.
“I also sat with him at the Vaad HaChinuch [rabbinic board of education] at Yeshiva Beth Yehudah [in Southfield] dealing with issues that affected education, and education was very dear to him.
“And he could speak on the field of education with perhaps more than the experience that all parents have or all teachers have.
“He devoted many years and received a doctorate in education, and it was telling in the meetings.”
When Rabbi Goldman’s wife died in 1982, he became a chaplain at Providence Hospital in Southfield and Royal Oak-based Beaumont Hospital until he retired in February 2010.
“He would visit not only those of the Jewish community, but their roommates who were not Jewish and speak to them,” said Rabbi Irons.
“He left a rich legacy to all of those who were touched by him in this community,” said Rabbi Irons.
“He had such a deep and profound love of Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel], the people of Eretz Yisrael — such pride. In his lifetime, he witnessed a time when the center of Jewry was in Eastern Europe. Its heart and its mind were in Eastern Europe. He saw its total destruction and its rebuilding in Eretz Yisrael, and all it of its facets,” said Rabbi Irons.
Remembered Joseph Goldman, “The last time my father got up to talk, he said to his grandchildren, ‘Who would believe I am alive and Hitler’s dead? Am Yisrael Chai [the Nation of Israel lives]!’”
Rabbi Leo Goldman was the beloved husband of the late Sonia Goldman.
He was the devoted father of Joseph S. (Shelley) Goldman, Vivian (Michael) Aronson and Rose E. (Dr. Henry) Brystowski. He is also survived by many loving grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Interment was in Israel. Contributions may be made to Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, P.O. Box 2044, Southfield, MI 48037, (248) 557-6750, www.detroityeshiva.org; Yeshivat Akiva, 21100 W. 10 Mile, Southfield, MI 48076, (248) 985-1625; or Women’s Orthodox League, c/o Shaindy Freedman, 14640 Sherwood Court, Oak Park, MI 48237. Arrangements by Hebrew Memorial Chapel.
By David Sachs, Senior Copy Editor, and Harry Kirsbaum, Contributing Writer