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Remembering Rabbi Lynne Landsberg

Remembering Rabbi Lynne Landsberg

Rabbis Lynne Landsberg and David Saperstein share a moment at a podium, both smiling, heads leaned towards one another.


This post is adapted from the eulogy given by Rabbi David Saperstein at the funeral service held at Temple Micah in Washington, DC on March 1, 2018. 

How does one convey what an extraordinary, inspiring, funny and beloved woman Rabbi Lynne Landsberg was?

Let me offer some snapshots:

  • Lynne Landsberg taking the stage by storm after a rousing show of the Village People to receive the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes’ Annual Award. Don’t ask me which of the Village People she most resembled that night.
  • Relatedly: The look on the long time EVP of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Rabbi Joe Glaser’s face, getting on an elevator at a Reform Movement gathering held over Halloween, when Lynne, always the most stylish dresser, even back in rabbinic school when the rest of us were in jeans and tee-shirts, was dressed up as Elvira. He was utterly speechless.
  • Lynne, face shining so brightly, talking about the life that she and her husband Dennis have created in Staunton, VA. Or talking about how so deeply proud she was of her son Jesse, of how he had grown up, of his interests and skills.
  • Lynne standing at the Interfaith Association of People with Disabilities conference last year with the Hon. Dick Thornburgh (who, as President George HW Bush’s attorney general, played a key role in guiding through the ADA bill) and his wife Ginny – together giants of contemporary disability rights – as she received the inaugural Thornburgh Family Award for contributions to disability rights. That day, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, conveyed in writing his own appreciation for Lynne's work:  

"By bringing people of diverse faiths and backgrounds together around the mission of expanding opportunity, you have helped shape a more inclusive future for generations to come. …While our work to uphold fairness and equality is unending, our country is stronger and truer to itself because of the progress leaders like you have inspired."

  • Or picture Lynne, in any cab after her coma, when she concentrated on learning to say words of greeting and thank you to any cab driver in their native tongue. She would get in the cab, ask where the driver was from and say something in their language. Their mouths would fall open in amazement, then light up in a smile. She seemingly did this in dozens of languages. 
  • Lynne, who added style to anything she was doing, instructing the staff that answering the phone was the first interaction the public had with the RAC, and the staff could not answer the phone by fliply saying “Center!” Rather, Lynne instructed that they needed to say, “Good afternoon, this is the Religious Action Center, May I help you.”  Sure enough, first time she calls in, someone answers with: “Center.”  Lynne’s exasperation breaks through and she reams the poor schnook out for lack of professionalism.  I’m sure my cheeks turned red as I confessed,“it’s me Lynne - I promise I won’t do it again.”
  • Lynne, working with her tireless, wonderful co-worker, her support, her talented and loyal assistant Monica McGowan, struggling to write and prepare a speech that would once have come so effortlessly and elegantly to her but, time and again, mastering it in a way that was more inspiring for the struggle we all knew lay behind it.


It was one of the greatest blessings of my life to have worked with Lynne in all four parts of her remarkable career:

As the congregational rabbi of one of the nations largest congregations and two of its smallest, which she chose to serve so she could build a community of Jews in which she could interact deeply and meaningfully with all of them; as an exemplary URJ regional director who represented what is best about Reform Judaism and our Reform Jewish Movement; as my full partner in running the RAC; and after those many weeks she lay in a coma with literally hundreds of rabbis and thousands of admirers offering prayers and reading psalms for her recovery. Lynne emerged from the coma and forged yet another vocation as such a respected figure in the disability rights movement.

She was simply extraordinary in each of these life chapters, making immense contributions to the Jewish people and to our nation.

As to our time together at the RAC, a thousand memories flood through my mind and heart: of political debates and tactical decisions; of late nights with the RAC staff, laughing, stuffing envelopes, eating bad pizza and planning our next big campaigns; of lasting achievements for the social justice we cherish today.

Think of what Lynne helped create at the RAC that we now take for granted. 

She began our weekly Torah study, helped me substantially grow our Black-Jewish programming, worked with me in writing and editing our Black-Jewish manual and our Black Jewish hagaddah. She played a key role on our anti-apartheid advocacy, memorably presenting Bishop Tutu with a 100K check from our Kovler B-J programs and meeting a few years later on behalf of the entire Jewish community in a one-on-one meeting with Nelson Mandela. She remained active in a range of interfaith coalitions as well as women’s rights and reproductive rights organizations serving for years on the national board -- and often speaking for -- the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, an organization the URJ helped form.

After her accident and recovery, she gave us 15 years leading our disability rights work as the RAC’s Senior Advisor for Disability Rights. She played key roles in launching and leading the CCAR’s Committee on Disability Awareness and Inclusion; our annual Jewish Disability Advocacy Day (JDAD) on Capitol Hill, and the Interfaith Disability Advocacy Collaborative, now with 33 national Catholic, Protestant, Jewish Muslim, Hindu and Sikh organizations.

And through it all, Lynne nurtured and mentored even more closely a new generation of Eisendrath Legislative Assistants. All of the Disability Rights LAs who worked with her since she returned in that capacity recently put together a book of tribute letters. Over the past couple of weeks [before her passing], she poured over them with relish, with laughter and with tears. They speak movingly and eloquently of her mentoring, her model of menschlekeit, her political smarts, her care for each of them. I only have time to quote from two of them – one from Deborah Goldberg now and one a bit later from Kate Kaput.  

Lynne would constantly encourage the LAs to consider a career in the rabbinate. As Deborah recalls:

She was the first person in my adult life to ask me if I’d thought about going to rabbinical school. When I said yes, she was a constant source of support and inspiration as I figured out if rabbinical school was the right path for me. She conveyed vividly how rewarding being a rabbi was for her. She showed me that every interaction was an opportunity for pastoral care. On every occasion, Lynne affirmed her confidence that I would make a great rabbi and that I could continue the work we were doing at the RAC by going to rabbinical school and being a leader in the Jewish community.

But when it came to challenging the religious communities of America to make inclusion of its diversely abled membership and community a moral and practical imperative regardless of what the law says about an exemption for houses of worship, Lynne was tough as nails. 

In a drash reflecting on the link between Haman of the Purim story and Amelak who attacked the stragglers during the Exodus, Lynne wrote:

It is especially fitting that Shabbat Zachor falls during the month of February, which the Jewish community has designated as Jewish Disability Awareness Month. The Hebrew word in Deuteronomy that we translate as “stragglers” — ha-necheshalim — appears only once in the entirety of the Bible. To explain its meaning, the medieval commentator Ibn Ezra suggests that its Hebrew root may have a meaning similar to a more common Hebrew root that means “to be weak.” As such, he took ha-necheshalim to mean “those who did not have power to walk.”

Who were “the stragglers in your rear”? They were the slow, the weak, the enfeebled — the invalids. Perhaps in ancient times, these people were, in fact, considered invalid human beings, and so the Israelites abandoned them, leaving the stragglers on their own to struggle at the rear of the Exodus.

We must never, never leave them behind again.

Or as she said in her speech accepting the Thornburgh Family Award:

Let us vow to raise the consciousness of houses of worship wherever they are, so when they meet such a child or an adult or a family, they already have their hearts and arms wide open -- evidenced by the fact that they have fully accessible and inclusive buildings, programs, educational opportunities and social events.      

(This was “audacious hospitality” before it had a name.)

Lynne, you were our matriarch, whose endless kindness for staff and friends whenever their needs, large or small, came to your awareness, enriched us all and strengthened our sense of community. You were our prophet, with that magical presence when you stepped to a microphone to galvanize and mobilize people to action. 

And yes, you were our Job, afflicted with more challenges for yourself and your family than is possibly fair for anyone. Yet, the steel in your soul; the boundless patience, love and support of your immediate and extended family and friends, so many of whom are here today or watching across America and around the world; and your unbreakable will -- enabled you to continue to achieve extraordinary things.

But above all, you were our Esther, that first women lobbyist in history. Even when you were uncertain if you could do it, if you could rise to the occasion, every single time you found the courage and strength to stand and preach truth to power for the vulnerable, the weak, the differently abled, and all those who needed a champion for justice and equal rights.

As Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, Director of the RAC said:

Lynne’s ferocity in confronting injustice needs to fuel us in the weeks and months ahead. She was willing to agitate with love, and push and push. When I get tired, I will be strengthened by my memory of how she overcame physical and mental obstacles to raise her voice time and time again.

So, on behalf of all those young leaders who our beloved Lynne Landsberg inspired, mentored, nurtured and helped, I give to one of those remarkable LAs the last word. As Kate Kaput wrote:

I have always been in awe of Lynne’s brilliance and drive, but the fact that it was always paired with such grace, humor, and kindness was what was most incredible about her. She was a rare combination, and it was one of the greatest blessings of my life to work with her and to call her a friend.

I cannot imagine a world – a Jewish world, a disability rights world, or a world in general – that doesn’t have Lynne’s light in it anymore. When I try to think, though, about what it will be like now that she’s gone? Well, there’s simply no such thing as a world without Lynne in it. Her legacy lives on in all of us, in me and in every single former RAC disability rights LA who has taken to heart all the many life lessons she’s taught us and carried them forth with us into the many corners of the world -- in the many kinds of work we do.

We will carry your light forward, Lynne, and the world will forever be a better place because of it – because of you and the gifts you’ve given us. Thank you for changing my life.

On behalf of all of us who mourn a passing and celebrate a life today, Lynne, thank you for changing our lives and forever, for inspiring us to change the world.  

Rabbi David Saperstein served as the director of the Religious Action Center for 40 years, before serving as the U.S. Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom. He currently serves as Director Emeritus of the RAC and a Senior Advisor for Policy and Strategy for the Union for Reform Judaism. 

Published: 3/01/2018