Memories of Jerry Weiss

Jerry Weiss cropped 2I got to know Jerry well quite a few years ago when we were both appointed to a Shomrei committee no one wanted to serve on. Suffice it to say our assignment was unenviable and none of us wished to be there, least of all Jerry. But he graciously agreed to be co-chair, and he and Helen hosted our many meetings in their lovely home. Week after week, he held us together and steered us toward a conclusion with kindness and above all care for the future of Shomrei. I don’t think it was a coincidence that we all became good friends and remained so.

My friendship with Jerry deepened when he needed the help of the Mensch Squad, which it is my privilege to chair. Known in most congregations as the chesed committee, it’s a group of caring congregants who respond to needs of members– providing rides to the doctor, meals for those who need them, visits to the sick, cheering phone calls, grocery shopping, you name it. It’s my job to field requests from those in need and match each one with a mensch. With more than 60 menschen, we almost always deliver.  But I’ve never seen anything like the outpouring of volunteers who responded to any request from Jerry. As Carol Katzman pointed out, if you didn’t respond in 2 minutes, your chances of getting matched with Jerry were downright hopeless. I hated breaking so many people’s hearts, so I kept a list of the runners-up and gave them first dibs on future opportunities to drive Jerry to the doctor or to run an errand for him.

When it was my sad duty to inform the Mensch Squad of Jerry’s death, I received many, many reply-messages of love for him. Merrill Silver had the beautiful idea of collecting them as a tribute to Jerry that his family and all of us who cared so much for him could hold onto. Some of these are brief email messages and some were read aloud at the shivas.

Dale Russakoff

MERRILL SILVER

Only recently did I learn that Jerry’s name was really M. Jerry Weiss.  What could the “M” stand for, I wondered.  After much thought, I realized it can only be one thing:  MENSCH Jerry Weiss.

Jerry, along with his wife Helen, were pillars of our Shomrei community.  They never missed a social event, a service or an opportunity to be with people.  When Helen died, it was clear Jerry had lost his soulmate.

But even after the loss of his beloved wife, Jerry was determined to be a vibrant part of synagogue life.  I remember him at Shabbat morning services, sitting with a daughter or granddaughter, or with his aide. So happy to be there, he always had a big smile on his face and a hearty handshake.

If I were lucky, I would sit with him at the Kiddush.  He was always funny, inquisitive and knowledgeable about the latest current events.  He was a great listener – always interested in what other people were doing.  I knew he was an expert in children’s literature and when I told him my dream of being a writer, he encouraged me.  So when I started writing stories, I would send them to him.  He would thank me for sharing, when really, it was my honor to have M. Jerry Weiss read something I had written.

And speaking of thank you notes, Jerry always expressed his gratitude for a ride to a doctor’s appointment or for a meal.  What a treat it was to receive a hand-written note, full of his kindness and warmth. Or maybe even a phone-call. He was the ultimate gentleman.

May his memory be a blessing for his family and his Shomrei family.

DEANNA LONDON

This message arrived from Florida, where Deanna, a longtime congregant, moved several years ago. She stays in close touch with Shomrei and heard of Jerry’s death from Jerilyn Margulies.

I met Jerry and Helen about 36 or so years ago. What an amazing couple. Jerry was a soft spoken man, brilliant and charming. He had interesting stories from his travels and teaching. Helen was hysterical. Comedy was made for her. Helen broke her hip from a fall. I visited her in Mountainside Hospital just an hour before her surgery. She was happy telling funny stories and relating funny stories. They were the perfect couple and I loved them both. May Jerry memory be a blessing.

AMALIA NACHMAN

This is a very different kind of message from a 17-year-old in our congregation. During the pandemic, when Amalia was home from school, she joined the Mensch Squad and asked me to tell her of anyone who needed help. One day I asked her to shop for groceries for Jerry, and a day or so later, she called me in amazement, having received a handwritten note from him. She said he told her he was sorry he couldn’t thank her in person because of the virus, and hoped they could meet once it was safe to gather again. She took the initiative to get to know him through letter writing. They became pen pals, writing back to each other as soon as the next letter arrived. This is her memory of Jerry.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Jerry in person, however we kept up a correspondence during quarantine. During the beginning of quarantine I did grocery shopping for Jerry. After writing me a thank you note, we began writing letters back and forth. We talked about school, my future, and his past. Through these letters I got to know Mr. Jerry. He was kind, wise, and funny. I asked him to tell me about his life, his family. He adored his children,  that was clear, and was very proud of them. He wrote fondly of his family, and his earlier years, missing those days. I truly enjoyed getting his letters, excited to hear more from him. My last letter to him was to tell him the exciting news of my college enrollment, and how happy I was to be going to the perfect school for me where I could further my education and prepare for my future. I am truly saddened by his passing, and dearly miss him already. I wish I had the chance to see him in person and tell him how much our correspondence meant to me. I will carry his words of wisdom with me.  My thoughts and prayers are with his family, and our community.

JENNIFER MOSES

Jerry and I became friends when Helen was in the hospital, and I signed on to pick him up. I think it was on that first drive that he asked me what I did, and I told him, including that I’d just published my first YA novel. After that we were off to the races, or at least I was, finding in Jerry a friend, mentor, and source of unceasing support and encouragement. Not only did Jerry read—and critique–my manuscripts, but even when he pointed out weaknesses or failures in my narrative, he did so with the persistent tagline: “You’re so talented. You have to keep working on this.”  And so I went to Jerry, time and time again, not just for his professional insight, but for his straight-forward and never fussy or frilly encouragement. That he had faith in me, both as a person and as a writer, was a gift that he didn’t have to bestow on me but did anyway. He was the sweetest man I’d ever met.

On my part–as well as on my husband, Stuart’s–we tried to do for him what was his due as an elder of the synagogue, and so, yes, we did our share. Each time, Jerry thanked us, in writing. Indeed we too have a collection of Jerry’s hand-written thank you notes, invariably written on cards that come in the mail unbidden, from such organizations as The National Holocaust Museum or the Nature Conservancy. I’m not knocking it. Why waste a perfectly good greeting card? I do the same thing myself.

When I dedicated my second YA novel to him, he responded not just with heartfelt thanks, but by sending me a $100 gift certificate for dinner at La Corrone so that we might celebrate. I called to thank him and to invite him to join us. He insisted he didn’t go out anymore, and even if he could, he didn’t want to.  Stuart and I had a lovely dinner.

Not that I know anything, but I’m glad he died when and how he did, at home, in his own bed, while still in (relatively) good health, with his mind intact, and his heart yearning to join Helen, wherever she is. May his memory be a blessing.

ALLEN RAZDOW — from an email sent to the Weiss family

We may have met at the Starr’s in Montclair not too long ago, when I had a nice conversation with “M. Jerry”.  I hadn’t seen him for decades before that.   I’m writing with sincere condolences for the loss of your father.    I grew up in Montclair with Mike Starr as classmate and friend, and the whole Starr family as close friends ever since.   The story I recalled with your father that day was of when he ran “Saturday Minyanaires” group at the Temple for a short time.  Maybe you or another sister were standing there when we discussed it, but I’ll re-tell it below.

I understand if you are limiting attendance, but if not, I would love to have a link to zoom’s being held in his memory which David mentioned to me.

So, around 1959, Mike Starr, myself, and many other recently bar-mitzvah ’d kids we not too interested in going back to temple on Saturdays.  But to the community’s amazement, Minyanaire attendance rose and stayed high, because of your dad.  He handed out books over brunch, to take home to read and discuss the next week.  Not on Jewish themes, but essentially letting us be 13 years old’s attending an exciting LIT course with a college professor who knew how to relate to us.  Carson McCullers, Edgar Lee Masters and more.  We talked of race, religion, better than our junior high classes by miles.

But the real lesson came a few weeks later.  Some of the more conservative parents it seems, were not happy with the books and topics coming home from temple with their children.  One Saturday, we found Rabbi Schnitzer at the head of the Minyanaires table of bagels and lox, and we learned that M. Jerry would not be there anymore.   I know that none of my friends ever attended after that, and I believe the Minyanaires was abandoned.

I have thought of, and told of Prof. Weiss and the Mminyanaires countless times ever since those days, in many different circumstances to many people.  He had awakened our understanding of the function of literature in understanding life in such a wonderful way, and then by example, of its political implications.  I’m very sorry to know he’s gone.

With love, to you and your family.

JERLYN MARGULIES

Jerry and Helen Weiss were so welcoming when our shul in Nutley merged with Shomrei in 1994.  Helen was active in the Sisterhood and that’s how I got to know her.  Many of those meetings were at the Weiss home.  That is where I first met Jerry.  They made an effort to include the “newcomers” at Shabbos Services by always greeting us warmly and engaging us in conversation.

Shortly after they moved to their present home, I was invited to have dinner with them.  Jerry took me on a tour of the house while Helen completed the preparations.  That’s when he showed me his collections of books and other memorabilia.  Dinner was delicious and I asked for many of the recipes which Helen eagerly shared.  I continue to use them to this day.

That is also where I learned of their involvement in forming the NJREA, the New Jersey Reading Educators Association.  I taught third grade and Jerry immediately supplied me with books for my class.

I had always attended the NJEA, New Jersey Education Association, Convention yearly with friends.  The following year, as a member of NJREA , we purchased tickets to attend their annual breakfast meeting at the convention which was attended by two hundred teachers.  Jerry and Helen were seated in places of honor at the head table, leading the program.  Jerry had read and reviewed every new book, grades K through 12, that had been written and/or published during the past year.  Some of them were in galley form, not yet in print for sale.  He shared a brief review of those he thought the best, and each of us went home with bags full of books and posters for our respective classrooms.  I learned, as the year progressed, and the best new books were chosen, that each was one that Jerry had predicted would earn National Awards.  I never missed that NJREA  breakfast after that.  I have pictures of Jerry speaking at those meetings, which I placed in an album for Helen and Jerry, and I will send copies to Eileen to share with the family.

Jerry always approached me after Shabbos services to ask about my teaching and to offer more books for my third graders and for my nephews.  When my nephews visited and attended Shabbos services with me, Jerry always engaged them in conversation about the books they were reading and in lengthy discussions about their interests .  He would then supply them with books of that genre that he knew they would enjoy.

I looked forward to talking with Jerry at Saturday morning kiddushes and missed those conversations on the rare occasions when he was not able to attend services due to illness.  The service was never quite complete without him being there.

Jerry inspired me, was my mentor, and I will miss his friendship, wit, and guidance.  How fortunate I am to have known him and to have been able to call him my friend.

AILEEN GROSSBERG

Other than being a wonderful personal friend and a supporter of the Lampert Library with his wife Helen, Jerry was one of the most generous people I know professionally.

He was a well loved and respected children’s literature expert who was on every publisher’s mailing list . His home overflowed with books. Jerry always offered those books of Jewish interest to the Lampert Library. And then, when I became a school librarian , he would let me have books for my school libraries. It was like being a kid in a candy store to go over to his Montclair Avenue home, and later Wildwood Avenue,  and choose books.

Widening the circle of influence, he was a special guest at many professional school librarian meetings and conferences where we hung on his every word, mesmerized by his love of  and the the belief in the power of books and story.

I don’t think he ever knew how many kids were influenced directly or indirectly by his philosophy and love of books which he passed on to those teachers and librarians whom he taught.

Finally, Jerry knew every well-known writer. When I worked in Livingston and was looking for a “knock your socks off” author for a school visit, Jerry most graciously connected me with Jon Scieszka, who was extremely popular at the time. It was quite a coup!

Jerry and Helen celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with a dinner at Shomrei. Marc and I were privileged to be invited. The social hall tables were beautifully set and the food was elegant. I  especially remember the soup served in little pumpkins. But it was the range of guests that made this such a special occasion. There were Jerry and Helen’s Shomrei friends; local friends; professional friends and colleagues, and a panoply of stars from the children’s literature world. The Weiss’s friends and acquaintances went broad and deep. It was a lively, joyous occasion.

GILDA SCHWARTZ

I first met Jerry when I went back for my masters in the reading department of Montclair State University. At the time, I was a kindergarten teacher in Nutley and I needed to upgrade my skills.

I distinctly remember the first time Jerry came and spoke to my class. He and the professor, Dr. Maria Schantz, were close friends and colleagues. Jerry, visiting from Jersey City University, gave an extremely compelling lecture about adolescent literature.  I always remembered that talk.

Years later, when my Nutley synagogue merged with Shomrei,  I got  to know Jerry better. Both Helen and Jerry were extremely personable and friendly. I enjoyed talking with them over the years and I loved the lively and engaging programs Jerry brought to Shomrei.

He will be missed greatly.

SHIRLEY GRILL

So much about Jerry has been said these last few days that I feel my reflections simply echo those of people who knew him much better.  It’s the gift of books, the theater, the Sages.  What is unique is our individual responses to the Jerry tales.  Listening to the stories of the Sages, I realized that I replicated “Sages” with @ nourish, at approximately the same age Jerry was when he was running the Sages series.  Yet, as he thanked me for the @ nourish series, he never said anything about having done this well before me…it was never about him—his focus was on my success! These last months I felt particularly close to Jerry—wanting to keep him safe especially with Covid and Celia’s passing.  And each time I delivered something, I received a gift from him—a card—a thank you note signed love, Jerry.  I got so much pleasure from his cards that I finally responded with a hand written, mailed note—hoping to bring him joy too. Last week I went to CVS and bought a new package of notecards for my Jerry correspondence.  I never got to send him one.  Each time I use one of those cards I will remember Jerry.  Jerry, the humble; Jerry the extraordinary, Jerry the mensch!

RITA SINGER

Eric & I were in Cuzco on our way to Macchu Pichu in Peru. We met a young couple who were also on their way there. Of course, we asked each other where we lived, Millie Lee got very excited and asked if we knew Dr M. Jerry Weiss. Jerry had presented at a reading workshop she attended in her home town of San Francisco. She got to talk to him and he encouraged her to write a children’s book about her childhood experience of coming to America from China. She did so and it was published, thanks to Jerry’s kindness.

(Note from Dale: I looked it up and it’s still in print. It’s called Landed.)

CAROLYN LACK — as read at the first shiva

Since I’ve known Jerry for over 60 years, it is hard for me to pick just one memory. There are many. We became friendly when he moved to Montclair just around the corner from us,and joined Shomrei. Our friendship grew when his 3 young daughters stayed at our house while Jerry and Helen went to N. Carolina to attend his mother’s funeral. Our children were close in age and they went to the same school (Watchung) and we carpooled to Hebrew School.

In those early years, I remember hosting gatherings, so Jerry could introduce our friends to the plays that his friends wanted to produce. They were looking for backers.  I don’t remember if they got any, or whether their plays succeeded.

Jerry received many books from publishers for him to review, and he frequently   gave me numerous books for my children, as they grew up. This continued when I had grandchildren too. He would ask me for their ages and interests and would find appropriate books for them. I remember enjoying reading the books first, before setting them aside for the children.

There was a time that Jerry became active in local politics. He was friendly with Sam Rosenblatt, a past president of Shomrei, and was on the Montclair Commission. At Sam’s recommendation, Jerry led the group that was campaigning for Mary Mochary. That is one time that I had great difference with Jerry, as I supported the opposing candidate. Well, Mary Mochary won, but Jerry eventually turned away from her political philosophy, and we then were on the same political track.

We always had lots of interesting conversations about education, politics, religion, books, theater, and travel.

Since Jerry had contacts with theater producers in New York, he was able to get tickets at a good price. He added a little more to the price and started a yearly fundraiser for Shomrei, which was the annual Theater Party. Many attended and we saw some of the top shows. When ticket prices became too high, it was hard to add on more for Shomrei, so the event stopped.

Jerry liked to bring groups together for meaningful events. He thought there should be some activity just for seniors, so he gathered a group at his home, and we struggled and laughed as we selected a name for the group. We became The Sages, and had a monthly program with an interesting speaker, some being members of Shomrei. Those programs eventually were extended to the whole congregation. They continued for quite a while until Jerry did not get enough help from the group and it stopped.

Many years ago, a group of five couples of Shomrei old timers decided to get together monthly for dinner. This continued until the lockdown last year, but our group lost several people during those years. Last summer, our now small group, met outdoors on my porch, but Jerry was being super cautious and didn’t attend. I suggested that I could meet with him in his garden or mine, but he still was not willing to meet with anyone in person. I was amazed, in this last year, how content he was staying indoors and not even seeing people on Zoom. He never complained. He stopped using his computer. He was content reading, watching TV, talking on the telephone, and playing scrabble with his caretaker.

Jerry was fun to be with and enjoyed a good laugh. He had a subtle sense of humor. He loved bringing people together. He was a good listener, as well as a good teacher. Above all, he was a caring person… a good friend who will be sorely missed.

May he rest in peace.

MANNY SCHRAGER

Jerry Weiss – Minyanaire extraordinaire

Along with all the other things Jerry did for Shomrei, he conducted Sunday morning minyans for post Bar Mitzvah boys.  We were the Minyanaires.  Getting post Bar Mitzvah boys back to the shul on a Sunday would likely be tough for most, but Jerry had us all hooked.  We always had timely, thought provoking discussions after services, masterly coordinated and led by Jerry. Those sessions are some of my fondest memories of growing up in Montclair.

ANDREA SCHRAGER

We are so saddened to hear of Jerry’s passing. He will be greatly missed. It seems like yesterday that I first met them. I can’t pinpoint if it was before or after we were married but Jerry (and Helen) were so welcoming and gracious that I felt like I had known them forever. So bright yet unassuming, sharing his knowledge without condescension. A true mensch.

JOHN LASITER

This makes me so sad. He was so lovely.  He had a real interest in the theater and whenever I saw him we’d talk “shop” about the current state of theater. Now it will be crushing not to have an in-person Shiva.

LINDA ARIEL

I’m so sad. May our memories of him continue to teach and inspire us.

GERRY AND LINDA BLUME (summarized from their comments at the second shiva)

At the shiva, they recalled that Jerry and Helen attended every Montclair High School musical theater performance. Many years had passed since the Weiss children had starred on the MHS stage, but still, Jerry and Helen were there to support and celebrate the next generation and the next and the next. Gerry and Linda remembered telling each other: “We want to be Helen and Jerry Weiss!”

NATALIE BAFF

Bruce and I first met Helen and Jerry at Shomrei when we joined in 1981.  They were both very friendly and welcoming to us and invited us over one evening.  Through the years, we looked forward to their company at Kiddush and always enjoyed our interesting conversations.  We loved travel and cruising, as did they, so we had a lot to talk about.   Jerry and Helen were always there with a smile.
I delivered his Siddur to his mailbox before the High Holidays, and called him from the curb to tell him it was there.  We talked for several minutes.  It was so nice hearing his voice.
I attended his zoom funeral and Shiva and learned so much more about his life.
Jerry was so genuine, a real mensch.  He was important to us and will be missed.

DALE RUSSAKOFF

Whenever Jerry called to say he needed a ride or any help from the Mensch Squad, he’d begin by saying, “I’m sorry to bother you.” I never managed to convince him that hearing from him was a pleasure, not a bother—and that those who volunteered to help him did it out of love and the joy of his company.

Of the many memories I’d like to share, I have a personal favorite. In addition to the beautiful notes I received from Jerry, I have a magnificent collection of children’s books he selected for my granddaughter, who is now 3-1/2. I told him at some point how joyfully she responded to books, even as a newborn. From then on, he would ask me to tell him when I was going to visit her, and he’d give me a special picture book from his vast collection. She adored every one of them. When the pandemic began and I was reading to her mostly on FaceTime, I’d ask each morning which book she wanted (we have a lot of books for her, in addition to those Jerry gave me), and it was always one of Jerry’s. I faithfully sent him pictures of the two of us reading his selections so that he could see for himself how intently and joyfully she took them in. When the photos arrived, Jerry was at least as joyful as she was. Sometimes, I could swear his voice was catching. At first I found this amazing. Here was an internationally famous authority on children’s literature – known to English teachers as the “Brad Pitt of Reading!” – whose impact spanned hundreds of thousands of teachers and students, and he was getting emotional over one little girl’s response to a book he had given her. But then I realized that I was looking at Jerry through the wrong end of the telescope. He wasn’t trying to be the Brad Pitt of Reading. His mission was to make a difference for each individual child he encountered, because each child is amazing. And that is in fact what made him the Brad Pitt of reading: his boundless love and appreciation for each child as an individual who deserved to have his or her life made more meaningful through a love of books. It’s a legacy that will live on and on, as his countless beneficiaries grow up and spread that love.

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Dale Russakoff

Dale Russakoff

Dale Russakoff is coordinator of the Mensch Squad and co-coordinator with Shirley Grill of our work to house homeless families through the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Essex County. She and her husband, Matt Purdy, an editor of the New York Times, have been Shomrei members for more than twenty years. Dale was a reporter for The Washington Post for 28 years and is now a freelance writer. She has just finished her first book, published in September. Dale and Matt have two grown sons, Sam and Adam.
Dale Russakoff

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2 thoughts on “Memories of Jerry Weiss

  1. I am deeply moved by all of the personal stories related by our Shomrei members and curated by Dale. Jerry’s genuine warmth and authentic interest in each individual embraced all who knew him.

  2. Many thanks from the entire Weiss family for this beautiful tribute to our Dad & Grandfather (“Pop Pop”). The loving Shomrei Emunah community meant the world to him and we are so grateful for your support, always.

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