More than 1,000 mourners packed the main sanctuary of Beth Sholom Congegation in Elkins Park on April 23 to pay tribute to and commemorate the life of Rabbi Aaron Landes, rabbi emeritus of Beth Sholom, who died April 19 at age 84.
The procession of mourners — family, friends, congregants, colleagues and a number of members of the Naval Chaplaincy Reserve, from which Landes had retired as a rear admiral in 1989 — formed a line snaking outside the synagogue’s main entrance to Old York Road, some 30 yards away. The crowded conditions caused a nearly half-hour delay in the services, which started with mourners still entering the sanctuary.
The rabbi himself would most likely have gotten a chuckle out of the tardiness. Hailed by some of the function’s speakers as consistent in everything he did and known by all as a man of punctuality and exactitude, he would have seen the irony in the delay.
As a religious leader whose warm welcoming of the Sabbath Queen at Friday night services imbued the weekly celebration with a comfort that often made the synagogue a serene haven for the heart and soul, Landes was feted in death for his depth of knowledge as well as feeling.
And there was much to be said. Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin opened the funereal tribute by telling how much he himself “had been taught and transformed” by his prominent predecessor, who “had a love affair” with his religion as well as his congregation.
Indeed, Landes, noted Glanzberg-Krainin, was a man of stature whose legacy of accomplishment was towering. Among those achievements was the creation of Beth Sholom’s daily minyan “club,” the so-called “minyanaires,” who Glanzberg-Krainin then called on — a group exceeding by dozens the requisite 10 men and women — to approach the bimah for a prayer in the late rabbi’s honor.
Rabbi Harold Robinson, director of the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council/Armed Forces and Services — whose job it is, in part, to recruit rabbis for the military’s chaplaincies — spoke of his colleague “as consistent in all aspects of his life; he was the same as an admiral as he was as a person” in facing his congregation, a trait he termed “unusual but so wonderfully true.”
He praised Landes as “an American rabbi and chaplain” who was always there to aid colleagues, no matter their rank.
To that end, Robinson revealed a special posthumous salute to the retired rear admiral: “The new siddur that we have just published, which will serve all the chaplaincies in the service, is being published in Rabbi Landes’ honor, with his name on the front page.”
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, and religious leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Forest Hills, N.Y., called Landes, his late friend and colleague, “one of the great rabbis of his generation, a model and mentor” to so many who followed him.
He was a man “who understood and respected the power of the pulpit, and to be in his presence was to feel that power.”
Skolnik also saluted Landes’ lasting impressions left on those in his presence, adding, with a smile, “No one looked better in dress Navy blues.”
Recalling a meeting he once had with Landes in, of all places, the food court at Woodbury Common, a premium outlet shopping center in Central Valley, N.Y., Skolnik said: “We chatted about family and he then put his very large hand — it was like a bear’s claw; he was a big man — on my shoulder and said that his family was his highest priority.”
Indeed, Landes, it seems, was able to create a favorable impression on even the most cynical of his own family. Skolnik recalled how Landes’ father-in-law — Landes’ wife, Sora, and her family were originally congregants at the Forest Hills Jewish Center — had once told him that he didn’t put much stock in rabbis — and that was putting it mildly, laughed Skolnik.
But there were exceptions, added Skolnik: “He told me, ‘I love my son-in-law — and I love you.’ ”
Few had a closer relationship outside of family with Landes than Chazzan David F. Tilman, chazzan emeritus of Beth Sholom, who was recruited as the synagogue’s cantor by Landes, whom Tilman served alongside the bimah for 26 years until 2011.
On this day, Tilman recalled those early Shabbat meals at the Landes abode when the cantor was still single, before marrying his beloved Ellen 33 years ago. “I was an ‘adopted son’ in their home,” he said proudly of the familial welcome he always received.
Not surprisingly, Landes, so well known for his campaigns on behalf of the need for Jewish education, was able to teach his young cantor a thing or two. “Evolution is better than revolution,” the rabbi taught him of his own approach to change in the congregation.
Tilman then left the microphone at the eulogy and walked over to the podium, where Landes, he noted, would give his sermons. “And I always knew if he felt especially passionate about a subject because,” and he demonstrated, “he would lean in and his foot would go against” the inside base of the podium.
There was no doubt about the rabbi’s passion, said Tilman. The bottom of the podium, he said, pointing, was worn out.
As for the seemingly patrician demeanor Landes carried on his stately gait, it only served to fool the unexpectant when they discovered the innate good humor and abundant warmth that radiated from the late rabbi. Who better to explain the surprise than a prospective son-in-law, which Tim Kolman — who married Landes’ daughter, Rebecca — was at the time.
As an outsider, he recalled, his first encounter with Landes was of a jolting kind. “He had such a towering presence,” he said. “And then, when I heard him speak the first time, I was sure he was from England,” drawing a big laugh from the assembled crowd so familiar with Landes’ elegant cadences.
“But then, I realized, of course he was — New England!” he said of Landes’ native town of Revere, Mass.
And, fittingly, the rabbi who once called Revere his birthplace was now being eulogized on this breezy spring day in his adopted home by those who revered him as a leader and mensch with a lasting, enduring impact on their lives.