Academic, Lawyer Phyllis Lachs Dies at 88

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Phyllis Lachs (Photo courtesy of Susanna Lachs Adler)

Phyllis Lachs, who died March 1 at 88, was a woman ahead of her time.

She spent most of her career on the faculty at Bryn Mawr College, where she received a master’s and Ph.D. in history and then became the college’s first general counsel after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law. She clerked for a Pennsylvania Superior Court judge and did a postdoctoral program at Yale Law School.

“Phyllis epitomized work-life balance and having it all, phrases that have now become commonplace in our culture,” daughter Susanna Lachs Adler, board chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said in a eulogy. “She was a pioneer who made it look effortless, when as we know, it was anything but effortless.”

Lachs was born in 1930, the oldest child of a native Philadelphian and a Russian immigrant. She attended Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel and went to Camp Akiba. During her childhood, her parents sponsored an Austrian family fleeing Nazi Germany, who lived with them for a time. This had a profound impact on Lachs’ Jewish identity.

As an adult, she belonged to Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood. Later, she joined Adath Israel in Merion Station. She was a supporter of the American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Israel Guide Dog Center. Tradition was important to her, and she hosted many Shabbat dinners and seders.

Lachs’ decision, in 1959, to work while she still had four children at home, was not an easy one, as she recalled when her granddaughter, Sara Adler, interviewed her for a college paper. She faced discrimination from employers and colleagues, and other mothers in the neighborhood made disapproving comments.

That decision may have been informed, Lachs Adler supposed, by her experience at Philadelphia High School for Girls and Wellesley College, as well as the fact that both her own mother and grandmother worked. In Sara Adler’s paper, Lachs said she was inspired by iconic feminist Gloria Steinem, who, when asked if well- qualified women entering the workforce would make it harder for average men to get jobs, replied, “I hope so.”

Her daughter, inspired by her mother’s example, also became a lawyer. “She was the first attorney in Pennsylvania to have her bar admission to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania moved by her daughter,” Lachs Adler said.

Lachs brought her pioneering spirit to other parts of her life, starting a needlepoint business called The Blue Thread.

“She was very kind,” Lachs Adler said. “She had dignity, treating other people with kindness and with dignity, giving tzedakah and making sure we felt that it was part of who we were to give back.”

Lachs is survived by her children, Susanna Lachs Adler and husband Dean, Michael E. Lachs and Joshua Lachs; her brother, Robert Seltzer and his wife, Ellen; and grandchildren Anna Tykocinski and her husband David, Sara Adler and Matthew Lachs.

Donations can be made to the Jewish Federation.

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