Edward Ohlbaum, a towering figure of achievement and creative energy as a faculty member of the Temple University School of Law, a trial attorney, an advocate of children’s causes and a longtime leader at Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, died March 13 at age 64.
He succumbed to kidney cancer after a lengthy battle.
At Temple, which had been planning a tribute to salute his 25-plus years on the faculty, Ohlbaum was the architect of the nationally recognized trial advocacy program, which he committed to with the same passion he reserved for other causes close to his heart.
One of those causes was the Support Center for Child Advocates in Philadelphia, where Ohlbaum seemed to be ever-present.
Frank Cervone, executive director of the center, recalled him as a man of endless energy, offering a keen sense of commitment. Ohlbaum served the organization as a volunteer child advocate as well as chairman of the board and other board posts, in addition to being a consultant. And he did so without pretension.
“He was known to virtually everyone as ‘Eddie,’ ” Cervone relates of the man whom he said “had an uncommon blend of keen intellect, abundant warmth, intense trial experience, and a faith in life that infused his commitment to justice.”
That commitment proved invaluable in his work outside the child advocacy center, as Ohlbaum worked to establish the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which Cervone says “has helped exonerate dozens of capital convicts.”
His talents were evident beyond his work in the courtroom: “Literally thousands of lawyers across the nation, both former students and colleagues, attest to the impact of his exceptional teaching in evidence, trial practice and professional responsibility,” says Cervone.
Indeed, his teachings extended beyond Temple as he taught “Confidentiality and Ethical Dilemmas in Jewish and American Law,” a Continuing Legal Education course offered at Gratz College.
His teaching on the subject was integral to the understanding of Ohlbaum. For to know him was to know the key role Judaism played in his life.
Nowhere was it more significant than at Beth Am Israel, where he was a former board member and served on a host of committees.
One of his most prominent endeavors, says Chazzan Harold Messinger, was “leading family services and teaching the Torah. His teachings had a huge impact on parents and students. Indeed, people spoke of him as an exceptional teacher of both kids and adults.”
He was a familiar presence at the bimah, where he would often lead prayer services on Shabbat mornings, adds Messinger.
“He had a beautiful voice and a humble presence” that helped carry the impact of the service, supported by “a spiritual verve that completely embodied the prayer with voice and gentle command.”
His command of the law was on a different plane but no less respected. Ohlbaum’s award-winning work as an attorney started out at Temple law school, from which the New Rochelle, N.Y., native graduated after earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees — the latter in religion — from Wesleyan University.
His subsequent work on behalf of society’s underdogs was reflected in his longtime association and activity with the Defenders Association of Philadelphia, committed to clients unable to afford legal representation.
Ohlbaum’s awards were many, including the Temple law school Friel-Scanlon Prize (2001) and the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Cesare Beccaria Award.
Some of the biggest honors come now at an online memorial site set up by Temple, where those who knew Ohlbaum describe his mark on society. Noted one such respondent, Annie Wilson Ortiz, who had worked for the professor at Temple: “He told me the keys to success he strives to live: 1) commitment to excellence; 2) focus; 3) discipline. He was such a picture of each of these.”
To commemorate Ohlbaum, the Support Center for Child Advocates will name their longtime member and friend a Distinguished Advocate, to be celebrated at the group’s annual benefit reception on April 9. They also have established the Eddie Ohlbaum Distinguished Advocate for Children Award.
Before then, Temple law school will hold a tribute as well as memorial on April 4 at Temple’s Diamond Club. The law school has also set up the Professor Edward D. Ohlbaum Fund, targeted for the trial advocacy project.
With all the honors and acknowledgments, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that, according to Messinger, Ohlbaum once considered becoming a rabbi. After all, in keeping with his life’s work, what is a rabbi but a teacher?
He is survived by his wife, Karyn Scher; a son, Jake; and a sister, Estie Lipsit.