RABBI AARON LANDES, a revered giant in the Philadelphia rabbinical community and a major leader in the Naval Reserve Chaplains Corp, died April 19 at the age of 84.
The iconic religious leader — who stood at a towering 6 feet 2 inches — was known to be a living storehouse for Judaic scholarship and admired for his depth of character, acumen and somewhat patrician yet haimisch stature in the community. He served as religious leader of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park for 36 years, retiring in 2000.
He was once called “the kissing rabbi” for his warm greetings to congregants and friends alike, always offering his hand — and invariably a quip — as he met them after services or at the many ceremonies at which he officiated. At the time of his death, he was rabbi emeritus of Beth Sholom.
A summa cum laude graduate of Yeshiva University, Landes, a native of Revere, Mass., and scion of a family of rabbis, was class valedictorian as well as president of the Yeshiva student body. He received his rabbinic ordination and a master's degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary. He also earned a number of honorary doctorates, including one from Gratz College, over the years.
He was a sought-after speaker on Jewish topics and extended his knowledgeable reach to the Naval Reserve — where he managed some 700 chaplains in his position as director until he retired in 1989. He was the second rabbi — the first being the late Rabbi Bertram Korn of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, also in Elkins Park — accorded such a distinction.
His accomplishments and impact on the Philadelphia and national Jewish community were many. Thirty years ago the rabbi created a Hebrew Free Loan Society at Beth Sholom, citing “the growing problem of unemployment among Jews and also with cutbacks in government programs that might affect the Jews,” he told the Jewish Exponent. He saw the effort as a good way “for helping families through temporary crisis.”
His liaisons with Israel Bonds were longstanding, culminating in his being named national chairman of the organization’s Rabbinic Cabinet in 1997. He and his wife, Sora, prominent herself in the community for her activity and commitment to Jewish education — she headed up the Forman Day School for many years; her husband was a founding member of the school — were Bond honorees.
Other posts the rabbi held over the years included serving as chairman of the Jewish Welfare Board, Jewish Chaplains Council and the Philadelphia Region of the Rabbinical Assembly of America. He also was a member of the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Gratz College, Perelman Jewish Day School, Akiba Hebrew Academy and Jewish Family and Children’s Service as well as the Penn Marriage Council.
Landes was also associated with the Middle Atlantic Region of the National Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, serving as its religious adviser.
Through the years, the religious leader received a vast number of honors; those included the 1996 Keter Shem Tov Award, which he shared with his wife, from the then-Solomon Schechter Day School.
How do you size up a man of such towering impact and borderless influence? His daughter, Rebecca Kolman, described a father who was as elegant as he was energetic.
“He was the most genuine, caring, loving, good person who treated everyone the same,” she says. “He was nonjudgmental, spiritual,” but also well aware of the needs and demands of everyday life.
As a parent, Kolman continues, “of course, he wanted us to have strong Jewish lives, but he was also flexible.”
The same thoughts and vision that went into his meticulously prepared sermons also went into the advice he offered his children, she says.
He was a “go-to” rabbi in the community, one of those leaders who could be counted on to initiate projects and then follow through with them. Key among his concerns was the need for Jewish education and he was at the forefront of that mission in the community. Perhaps, adds Kolman, he was “most appreciative of those honors he received on behalf of Jewish education.”
Of course, the Naval Reserves also owned a big part of his heart, notes his son, Joshua.
“He was very proud of his military service,” his son says, especially of his successful efforts in convincing Annapolis to establish a chapel for Jewish naval servicemen.
He himself was a vigorous man, well aware of the need for good physical conditioning. Not one to stand still — or on ceremony — while awaiting a train at the Jenkintown Station, he could be found walking briskly from one end of the platform to the other.
"It keeps me in shape," he once told this reporter.
Everyone knew where they stood with the late rabbi. In essence, what you saw was what you got: a mensch of immeasurable character: "My father's public face and his private face were one," adds his son.
In addition to Sora, his wife of 61 years; daughter Rebecca Kolman and son Joshua, he is survived by daughters Rena Rank and Tamar Rapaport; and 12 grandchildren.