My grandmother, Shulamith Soloveitchik Meiselman, was an incredibly special person. She combined great warmth and caring with a keen intellect and a zest for life and a resolve to work on behalf of her people, whether as a volunteer involved in the student Zionist movement, as a leader and teacher in the start of the day school movement and as the matriarch of her family.
She was born into a family of great rabbis and scholars; if she had been born a boy, her path would have been clear. Having been born a girl, she had to find her way. She did so with great success in her public and private lives, and did so with wisdom and grace.
My grandmother was ahead of her time. She learned from her parents that her role in life was not only to be committed to family but also to be involved in her community, to help build its institutions, to be a teacher of her heritage and to be a citizen of the larger world. Her work in the area of Jewish education—starting schools and helping lead them, building a national organization to support teachers and teaching, and being a teacher herself— was the way that she helped live out these commitments and foster them in others. Late in her life, she finished a book, the work of over a decade, entitled The Soloveitchik Heritage: A Daughter’s Memoir, telling a story of the Jewish people through the story of her family.
Life was never boring with "Granny," as her 16 grandchildren lovingly called her. Granny's life tracked many of the important moments in Jewish history in the 20th century.
Her family left the shtetl in 1920 to escape Communist-controlled Russia. In her teenage years, Granny attended gymnasium in Warsaw. In Warsaw, she became involved in the student Zionist movement. At first she went to one meeting a week and soon, she found that every evening she was participating in meetings. She explains in her book that “I decided to act; I’d had enough. I changed schools and resolved not to remain indifferent to the problems facing the Jews of Poland. I found a Zionist youth organization which was part of a national student network dedicated to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, based on economic, social, and political justice. I became very active and worked hard, with all the enthusiasm of my youth. Soon I was recognized as an important member and was elected to serve on the executive committee. My loneliness disappeared. I acquired new friends with whom I shared a dream to help establish a homeland for the Jewish people in the land of our forefathers.” Her first Zionist organization had no room for women in leadership so she went and helped build a different one. We have numerous photographs of Granny's student Zionist leadership group — a bunch of men, and my grandmother.
The other thing that stands out in the photographs from Warsaw is just how happy Granny looks. The years in Warsaw were good ones for her; she had a strong community around her, and she was feeling a growing sense of purpose and accomplishment in her work on behalf of Israel.
Granny's mother, Pesha Feinstein Soloveitckik, was a role model for her and instilled in her a love for Israel. Talking about her mother, Granny said, "She [Pesha] always talked about the land of Israel… we carried the values mother instilled in us… In fact, she was so happy when I won a trip to go to Israel [for my work on behalf of the Jewish National Fund].”
Granny came to New York with her parents and two youngest siblings just in time for the stock market crash. She studied at NYU in the mornings and worked in a factory in the afternoons. Times were so hard, that she couldn't afford to miss work in order to go to her own college graduation. Amazingly, five years after immigrating to the United States, Granny graduated with a BA in history. There were few jobs available. She moved to Boston and enrolled in graduate school and began teaching Hebrew School in Lowell. Thus began her 40-year career in Jewish education.
In addition to teaching at Jewish schools and being principal of a Jewish day school in Malden, Granny helped establish the Maimonides School. My grandmother used to tell us stories about the early days of Maimonides, of talking to people in the community to get their support for the school and of having many doors slammed in her face (because people were concerned that the new day school would make Jews stand out more, call into question their commitment to the United States and undermine their chances of getting ahead).
Maimonides was one of the first Jewish day schools started in this country. The model was unique: an Orthodox Jewish school which combined serious study of Jewish traditions, history and ancient texts with serious study of secular subjects. And boys and girls learned alongside one another, another unique aspect in the world of Orthodox Judaism.
Sitting at Granny's shabbat table, one could catch a glimpse of Granny's many passions and her core life values. Granny always had guests at her table. She prided herself in having an open door. Her home was a gathering place, much like her paternal home had been. Two kinds of discussions occurred at Granny's shabbat table. One was about history and politics. Granny's way of framing historical events as stories and providing her own eye witness accounts made such retellings come alive and feel palpable. Historical discussions often easily slid into present day political discussions. Granny did not shy away from sharing her views and she did not easily let anyone sit quietly by while these discussions were happening. There was no such thing as being a quiet observer at Granny's table. Being alive carried with it the responsibility to respond to what was happening in the surrounding world.
The other discussion was about the weekly Torah portion. Granny loved to talk about Torah, considering the narratives from many angles and inviting everyone else's opinions as well. While some might have grown tired of this conversation, Granny relished it as an opportunity to find new insights, to revisit and possibly shift past perspectives and to engage with others in Torah learning.
"Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh." This is a saying that had deep personal meaning to Granny. She cared about others and went to great lengths to help people, friends and strangers alike. We grandchildren experienced Granny's caring often. It was through the details of every day life that Granny continually expressed her love for us and taught us her most important lessons. And it is through the details of her life's actions that she continues to lead by example.