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Leonard Wasserman, Pioneer in Interfaith Outreach, Dies at 86

October 11, 2011
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Leonard Wasserman

 

Leonard Wasserman's life hadn't been touched directly by intermarriage, but that didn't stop the toy store entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist from devoting his resources and time to making the Jewish community more welcoming.

Many told him that a sounder approach would be to fund programs that help prevent intermarriage, but he read all the studies and drew his own conclusions.

Last week, the 86-year-old Bala Cynwyd resident died, nine months after receiving a diagnosis of lung cancer.He became chairman of InterFaithways and continued to be one of its principle supporters even as other funding sources for the local organization dried up.

"Len's passing is not only a great loss to his wife and family, but to the Jewish community. He was a visionary and understood the importance of inclusiveness and reaching out to interfaith families," said Ira M. Schwartz, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, where Wasserman had long served as a trustee.

His involvement in Jewish life didn't stop there. For 25 years, Wasserman was a major donor to the American Associates of Ben-Gurion University, sitting on its national board and serving as regional president. He was also a board member of the Abramson Center for Jewish Life.

"Leonard felt compelled to work on behalf of the Jewish people -- both Israel and the American Jewish community. His stewardship of our heritage knew no ends," Rabbi Lance Sussman, religious leader of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, said Monday in his eulogy at the synagogue where Wasserman belonged for 50 years.

Wasserman did not have an easy childhood in North Philadelphia. His father, Frank Wasserman, died when he was 6 and his mother, Bertha Wasserman, died when he was 12.

Raised by an aunt and uncle, he graduated from West Philadelphia High School before entering the U.S. Army in World War II. He served in both the European theater and later in the Philippines, though he did not see battle in the Pacific. His ship was crossing the Panama Canal when Japan surrendered.

Dorothy Wasserman, his wife of 64 years, said her husband earned a marketing degree at Temple University while running a restaurant downtown.

For the first eight years of their marriage, they lived with her parents in the Olney section of Philadelphia. He started a business selling cowboy costumes and toy gun holsters wholesale. He stored the merchandise in his in-law's basement and, when that overflowed, he rented out neighbors' garages.

In 1957, when toys were only carried by stores before Halloween and Christmas, he opened the first Kiddie City, in the Northeast, his widow said.

"He would always say, 'Toys are the tools of children,' " said Dorothy Wasserman.

He turned the store into a chain before he was ultimately bought out by the Lionel Corporation, where he went to work after the sale. He retired briefly but after the company fell on hard times, he was asked to return as CEO, according to Dorothy Wasserman.

In 2001, the Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia decided to honor the family, as Dorothy Wasserman had long served on the board. Feeling he'd personally done little to help the organization, he asked for a list of potential areas to fund; he chose interfaith outreach.

None of his four children married non-Jews, but he heard plenty of stories from friends whose kids had. Rabbis, synagogues and the Jewish establishment were, on the whole, far from welcoming, Dorothy Wasserman said.

InterFaithways had started as a project of JFCS in 1999, but Wasserman later helped it become independent, focusing on consulting with congregations, creating programming and even helping couples find a rabbi to perform an interfaith ceremony.

Wasserman, who also supported interfaithfamily.com in Boston, repeatedly made the case to Jewish communal officials and activists of the need to fund interfaith outreach, regularly showing up to meetings with notes to make sure he hit the points he wanted to make.

"He fought very strong headwinds," said Rabbi Mayer Selekman, board member of InterFaithways. "Where everyone else saw a problem, he saw an opportunity."

Last month, InterFaithways honored the Wassermans with a tribute event that featured a screening of film clips delving into interfaith issues.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his brother, Milton; daughters Bobbi Wasserman Koplin and Phyllis Wenitsky; sons Ted Wasserman and James Wasserman; and seven grandchildren.

 

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