Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner, president of Traditional Kosher Supervision, Inc. and a longtime teacher, died on Aug. 29 in Wyncote. He was 81.
Earlier this year, in April, he was still writing d’var Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.
According to his wife, Barbara Lerner, Rabbi Lerner loved learning, teaching and feeding his insatiable curiosity with a vast array of books and hands-on learning experiences.
“He had a tremendous interest in everything under the sun. He would read all sorts of things – from Jewish tradition to science and culture,” Barbara Lerner said.
The Lerners were married on June 11, 1957. The pair met on a blind date arranged by a couple the rabbi had introduced.
“On our first date, he said that we were going to get married,” Barbara Lerner recalled. “It was a very nice first date, but I had other plans.”
Rabbi Lerner brought his passion for learning into everything he did — especially his marriage, according to Barbara Lerner.
“When we got married, he was a poor rabbinical student. But he wanted to have a lovely marriage contract, so he taught himself calligraphy to be able to embellish as well as write our ketubah,” she said.
Before rabbinical school, Lerner received a master’s of Hebrew literature and ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
Rabbi Lerner went on to teach others calligraphy and included calligraphy in his Hebrew teaching at Jewish Community High School and any congregation he served.
“He felt it was a good way to help people understand the beauty and discipline needed in creating Torah and Mezuzah. While he didn’t have the certification to write those, he wanted to help people understand the beauty and discipline behind it,” his wife said.
His passion for not only gaining knowledge but sharing it with others granted him unique paths to making a difference in the lives of campers at Ramah camps in California, New York and Massachusetts, according to Rabbi Lerner’s eldest son, Reuven Lerner.
“At camp, in his disguise as an archery teacher, my father helped countless campers — especially campers who felt like social or athletic rejects — to feel like winners. He believed that anyone could succeed if they put in the time and effort,” Reuven Lerner said. “How many rabbis or teachers manage to get that point across to their kids? My father did it on the archery range, year after year.”
The rabbi also was well known by family and friends alike for his powerful sense of right and wrong, according to his wife and son.
“He cared about people. He cared about making sure that every voice was heard,” Reuven Lerner said. “And if hearing those voices ruffled the feathers of the establishment? All the better.”
This powerful sense of right and wrong was part of what led him to Traditional Kosher Supervision in 2011 which, according to Barbara Lerner, was able to meet non-Orthodox but stringent kosher standards.
Traditional Kosher Supervision provided consulting for caterers in synagogues, destination venues and hotels, as well as on-site instruction, leadership, staff and volunteers to maintain traditional kosher kitchens.
“He felt that people needed to trust what was going on, and that some certifiers were not trustworthy with his checking out some of their backgrounds – that they were putting certification stamps on things that were not, what he had felt, according to Jewish traditions,” Barbara Lerner said.
Rabbi Lerner also fought for women to be included in the conservative rabbinate. According to his wife, he spoke strongly about the issue in the synagogues he headed as well as rabbinical associations.
“I remember his enthusiasm at trying to allow women to be accepted as rabbis – and his frustration that it took so long,” Reuven Lerner said.
Barbara Lerner recalled an event that stirred her husband’s passion for the issue. Barbara Lerner had been teaching about prayer in some Jewish schools when the incident took place.
“I had been attending a minyan and they didn’t have the 10 men and somebody who was called in came in with grass clippings all over him, and that person was deemed more appropriate to add to the minyan than I was – and that riled him up,” Barbara Lerner said. “He felt that people who had the education and the knowledge were more important than their gender.”
After his death, the family said they received numerous letters and messages recalling Rabbi Lerner’s encouragement and kindness.
“At the end of the day, my father believed in people. He believed that people could accomplish a lot if they were just taken seriously, listened to, believed [and] treated with respect,” Reuven Lerner said in his eulogy.
Rabbi Lerner is survived by his wife, Barbara Lerner; their three children, Reuven, Shulamit and Avi Lerner; and four grandchildren.