One of the first things people associated with recently deceased Temple Rodef Shalom Rabbi Emeritus Laszlo “Larry” Berkowits was that he was a Holocaust survivor. One of his closest friends and former TRF education director Judy Seiff, said that while the Rabbi would lecture about the Holocaust, he would lecture about it in a positive way.
“He never dwelt on the horror,” said Judy Seiff. “If not for the kindness of strangers, he would not be alive and he shared that spirit.”
Berkowits passed away on Dec.13 of pneumonia at the age of 92.
He was the founding rabbi of Temple Rodef Shalom in 1963. The Hungarian-American took on the post as his first job after being newly ordained from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.
The congregation formed just one year prior from 37 families who were mostly attendees of the Alexandrian reform synagogue Beth El or new arrivals.
“Back in those days, most residents of Falls Church were either families that had lived there for generations, or government/military employees,” said former Falls Church native Noralynn Olom Harlowe in an email to the News-Press. “It was a small group, many of whom were Falls Church residents, who wanted to start a new synagogue. Now, of course, Rodef Shalom has over 1,700 households and is expanding their campus, due in no small part to Rabbi Berkowits.”
Before the key stone was laid on the current building in 1969, the congregation would meet in various locations within the City of Falls Church, such as an office across the street from City Hall, or Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, or even at the First Christian Church of Falls Church.
At the time of Berkowits’ retirement in 1998, the congregation had grown to 900 families. It is now the largest in Virginia.
“There are a lot of families that are deeply impacted by him, by his leadership, by his role as their rabbi,” said Rabbi Amy Schwartzman
“As a member of the choir for all those years, I truly cherished the moments when we could sing together, and I still get goosebumps watching recordings of his Levandowsi Kedusha,” said Falls Church resident Rene Andrews who has been a member since 1986.
In addition to serving as the congregation’s rabbi, Berkowits was an unofficial cantor and was known for his melodic singing voice.
“I think music is an enormous part of spirituality and in addition to traditional rabbinic roles, he was able to bring music to our community,” said Schwartzman.
After his retirement in 1998, Berkowits held the position of Rabbi Emeritus. This is a customary title in secular synagogue branches in which rabbis are unofficial members of the leadership staff in retirement.
“As the emeritus rabbi, he lived the good life,” Schwartzman continued. “He had the chance to do the things that he enjoyed doing and really not having to do the things he didn’t like.”
Schwartzman said he would be most heavily involved in traditional rites of passage and teaching.
He would always be a regular at services as well. Anyone who was enrolled in Temple Rodef Shalom’s Jewish education program up to 7th grade would get a talk from the Rabbi about it.
Judy Seiff described the Rabbi’s openness to talking about the Holocaust — an event that claimed the lives of his parents and two of his siblings — as an evolution.
“For many years he really didn’t talk about it, and for years, he talked about if the young people were not made aware of Holocaust survivors, then all these memories would be lost,” said Seiff.
Berkowits also talked to several area high schools and travelled internationally to talk about his experiences.
In 2001, he contributed his story to a symposium at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, which is based in Washington, D.C., on the Holocaust and Hungary for posterity’s sake.
“Every time I speak to people, especially young people in high schools, I am always concerned about telling the truth in a way that is not depressing, that might even be somehow liberating,” said Berkowits at that symposium.
Schwartzman said that his contact with newer members was more limited after retirement, and he would be more involved in life cycle events like bar mitzvahs, birthdays, births, and weddings for the people he knew before he retired.
Part of this had to do with the fact that Temple Rodef Shalom has grown so much that it presently employs three rabbis and two cantors.
She also said that the Temple Rodef Shalom of today has congregants from all reaches inside the Capital Beltway rather than just being a Falls Church institution.
However, a lot of City of Falls Church residents remember him particularly fondly given his relationship to the city.
Clare and Don’s Beach Shack and Lazy Mike’s Delicatessen co-owner Rebecca Tax, for example, counts Berkowits as a frequent customer to both her restaurants and employed his grandkids Zoe and Sam. She is a member of Temple Rodef Shalom and counts children Julie and Peter as close friends.
“He was such an amazing resource for all things Jewish, had a great depth of wisdom, and generosity of spirit. I will miss him dearly.”