Seymour Hefter, a"h, Experiential Jewish Innovator, at 92
Seymour Hefter, a creative powerhouse in bringing experiential Jewish practice to adults and children, died in his home, of natural causes, in Brookline, Massachusetts. He was 92.
While Mr. Hefter’s professional education was as a social worker, he focused his efforts on impacting the lives of Jews of all denominations in the different communities in which he and his family lived. Mr. Hefter was born August 3, 1927 in New York City in the then teeming Jewish neighborhood of the Lower East Side. His parents, Joseph (originally from Vilna) and his mother, Sarah (Orlich, originally from Warsaw) lived in a tenement along with Mr. Hefter’s older siblings, Meyer and Tillie (both now deceased). Joseph was a cardboard box street peddler; his mother was a homemaker. Mr. Hefter remembered having to help his father with his business on Sabbath mornings since he was off from school and being allowed by his father to leave a little time in the morning to run to the neighborhood synagogue for the final parts of the Sabbath service. His father was not a particularly practicing Jew and Seymour was thrust in a position of taking the initiative with his siblings to create Jewish experiences within their home. As a kid, Mr. Hefter also enjoyed playing stick ball in the streets and learning to play piano.
After attending the New York Public Schools and neighborhood Hebrew Schools, Mr. Hefter got his parent’s permission (he was then underage) to enlist in the Navy during the latter portion of World War II. He was stationed in the Great Lakes and trained as a Radar Operator. Within months of joining, the War ended, and he was honorably discharged in 1946.
He attended City College of New York with the support of the GI Bill, and had the fortune of spending a summer weekend in the Catskills at a kosher hotel with a few of his friends in 1950 when he chanced upon a beautiful woman standing near one of the tennis courts. Her name was Ruth Katzenstein of Washington Heights and she was intrigued by this energetic and handsome kid from the Lower East Side. They began dating and were married in September of 1951. The new couple spent two years in West Hartford, CT while Mr. Hefter completed his master’s degree in social work from the University of Connecticut (1954) while Ruth was a homemaker.
He was hired in 1954 by the YMHA of Elizabeth, NJ as a Program Director where he supported a variety of Jewish and communal activities and program including summer day camping. While in Elizabeth, Seymour (Sy) and Ruth had their four children, Jesse (Brookline), Seth (Jerusalem), David (Baltimore), and Jodi (Kvutzat Yavne).
Although raised in an urban setting, Sy had an affinity to nature that involved annual, family summer camping trips. During the two weeks after JCC Summer Camp completed and the school year began, Sy and Ruth took the family on tent-camping trips all around the northeastern United States. Sy loved the freedom of the road, following the AAA TripTik map, the setting up of a campsite, the effort involved in organizing his kids in firewood collection and then the starting of a campfire, swimming at a State Park lake, rowing and canoeing, and breaking out his horseshoe and dart sets and running family competitions. Sitting out under the stars, taking in a drive-in movie, singing around the campfire, and building family memories were a highlight of his summertime. Although not a Boy Scout himself, he made it possible for his three sons to be members of a Jewish Troop and his son David successfully reached the rank of Eagle scout, making his father and entire family very proud. Each son also earned the Ner Tamid Award, certifying a dedication to Jewish youth leadership; Sy was honored to participate in the presentation of the awards within his JCC organization.
In 1966, he was offered a job by the JCC of Wyoming Valley, PA as Educational Director. It was in Wilkes-Barre, PA that his earlier programming in experiential Jewish activities fully flowered. Over the next 30 years, under the initial guidance and support of the JCC’s leadership team of Louis Smith and Julia Lieberman, Sy produced a stream of innovative programs that captivated the imagination of their community and Jews around the world.
His simple vision of providing programming that would enrich Jewish lives included hands-on creation of a Shofar for the New Year, learning to build and decorate a Sukkah, running (literally) an annual Torch Race each Chanukah, developing a woodworking program to build personal groggers (noisemakers) for Purim, creating a new Haggada for a Tu Bishvat Seder (which he published), publishing a “Hefters Guide to a More Enjoyable Passover Seder” based on his accumulated ideas on how to enrich the Seder Table experience for all Jews, and a “Haggada” for celebrating Independence Day (July 4th) based upon his deep patriotic connection to the United States (this was distributed to military bases worldwide). Above all these innovations, Sy developed a program starting in 1966 that continues in the JCC of Wyoming Valley to this very day – a Tallit (Prayer Shawl) Design and Weaving program. As a way to celebrate life milestones, he enlisted the help and guidance of Ruth (a Fashion Institute of Technology graduate and professional dress designer) to assist in the setting up of an initial loom and a program for training community members in the creation of a personalized Tallit. Over the following decades, hundreds of Tallitot were produced and the program became a model for other communities around the United States.
As director of the Summer Camp of the JCC, Sy made sure to infuse the program with Jewish content, including pre-Shabbat programming, short Torah educational tidbits, Israel-themed activities, and Tisha B’Av commemorations. Summers at the JCC camping site also allowed him to play tennis with his kids, swim, challenge people to ping pong games, and, on rainy days, a good game of chess or checkers. He also enjoyed late afternoon sails on Harvey Lake with his son Jesse who spent college summers as a Camp Sailing Instructor.
Living in the Pocono mountains afforded the Hefter family the opportunity to learn to ski during the winter. Both Sy and Ruth took lessons and were able to downhill ski at Jack Frost Mountain along with all their children. Great family memories were made during those winters and today, their great grandchildren continue in the Hefter downhill skiing tradition. He was honored by the Association of Jewish Center Workers as “Center Professional of the Year” for 1982-1983.
Sy left Wilkes-Barre in the late eighties and he and Ruth moved to Brooklyn where he then worked at the Sephardic Community Center and later the Manhattan Beach Jewish Center. He and Ruth then moved to Belle Harbor, NY where Sy returned to his Social Work roots and was employed in several group homes for people who had been released from prisons, mental institutions, and hospitals. There, he enriched his client’s lives by developing a computer writing program, taking groups on a Movie afternoon at a local mall, and celebrating group milestones with special deli dinners (organized and purchased by Ruth). At the age of 86, Sy capped his over 60 years of professional activities by volunteering at the JCC of Cedarhurst to run a men’s discussion group once a week. He retired at the age of 89 when he and Ruth moved to Brookline to be near their son Jesse. Not surprisingly, he ran a Tu Bishvat Seder in 2018 at the Young Israel of Brookline!
In every community in which he lived, Sy was an active member of his local Orthodox synagogue. Attending daily, morning services was a staple of his daily ritual. In Connecticut, it was the Young Israel of West Hartford, in Elizabeth, Bais Yitzchak Chevre Tehillim, in Wilkes-Barre it was Congregation Ohev Tzedek (where he and his three sons were named official “Minyannaires”), in Brooklyn, the Young Israel of Avenue U, in Belle Harbor, Congregation Oheb Tzedek, in Cedarhurst, the Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst, and in Brookline, the Young Israel of Brookline. In every synagogue, he became a stalwart member of the daily Minyan, would assist in collecting charity donations during services, volunteered to read the Torah portions during the weeks in which he celebrated anniversaries of his parents’ deaths, offered to repair worn siddurim and chumashim covers and bindings and tefillin box covers for congregants whose tefillin boxes were worn out, ensured that young members of the congregation got opportunities to be involved in ritual activities and always enjoyed a small kichel, cookie or pastry and accompanying drink if available following morning services.
One of Mr. Hefter’s favorite Torah books was “Living Each Day” by Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski. For years, Sy kept a copy of a volume of the set in his Tallit bag and read a page a day along with dating the margin of the page with the date he re-read the piece. At family gatherings for years, Sy would prepare a Dvar Torah based on some teaching from this Sefer and refer to a set of three or four catch words to teach an ethical/moral lesson. His children and grandchildren reveled in trying to figure out what lesson would emanate from each “word” and Sy would, with light humor, test the listeners to remember the set of words. If there was a piece in R. Twerski about the keywords of Sy’s life, they could be “love, listen, optimism”. Sy leaves a legacy of love for the Jewish people, love for his Jewish community, his smile to everyone he met and his genuine interest and caring in their wellbeing, along with the importance of an optimistic and positive attitude towards life. No matter what befell him through life, and there were many challenges, he always saw his glass half-full. His entire family has forever been impacted by these three key lessons.
Mr. Hefter’s four children blessed him and Ruth with twenty grandchildren and twenty-four great-grandchildren (and counting) spread between Brookline, Baltimore, Silver Spring, and Israel.
May his memory be for a blessing.
- Funeral services have been held and burial was in Israel
Janet Strassman Perlmutter
March 19, 2020
How many lives one man has touched! I wear a tallit made at the WB JCC, as does my husband, our daughter, and all of my brothers . And that is just the most visible part of the impact on Jewish life for those of us who live or lived in Wilkes-Barre. To the entire Hefter family, may you be strengthened and warmed by fond memories.
March 19, 2020
Dear Ruth and family,My condolences to you on your loss.Mr.Hefter made a strong impact on my Jewish life while in high school and college.He was a mentor to me during my involvement at the W-B JCC.He recommended that I become a counselor at Cejwin Camp one summer while I was in college.The camp had such "ruach" and the Israeli dancing and singing has remained with me!Ruth,I have your hamentashen recipe and think of you every Purim.
March 19, 2020
Jesse - Donna and I were saddened to hear of your Dad’s passing. He left an incredible legacy and lived a wonderful life. We hope that your many special memories of your Dad will sustain you at this difficult time. You and your family are in our thoughts and prayers?
March 18, 2020
What a wonderful legacy of love. I grew up as a kid in the same apartment building as the family. A generous, giving, warm service minded gentleman. Mr. Hefter, may your memory be a blessing forever to all the lives you have touched and to your family.