There are many issues that are on my mind these days. From the terribly restrictive abortion laws being passed in so many states to the increasing threat of anti-Semitism in Germany and throughout Europe to the overwhelming concerns of climate change, there is so much to think about and so much to speak out about.
And I have done and will continue to do that.
But, this morning, there is something else on my mind.
It has to do with a school building that I have seen literally thousands of times but never entered.
The school is called the Edward Devotion school and it is located on Harvard Street in Brookline, Massachusetts. The reason that I have seen it thousands of times is that it is located directly across the street from the synagogue I grew up in and the Hebrew School I attended five days a week during elementary school and beyond.
Now, it turns out that the person for whom the school was named, Edward Devotion, owned a slave in the 18th century and a decision has been made to change the name of the school.
Changing the names of schools or other facilities because of the history of the person for whom it is named is a rather controversial issue. But, in this particular case and for the purpose of this piece, I will push aside that aspect of the discussion and focus instead on the other question facing Brookline’s decision makers. Assuming the name is changed, what will it be changed to?
There have been several suggestions made for a new name for the Devotion School and among those, there is one that is fascinating to me and, while I don’t live in Brookline and there have no real say in the matter, I would vote for the school to be named after this individual.
Her name was Ethel Weiss.
Who is Ethel Weiss, you ask? I have written about her on several occasions and dedicated a few paragraphs of my book to tell her story. But, it deserves some elaboration.
Ethel Weiss died a few years ago at age 101. Back in the 40s, she and her husband opened a small candy and toy story across the side street from the Devotion School. The store, Irving’s, was a focal point of the community, especially for the kids from Devotion School and Kehillath Israel Hebrew School until it closed after Ethel’s death. Irving’s was such a constant part of our lives.
The store was small, just a proverbial hole in the wall kind of establishment selling penny candy, soda, snack items, greeting cards and simple toys. But, Ethel’s love of her customers, particularly the children, was so remarkable that anyone who frequented Irving’s will never forget it.
Ethel showed patience and care for each customer. She reinforced the students’ math skills while helping them make change. She knew so many by name and encouraged them when they had had bad days. She loved her work and loved her store and all that it represented in the community.
And, she had a phenomenal memory.
When I stopped by Irving’s with a group of friends as we toured Brookline on a break from our rabbinical convention during the 90’s, she recognized me and stunned me and my friends by calling me by my last name. It had been over 25 years since I had made my daily visit to Irving’s to buy a snack before Hebrew School but she knew my family from the synagogue and connected me with them with ease.
Several years later, I brought my own kids into Irving’s to buy something and to stand with them in this place that had meant so much to me.
What makes a place special?
A place is special when it is a place where you feel honored, respected and cared for. A place is special when it finds a spot in your memory that can’t be swept away.
Irving’s was that kind of place for me and Ethel was what Irving’s was all about.
So you wouldn’t think that this is only this writer reminiscing about his lost youth, take a look at this video. Ethel was featured a few years back on a national news program: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnzF2Rjtje8
In the long run, naming a school after a woman who ran a candy store may not make the most sense. But, naming a school after a woman who personified love, respect for kids and an amazing energy and dedication to those who counted on her may in fact make perfect sense.
I assume the school will not be named for Ethel Weiss.
But, I hope the powers that be in the town of Brookline will find a significant place to name after her. But, one way or the other, she will hold a place in the hearts of thousands of grown up kids.
May her memory be for a blessing.