I never had the privilege of meeting Connie Spear Birnbaum, who died in 2003 at age 48 of breast cancer. But as I’ve come to learn about her much too short life, it’s clear that she left behind a powerful legacy; a call for Jewish unity in our community.
Connie moved to Boston to pursue her Masters in Jewish Communal Service at Brandeis University. It was here that she met and married an amazing fellow, Dr. Herbert Birnbaum, and together, they raised a family. She pursued a vision for Jewish community that is even more urgent today than when she served as the Unity Associate for the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts. That awesome job title – by definition, working for community unity despite our differences – defined what she was all about.
In a 1989 interview, Connie replied to a question about whether there could be unity in the Jewish community, “There are, to be sure, many skeptics among us, but I am not one of them. Philosophically, I believe in the value and necessity of K’lal Yisrael (the Jewish People).”
To hear her husband, Herb, tell it, “Her work bridged congregations and denominations, helping those from all affiliations to build an understanding that no one group of Jews has all the answers to the exclusion of others. As in the post-Impressionist artistic style of pointillism, she saw beyond the individual dots of color on the canvas to appreciate the brilliance of the big picture.”
This is why the Jewish Community Relations Council is honored that, after 13 years of stewardship by the Synagogue Council, Connie’s family – Herb, and their children Benjamin, Ilanna, and Ariella – has entrusted us with the annual Connie Spear Birnbaum Memorial Lecture, to continue advancing it as a force for good and a signature event of Boston’s Jewish community.
This year’s lecture will be delivered on Tuesday, September 26th at Congregation Beth El-Atereth Israel in Newton. Our keynote speaker, Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, is the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City, founded in 1654 as the first Jewish congregation in North America. Through this lecture we also mark a return of the storied Soloveichik rabbinic line – merging tradition with modernity, science with Torah – back to Boston where his great uncle, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, lived and taught. Rabbi Dr. Soloveichik, whose topic is entitled, “Rembrandt and the Rabbis: What the Artist Teaches Us About Preparing for Yom Kippur,” will enlighten us about the Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn and his perspective on Jewish customs in preparing for Yom Kippur. The lecture is free and open to the public, though we invite you to register in advance here.
In these times when our community, and our society at large, are increasingly fractured in our civic discourse – unable to bridge our differences, struggling to find common ground – Connie’s attentiveness to all Jewish voices and interests from across our diverse community continues to inspire. Her legacy challenges us at JCRC to be the best we can be at convening the disparate parts of the Jewish community and weaving them into a powerful and united network. Her message – that none of us has a monopoly on the right answers, and that all of us benefit from the inclusion of each other in shared community – endures.
Connie’s memory is for a blessing. I invite you to join us in experiencing that blessing and legacy on September 26th.