Passionate Activist, Zionist, and Teacher of Children
by Lisa Presman
The American Jewish experience is not boilerplate. Each story is unique. Each story has a rich and varied tapestry. Lorna Szefler’s is one of these stories. As a board member since 1991 (including the role of chairperson from 2011 to 2015) and a Ba’al Kriah and service leader, Lorna is an integral part of the fabric of life at Kehillat Netzach Israel. She is following in the footsteps of her parents who made Aaliyah before her and found a home and community at the Kehillah paving the way for their daughter and her family.
Lorna grew up in Chicago, Illinois. Her father, a Jewish boy from the Bronx, left New York for med school in Chicago. He met another newcomer Jewish girl and they settled down in the ‘windy city.’ It was important for him to practice medicine where the need was greatest and that was in the southern part of Chicago far from the traditional Jewish community of the City.
Lorna’s home growing up was filled with Jewish life. Shabbat and the haggim played important roles in their lives. “Anything dealing with services and praying had a certain fascination for me.” Learning about Judaism and understanding the traditions was a central theme of her young life. Meeting Jewish friends, for the first time in high school, was the catalyst for in-depth investigations into her heritage that continue today. Her thirst for Jewish knowledge is unquenchable.
Lorna learned very early in life the importance of caring for others and the power of learning. Her mother was the perfect role model: Den Mother of her Brownie troop, the PTA (Parent, Teachers Association), Hadassah, the League of Women Voters, the Shul Sisterhood and Jewish Women' League, the League for Freeing Soviet Jews and at least 5 other organisations. “I had all of these things, drifting down into my consciousness and it had a profound effect on my activism.”
When she was only seven years old she read a book called, Follow My Leader, about a boy who was blind. “It had absolutely the most profound effect on me. Not only did I want to work in special education, I wanted to work with the blind.” One of her mother’s projects with the Jewish Women's League, was to embroider books with the Braille alphabet. Her mother bought a Braille typewriter. Indeed, it was Lorna, as a teen, who taught herself to use it and hoped to become qualified as a Braille typist.
Her love of learning was forged by her father. “My Dad was very interested in Judaism and study.” He was always on a journey to enrich his Jewish life even after he and her mom made Aliyah. Lorna wanted to have her father’s level of study and her mother's level of activism.
Her fascination with Israel began like many American kids with the influx of Israeli teachers to American congregational religious schools in the early 1960’s. These bright, enthusiastic young Israelis brought Ahavat Israel to American youth and they ate it up. Her small classroom of five students of varied ages was never the same. “Wow!” Lorna was hooked. One teacher was a storyteller and told them about his kibbutz at the Dead Sea. They sang ‘Hatikva’ and Israel became a bright star in her universe. Coincidentally, her parents visited Israel and the Soviet Union shortly thereafter. When they came back they told Lorna and her brother, “We have an obligation to you both, but as soon as you finish college we are making Aliyah.” From that moment on they were making their plans and preparations for a life in Israel.
Only two years later Lorna would take her own trip to Israel. Graduating from high school at 17, this highly intelligent young woman wanted to have a special last summer before entering college. She decided to spend it in Israel, on a kibbutz. It was her first Shabbat at Kibbutz Bror Hayil near Sderot that she met Michael Szefler, an "older man" of 20. It was love at first sight. By the end of the summer he had proposed. Many in the Kibbutz wanted to protect this young American but Lorna had a better idea. Her parents had a trip planned to Israel in October. She returned home at the end of the summer but the family came back in October. They were “charmed by Michael and his sincerity. 52 years later I can say it worked!” They were married at Kibbutz Mefalsim soon after.
Her family stayed in Ashkelon during the wedding and decided that they would make Aliyah to our beautiful city. A fortuitous decision that led Lorna and Michael to join them many years later. After spending seven years in the U.S. so Lorna could finish her education and fulfill her dream of being a teacher, Lorna and Michael tried Kibbutz life in the north on Ein Harod Ichud. “But I wasn’t able to teach. I was a Zionist and I wanted to contribute to the country.” She wanted to forge her own path and fulfill all her dreams. Fortunately for Ashkelon, it brought her to Netzach Israel, her father and mother’s shul, in the beautiful beach city. It was a homecoming in so many ways.
“My father used to attend the morning Minyan.” Both her parents were active members and the Kehillah community was there for the family during times of happiness and sorrow. It was a “wonderful close knit community.” Her two children, Avi and Debbie, were children of Netzach Israel and their lives were intertwined in the fabric of life with the community. When Lorna got the call that her beloved father had passed away, it was “Avi, my six year old who wanted to go to the synagogue to tell them because he knew that they were the people that would help us.”
And thus Lorna began a new journey of involvement with Netzach Israel. “I started to say kaddish every shabbat and that made me an active participant. It used to drive me crazy that I wasn’t counted in the minyan even if needed. It was very meaningful that under Rabbi Futterman we became an egalitarian shul.” She is so thankful for Rabbi Surazski who “has opened a whole new area of being able to read Torah… which has added so much to my spiritual journey and my enjoyment along with Alan Zeffren who took me under his wing and taught me to lead services.” The community was there to enrich her journey. So Lorna does what she does best, she gives back. “I became more active in the organisational aspects in the 1980’s, anything that needed help with. By 1991 I was on the Board.” Since that time she has been an active board member, Torah reader and service leader. Since ending her term as chairperson, she has headed the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Committee and takes an active part in the program, including helping to prepare the children.
Giving back is Lorna’s ‘modus operandi,’ way of doing things, and is intrinsically linked to her inner Jewish spirit and her parents' upbringing. I asked Lorna if volunteering was a spiritual endeavour for her? “Oh absolutely. We live to find purpose for our lives to make the world a better place. What gives meaning to life is what we do with it. I feel that this volunteerism and different things that I do at the Beit Knesset is the spiritual component that is an important part of what makes life worth living.” It does not stop at the doors of the Kehillah. Lorna is a past Chair and active board member of the English Speakers of Ashkelon (ESOA), a volunteer for the Youth of Light candle factory, and for 12 twelve years at ‘Yedid L’hinuch,’ Friend of Education, teaching local students one day a week and even during Covid. In her free time she also loves her involvement with LOGON, The Light Opera Group of the Negev, and has performed with them all over Israel.
Lorna’s tapestry is a finely woven fabric wrapping her in family, community and Judaism and a commitment to her communities. “There were times of great joy and times of great pain. I have always been happy to have had the good fortune to have been led to the shores of Ashkelon and to this community and to have been able to take an active part and to have been chosen to be a chairperson.