By Jan Lee
To Aviva Weisbord, inclusiveness was at the heart of everything she fought for.
She was an equally tireless advocate for the marginalized child, the Jew who was seeking a religious identity and the family that desperately needed a path forward. And as her lifelong history of community service in Baltimore demonstrated, she never tired of that advocacy.
Weisbord, who served as the executive director of Shemesh, died on Dec. 25 after a long battle with COVID-19. She was 72.
To those who had never met her, she was Dr. Weisbord, a well-respected licensed psychologist. To those in her Jewish community, she was Rebbetzin Weisbord, wife of Rabbi Berel Weisbord and daughter of Rabbi Yaacov and Rebbetzin Chana Weisberg. To those who had the fortune to meet her, she was known simply as Aviva.
“She was so modest and never wanted to call attention to herself,” explained Faye Friedman, the program director for Shemesh. “She would wave away any accolades and definitely introduced herself as Aviva.”
As Baltimore’s first female Orthodox licensed psychotherapist, she broke boundaries right from the start. She realized there was a social and cultural need for professionals in the wider Jewish community who understood the intricacies of Jewish life and the pressures it often encapsulated. And as Friedman explained, she believed that healing and change started with the whole family, not just the individual. It was an outlook and nuanced approach that she carried into her later work with Shemesh, an organization that advocates for children with learning differences. As executive director she and her staff networked tirelessly with schools and parents to ensure successful outcomes for the child.
“[She] believed that families needed to be supported in their effort to gain services for their children and for dealing with those [learning] differences,” Friedman said.
“Shemesh performs miracles every day,” said Richard Hantgan, who serves as the president of Shemesh’s board. He said it was Weisbord’s leadership skills that made such miracles happen for families and children stuck with navigating a complex and often rigid educational system.
But in Weisbord’s eyes, those were skills that she inherited from her mother, who used leadership and lifelong advocacy to open further discussion and recognition of domestic violence. “My leadership training began around age five,” she explained in a 2016 article for the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action. “That’s when my mother, Rebbetzin Chana Weinberg, a”h, recruited me to participate in a Ner Israel Ladies Luncheon.” At the time, she said, she had no clue that she was being given a peek into a meaningful career that would carry her through life: Jewish community service.
In her view, leadership started with a pragmatic question: “Why are we here?” Her answer was equally straightforward: “It’s about serving HaKadosh Baruch Hu to the best of my ability; doing what He wants in the way that fits the values and standards of Judaism.” For her, leading by example meant leading with heart and in line with Jewish values and standards.
The children she and her staff worked with at Shemesh weren’t just a number or a name, either. “She felt she had an obligation to ensure that every child mattered,” said Hantgan. Every part of their education mattered as well, secular as well as Judaic education.
Hantgan said her vision was initially ahead of its time and was instrumental in changing the way children with learning differences were addressed in the broader school system.
“Eleven years ago when she started with Shemesh, very little was installed in schools to assist with children with learning differences,” he said. It was her remarkable skill for diplomacy paired with her networking skills and her tenacity that helped build better educational opportunities for children with learning differences.
“She respected everyone, and she would listen to all,” said Hantgan, irrespective of how young they were, their status or what they had to say.
“Aviva had an endless capacity to show warmth, affection and concern. She genuinely loved people and made you feel like the most important person in the room,” Friedman said. “She was a scholar and the wisest woman I have known. When she gave advice, it was in such a way that made you feel that she believed in you. You always came away being a better person for it.”
Aviva Weisbord is survived by her husband, Rabbi Beryl Weisbord; her seven children, Reb Yehuda (Yael) Weisbord, Ayala (Rabbi Pinchas) Jurkowitz, Sholom Meir “Shmop” (Lia) Weisbord, Dvora Meira (Dr. Jonathan) Ringo, Yosef Aryeh (Tzipporah) Weisbord, Noson Zvi (Aviva Rachelle) Weisbord, and Feige Miryam (Reb Yaakov Akiva) Sofer; siblings, Rabbi Matis Weinberg, Rabbi Simcha Weinberg, Yehudis Zwick, Miriam Feldman and Naomi Sprung; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The funeral was held virtually on Dec. 27 and internment was at United Hebrew Cemetery in Halethorpe. Donations in her memory may be made to Shemesh at shemeshbaltimore.org.
Jan Lee is an independent journalist living in Canada who writes on Jewish culture, history, business and the environment.