Few congregants’ names are as synonymous with Beth Emet The Free Synagogue as Sophie (Kowalewsky) Black. You may know her as one of the congregation’s earliest members. Or that she was the synagogue’s first female president from 1983-1985. Perhaps you have read her book reviews in The Beth Emet Bulletin or have heard her ask stimulating questions in adult education classes.
Though Beth Emet has benefited hugely from her contributions since she and her husband, Sidney, became members in 1955, it turns out that the synagogue has been the perfect place for her to express herself, Jewishly.
I talked with Sophie about her Jewish journey, which, since Sophie is such a bookworm, struck me as having three distinct chapters.
Sophie’s parents, who were born in Russia, lost their home and possessions in a pogrom and moved to Germany. They were not observant Jews, but Jewish in their core beliefs, says Sophie.
“My parents were socially conscious people, “ she says. “I was taught that there is an obligation to live righteously and do good deeds. To try very hard. That it was a Jewish thing to do to leave things better than how we found them.”
As a child still living in Leipzig, Germany in the 1930s, Sophie’s mother asked her to take something to her father at work.
“I got waylayed,” Sophie recalls,” And I didn’t do it.”
Her mother said, “You had a mitzvah to do and you didn’t do it.”
“This impacted me profoundly,” she says.
Her father, a knitwear businessman, and her mother, who had earned a master’s degree in history at the University of Kharkov, had high expectations for Sophie. They named her after the first Russian female mathematician to be appointed a full professor at a European university: Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya, who was much later the subject of a short story by Alice Munro in “Too Much Happiness. (The character was named Sophia Kovalevsky and Sophie says it is about a woman who “never got tenure, was quite lonely, was a free thinker and had many affairs.” Not at all like our Sophie, except perhaps for the free-thinking part.)
Sophie and her parents left Germany after Kristallnacht in 1938 for the United States when she was 12. They lived briefly in Newcastle, Pennsylvania, and then settled in Cleveland, Ohio.
They found a Jewish community (they lived near the Pecars - Harvey Pecar’s family and not far from Rabbi Polish’s mother’s home), and Sophie, not surprisingly, excelled in academics. She went to Western Reserve for a bachelor’s degree in history, and, with a masters’ degree in library science from Columbia University she got a job at the Harvard University Law School library in 1952.
Two years later, she met Sidney, who played an immense part in fueling Sophie’s Jewish soul – the second chapter in her Jewish journey. He came from a good deed-doing family in the Boston area, Sophie says. Once a month, his mother took clothing and food to a charity and Sid, in turn, never passed a collection box by. “That was his way,” Sophie says. “He was a spiritual man with a conscience.” She was very moved by this and “imitated him.”
They married in 1955 and a business opportunity brought them to Chicago. Sid worked in a collection agency and Sophie went to work at the Northwestern University Library. They settled in Evanston where they learned about Rabbi Polish and joined the newly growing synagogue, which was then housed in “a mansion that stood where the sanctuary is now at Ridge and Dempster,” says Sophie. Their two children, Nina and Joe, grew up at Beth Emet (her son, Joe is now a rabbi).
The third chapter in Sophie’s Jewish journey takes us to where we started. At 85, she continues to actively pray, study, teach, contribute and question in and around the sanctuary, library and classrooms. After 57 years, in addition to her many gifts and charms, Sophie is Beth Emet.
Don’t miss Sophie’s D’var Torah on Friday, September 23 at 6:30 titled, “Talking in Translation” about the not-so-easy task of learning English as a young German immigrant in Newcastle, PA.
Ellen Blum Barish