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Tessie Sonnabaum, lady of big hats, smile and heart, laid to rest

June 24, 2010 1 comment

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO—At gravesite services for Tessie Sonnabaum at the Home of Peace Cemetery on Thursday, June 24 , I couldn’t help but observe that she was known for her big hat, big smile, big laugh….

“And her big heart,” added Leah Fradkin, the rebbetzin of Chabad of Scripps Ranch.

How true.

Sonnabaum died June 19 at the age of 90 and was buried next to her husband, Irving, who at age 84 had predeceased her in 1997.   Rabbi Yonah Fradkin, rabbi of Chabad of Scripps Ranch (home of the Chabad Hebrew Academy) officiated, assisted by sons Elie and Moti, both of whom are rabbis, and other members of the Lubavitcher movement, including Rabbi Zalman Carlebach of downtown San Diego.

Rabbi Elie Fradkin is spiritual leader at Chabad of Coronado, the city in which Tessie and Irving Sonnabaum lived and worked for many years as the proprietors of Jake’s Clothing Store on Orange Avenue.   Cecile Kipperman, whose “Kippy’s” still is located on Orange Avenue, was among the mourners at the gravesite services.

The families that owned these two stores anchored the small Jewish community in Coronado, and, as Rabbi Yonah Fradkin observed, they helped non-Jews in that suburb on the west-side of San Diego Bay to understand the goodness of the Jewish people.  

Today, serving as director of the regional Chabads in San Diego, Rabbi Yonah Fradkin said he wondered what Tessie and Irving might have thought to see that the young rabbi whom they had helped get settled in San Diego County more than 40 years ago has a son who today has his own congregation in Coronado.

Irving Sonnabaum was the kind of man who made sure that a man’s clothing looked good on him—quietly tugging at a friend’s sleeve or collar out in public  to make sure it laid exactly right, Fradkin recalled.  And Tessie was the kind of woman who always sought to help other people—“how can I help you?” being her approach toward all.  Her watch phrase was the Yiddish expression “zei gezeundt, herst!” be in good health, now!

With son Stan and two grandchildren in attendance, Rabbi Fradkin recalled that until Alzheimer’s Disease robbed Tessie of much of her memory, she almost single-handedly made the Hallmark Card Company a wealthy concern, so determined was she to personally communicate best wishes on  the birthdays, anniversaries and special occasions of her friends and acquaintances. Another son, who lives in the Los Angeles area, is Jack.

Among the mourners were Pessie Sonnabend, a Holocaust survivor from the coal-mining area of  Niemce, Poland, who was married to Irving’s first cousin and who was aided in adjusting to American life by the Sonnabaums after arriving in San Diego.  Another present was Gussie Zaks, longtime leader of the New Life Club of Holocaust Survivors, as well as former San Diego City School Board Member Sue Braun, and Tifereth Israel Synagogue Sisterhood members Phyllis Spital, Binnie Brooks and Judy Morganstern.

Known for her happy laugh, Tessie had been honored by the Tifereth Israel Sisterhood as a “woman of valor,” one of the highest salutes the organization renders to its active members.

Spital recalled taking walks with Tessie along Orange Avenue in Coronado and being stopped seemingly every few feet to be greeted by delighted passersby.   Tessie would carefully introduce her to each one of them. 

She also recalled Tessie’s trademark beautiful hats and her blue house in Coronado.

Sue Braun said after the formal services that she and her husband, Dick, had met the Sonnabaums in 1964 when they moved to Coronado. “Dick took his uniform over to Jake’s, not knowing anything about Irv and Tessie.  We were living right around the corner from them.  Tessie and Irv befriended us right away.”

She said often they would be joined for simchas at the Sonnabaum house by Rabbi Monroe Levens and Lillian Levens, rabbi and rebbezin of Tifereth Israel Synagogue when the congregation was located at 30th and Howard Streets.  “Our kids grew up with Uncle Irv and Aunt Tessie,” Braun recalled. 
After the Brauns moved to the Del Cerro section of San Diego, they transplanted from the Sonnabaums’ garden some pink geraniums that still flourish, as do the Sonnabaum rhubarb plants.

At the end of Tessie’s life,  she lived in a nursing facility for Alzheimer’s patients.

“I’ve been told that the last thing that goes when someone gets dementia is the strongest part of their character—that’s the thing that hangs on the most,” Braun said.  “Tessie’s sense of humor never ever left her.” 

Braun said she and Spital held a small birthday party for Tessie every December 25 – “we would bring a cake to the nursing home, and gifts.”   Braun said that “I would have to think of things to say—jokes—to hold up my end, because Tessie had this sense of humor. She would laugh so much, and she never, ever lost that sense of humor. That’s the thing that stayed. She was always finding things funny.   You know what, the staff loved her!”

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Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World

Touro College founder Bernard Lander dies

February 15, 2010 Leave a comment

NEW YORK (WJC)–Rabbi Bernard Lander, the founding president of the Jewish-sponsored academic institution Touro College, has died at the age of 94. Touro College, founded in 1971 in New York, today has 23,000 students in 29 locations around the world. Lander was Touro’s president from its inception until his death, making him one of the longest-serving college presidents in the United States.

The Orthodox rabbi was born in Manhattan in 1915. After a career in academics as a sociologist, Lander founded Touro College, starting with a mere 35 students in 1971. The college today offers undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees to Jews and non-Jews alike in a range of fields, including arts and sciences, business, education, Jewish studies, law, pharmacy and social work.

Lander also served as an advisor to three US presidents.

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Preceding provided by World Jewish Congress