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The Ambassador’s Pillar

“Her life revolved around her husband... She was at his side in the most supportive way possible.” As wife of Rav Moshe Sherer co-chairman of Agudath Israel of America Debby supported his every endeavor enabling him to change the face of frum life in America

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Photos: ArtScroll Mesorah Publications Agudah Archives

F irst in Russia then in the States Devorah Sherer was raised in a home imbued with Torah and dedication to the klal. It was the perfect preparation for the life ahead of her. Born to Rav Shimshon Zelig and Rebbetzin Chaya Chava Fortman she was transplanted to America at the age of three. Her father became the rav of Congregation Knesseth Israel — known as the White Shul — in Far Rockaway.

In 1943 when she was 18 she married Rabbi Moshe Sherer who was working in what was then called Zeirei Agudath Israel. As newlyweds the Sherers could barely afford to put bread on the table. The situation grew so desperate that Rabbi Sherer’s friends decided to help him open a lighting business. Meanwhile Rabbi Sherer’s activities had already been noted by Mike Tress who enlisted the help of Rav Aharon Kotler Rav Gedalia Schorr and other gedolim to persuade Rabbi Sherer to continue on at Agudath Israel. “We need you more than the lighting industry ” they told him.

“My grandmother could have put her foot down and insisted that my grandfather remain in business. After all they needed money for basic necessities — food clothing shelter ” says Shrage Goldschmidt Mrs. Sherer’s grandson. “She knew that giving up the business meant going straight back to poverty. But her attitude was that if Klal Yisrael needed her husband she wouldn’t stand in the way.”

A similar situation arose in 1951 when Devorah’s father Rav Fortman passed away. The White Shul turned to Rabbi Sherer asking him to assume his father-in-law’s role. Doing so would not only afford the Sherers a sure source of income but also secure them a prestigious position. However Rav Aharon Kotler once again advised the Sherers that he had greater plans for Rabbi Sherer.

“Here too my grandmother could have insisted that her husband take another course. Her husband could have succeeded her father in leading a kehillah that was ready to welcome them with open arms” Shrage Goldschmidt says. “Yet once again her attitude was that if Klal Yisrael needed her husband that was the only path to take. The family would go back to bread and water with smiles on their faces.”

With only the bare basics to work with Mrs. Sherer became an expert balabusta. Using minimal ingredients she managed to serve a tasty and diverse meal each evening.

Around the Clock

As Klal Yisrael’s ambassador in many different venues and forums Rabbi Sherer was available for his fellow Yidden at all hours of the day and night — a feat that would have been impossible without his wife’s support. Rabbi Sherer used to say that his wife was a tzadeikes for allowing him to do all he did.

Menachem Lubinsky who was involved at the Agudah offices for more than half a century remembers the walks that Rabbi Sherer would take with his wife on Shabbos afternoon at Agudath Israel conventions. “In her simple and understated manner she was the consummate supportive wife ” Lubinsky says.

He also remembers how, before leaving the office, Rabbi Sherer would call home so that his wife could warm up his dinner. Invariably, time after time, some pressing community need took precedence. The warmed-up dinner needed heating and reheating and reheating. But Mrs. Sherer took it all in stride. If Rabbi Sherer was needed, he could continue doing what he needed to do — and she’d continue doing what she needed to do: have a warm dinner to welcome her husband after his exhausting day.

“Her life revolved around her husband,” Mrs. Shoshana Lefkowitz, a longtime friend of the Sherers says. “She didn’t have much of her own social life — it was all about the Agudah. And she never complained about that role. She never complained that, ‘we have to travel again,’ or that, ‘he’s away again.’ She was at his side in the most supportive way possible.”

A loving bubby to her grandchildren, Mrs. Sherer would attend school performances, and invite her grandchildren for some old-fashioned quality time “just because.” Though her husband couldn’t afford to spend much time with their grandchildren, she knew how much he desired to do so. She served as a gatekeeper of sorts. After a long week at the Agudah offices, Rabbi Sherer got what he waited for over the weekend — private time with his children and grandchildren.

First Lady

Though Mrs. Sherer liked nothing more than staying home with her children and keeping to her quiet self, when it was required of her, she knew how to play the role of first lady to perfection. She instilled her children with a pride in their father’s role, as well.

Mrs. Elky Goldschmidt recalls how one morning she got dressed for school and didn’t look as neat as her mother wanted. Her father had traveled to meet the president in Washington, D.C., that day, and her mother told her: “Daddy went to Washington to meet a leader many call a melech. He made sure that he looked just right,” Mrs. Sherer said, as she ironed her daughter’s blouse. “You are a bas melech, like all other Yiddishe girls. Shouldn’t you look just right, too?”

Not only did Mrs. Sherer convey the importance of looking respectable, she also brought their father’s work into their personal lives, imparting the children with pride in their father’s klal work. Attendees at Agudath Israel dinners and conventions remember how Mrs. Sherer was the gracious hostess who greeted the women warmly. Despite her naturally shy nature, she made sure everyone felt special and at home.

Shrage recalls how Mrs. Sherer would accompany her husband when visiting with dignitaries or attending state dinners. “She never knew who she was going to sit next to, or the type of conversation she’d be required to make,” he says. “Yet she always managed these interactions with elegance and grace.”

He relates that at one state dinner the Sherers were seated next to Henry Kissinger — a daunting prospect for many a Boro Park woman. But Mrs. Sherer was neither flattered nor frazzled. She held her own, expertly carrying on a conversation with the international player.

Sterling Giving

Rav Aharon Kotler used to say that Rabbi Moshe Sherer was the biggest baal tzedakah of his time. He may not have written the largest checks, but with his skills and talents he could have become the CEO of a large business. Instead, he applied his talents to helping Klal Yisrael. By extension, Mrs. Sherer was, arguably the biggest baalas tzedakah of her time. Instead of insisting that her husband earn a good parnassah, she encouraged him in his mission to serve the community.

Demanding that her husband “make up” for his time away from home with extravagant vacations was never Mrs. Sherer’s way; all she wanted was to simply spend time together. In fact, the highlight of their “vacation” often consisted of Rabbi Sherer pushing the shopping cart in the supermarket, the way he never could while on duty at Agudath Israel.

Mrs. Sherer displayed exceptional humility and gratitude, never assuming that she deserved special treatment because of her husband’s position. “Whenever anyone sent her something like flowers or a cake, she was so grateful for the token of appreciation,” Mrs. Lefkowitz says. “She’d make sure to compliment the giver so they really felt good!”

She didn’t only know how to make them feel good, she really felt what they were feeling. “When my son became engaged at an older age,” Mrs. Lefkowitz says. “I saw how genuinely happy she was for us. You’d think it was her own simchah!”

After Rabbi Sherer was niftar, Mrs. Sherer would often express her hakaras hatov that those in charge were continuing her husband’s legacy. She was able to push aside her own gaping loss and recognize the achievements of the new administration.

When the Lefkowitzes urged Mrs. Sherer to have knee replacement surgery, she took their advice seriously despite her misgivings. When she saw how much it had improved her quality of life, she constantly expressed gratitude to them for convincing her to go through with it.

The Last Years

When Rabbi Sherer passed away in 1998, Mrs. Sherer reverted to her private self. No longer did she meet with politicians, welcome the crowd at Agudah dinners, or travel the world on behalf of Klal Yisrael. She’d only done so as part of her wifely duties, despite the contradiction to her private personality.

In recent years, when Shrage’s family went upstate for the summer, he’d eat supper on weekdays with his grandmother. “We’d just sit and schmooze,” he recalls. “She was so happy to simply connect with her grandchildren. She didn’t need more.”

He also admired his grandmother’s insight and perception. After weeks of deliberating over which law school to attend, Shrage shared his dilemma with his grandmother. Her advice was swift, concise — and on target. Shrage followed her advice, and decades later continued to appreciate her quiet wisdom.

At the levayah, Mrs. Sherer’s son, Rav Shimshon Sherer noted that his mother used to say she didn’t want hespedim — her husband’s levayah was sufficient for the two of them, she declared. Her levayah this past Rosh Chodesh Iyar did indeed curtail hespedim. During 50 years of marriage, she’d defined her role in relation to her husband. In her passing, too, Mrs. Sherer continued to define herself as a wife — to one of the greatest ambassadors the Jewish nation has ever seen.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 541)

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