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Obituary: Harriet Schiff

Harriet Schiff

Longtime Temple Israel of Great Neck Executive Director Harriet Schiff – who began her career with the congregation almost 29 years ago as a receptionist and rose to become its chief administrator - died on May 9, 2009 after a lengthy illness.

A funeral service was held at Temple Israel the following day. It began with a procession of clergy, past presidents and members of the board of trustees as well as family members. Rabbis Howard Stecker and Seth Adelson officiated, along with Cantor Raphael Frieder. Speakers included former Associate Rabbi Marim D. Charry, First Vice President Dr. Michael Ziegelbaum, Past President Steven Markowitz and family members. “I must say that she was like a mother to many, including her nieces and nephews, members of the synagogue, and certainly the women who worked with her in the office,” Rabbi Stecker told the mourners. “She served her extended family at Temple Israel with loyalty and love. She inspires us to live with strength, as she did. We will always be grateful to her for her friendship and her dedication.”

Mrs. Schiff is survived by her husband of almost 39 years, Jake, her brother, Dr. Stanley Rothschild of Potomac, MD, and her mother, Herta Rothschild, of Forest Hills.

“Harriet was a modest woman and did not fully realize and appreciate her own skills and knowledge,” said Mr. Markowitz, the past president who appointed Mrs. Schiff executive director. “With her extensive Temple Israel experience and knowledge of all things Jewish, her personal relationships and familiarity with the congregants, and her warm and loving personality, I knew she was the right and only choice,” he said in his eulogy. “I told her she and I would be partners in the endeavor of running Temple Israel, and that’s how it worked for me and for the presidents who served after me. I think I can speak for them all in saying that the job would have been impossible without Harriet, and much of what we achieved can be attributed to the best partner we ever could have asked for.”

The current president of the congregation, Hon. Richard Kestenbaum, said he “will miss the comfort of sharing the institutional memory of our temple with her, which many times kept me from making an error in judgment or having to reinvent the framework needed to solve a problem. She was always honest with me and held my best interests at heart. I could not ever imagine a person who cared more about our temple, its congregants or our rabbi.”

Mrs. Schiff served as Cantor Frieder’s secretary for many years. “She and I hit it off very well,” he said. “As she moved up the ranks, she insisted on remaining my secretary. She would advise me on both professional and personal matters. She was like my big sister.”

It was during Mrs. Schiff’s years as the temple’s chief administrator that the congregation’s rabbi for more than 55 years, Mordecai Waxman, died just days before his planned retirement. It was Mrs. Schiff who helped to oversee the transition to the temple’s interim rabbi, Myron Fenster, and then to Rabbi Waxman’s successor, Rabbi Stecker.

She also was deeply involved in the temple’s massive renovation in 2002, the retirement of Rabbi Charry, the security changes necessary after the September 11 attacks, the untimely death of former President Dr. Jerome Seiler and the rebuilding of the temple following the devastating fire which struck the Grand Ballroom and classrooms a year ago last February.

Although ill for much of her tenure as executive director, she fought to maintain her regular work schedule as closely as possible. Even when confined to her home, Mrs. Schiff was at her phone and computer working to direct Temple Israel activities.

She was hired in 1980 as the office receptionist by former temple Executive Director Vivian Krasnov. During her years of service to the congregation, she also held positions as administrative assistant, secretary to the cantor and interim executive director, and also handled bookkeeping and payroll. In October 2001, Mr. Markowitz appointed her executive director. “I never had time to think about what my job would be like,” Mrs. Schiff said, looking back at her years of employment with the congregation in an interview in the congregation newsletter, The Voice, following her selection as an honoree for Temple Israel’s 2006 journal dinner dance. “After all, there hasn’t been time!”

She said her relationship with the congregation has been “something special that made my entire job a lot easier to do…You reach a point in your life where money is not the issue; the work you do is what is important. Temple Israel has become a part of me, like family. I have friendships at Temple Israel that I made through the years that mean a lot more than money. To me, this is much more than just a job.”