My heart aches. Many hearts ache. This summer we lost a dear friend whose untimely death touched us in ways we can’t forget. The now truly “historic” downtown Congregation Beth Shalom was blessed to have had John de Lemos as a longtime employee.
Almost 20 years ago, the late Irving Taylor suggested Beth Shalom hire John to look after the property – a sophisticated way of saying John was hired to be the custodian or the janitor, depending on how you want to put it. For those who know how the story finishes, it is astonishingly funny to think of John as a guy who mopped the floors.
John was a short burly man with a substantial mustache. His origin was Portuguese. He attended the Portuguese Catholic Church. While at work at Beth Shalom he dressed in black and always wore a black kippah. On his shirt was a patch that read “security.” In his cubby hole, windowless office stood a full-barreled, black baseball bat. Thank goodness, to my knowledge, he never had to use it.
Cooking and food preparation were among John’s skills. When Beth Shalom defied the odds and the naysayers by having volunteers prepare first-rate Shabbat kiddushes, for each and every Shabbat, you just knew John’s magic was in the kitchen. As a group, the kitchen crew blossomed and bloomed. John’s smiling face and encouragement was inspiring and the food just got better and better.
And it was John who effortlessly prepared breakfast every other day of the week after morning prayers. Like many shuls, Beth Shalom had a core of mostly elderly “minyanaires” who were legends. Any observer of their daily shenanigans would be well entertained. John enjoyed his front row seat. He heard everything from all of them – likely 10 times over.
Those old men liked John. They felt comfortable with him. They trusted him. They confided in him. Inside, as well as outside the shul, John often helped them get around the many inconveniences of old age. John was thoughtful and caring and was a person who didn’t like to say “no.”
John was a natural people person and, as the years went by, he so naturally and so graciously welcomed congregants and visitors as they arrived for Shabbat services. He would stand near the front door or right in the middle of the lobby extending warm greetings. He beamed with delight. He was happy with his lot in life.
He knew virtually every Beth Shalom member by name. He knew their children and many family stories. In times of celebration or sorrow, John was always in the moment. If there was something to feel, John felt it. He understood the multifaceted Jewish dimension and he neither judged nor questioned it. He respected it. His openness was 24/7.
In this world of terrible and growing anti-Semitism, it is that much harder for us to lose such a friend. To see him so savagely taken down by liver cancer at only 53 was hard to swallow. That is why so many of us are heartbroken. How profoundly John de Lemos was a devoted friend to our entire community is best explained by how he measured what working at Congregation Beth Shalom meant to him.
It was near the end. The oncologist came into his hospital room and said John would be gone in a day or two. Soon after, a palliative care doctor arrived with all the time in the world to compassionately talk about what would follow. She was really kind. She asked to see photos of John when he was well. She asked his family to describe him.
The word “wise” came first. His four siblings said John was the first person they would speak to when seeking advice because he was a clear thinker with amazing instincts.
As soon as the second doctor left the room, John’s wife, Anna, repeated something John used to say. She rattled off some names of the departed Beth Shalom minyanaires. Names like Rose, Zelikovitz, Cardash, Zlotkin and Wolfe. Anna said John would frequently tell her what a great education he had listening daily to 400 years of history.
The downtown shul on Chapel Street is gone and, now, so is the prince of a man who touched its members for so many years in so many beautiful ways.