“What a rare find is a woman of valor, her worth is far beyond that of Rubies…” Book of Proverbs chapter 31
When we lost a Temple member, Jim Mattis, Temple Treasurer and Ritual Chair with Rabbi Kramer, used to say, “The Angel of Death has not been kind to us again.” A few weeks ago we lost a long time member and Temple Secretary Sylvia Gross Sutton.
Sylvia became more than a Temple member when she took over the secretarial reins after June Beck died suddenly from complications of heart surgery. To put it mildly, we were in disarray. June was more than just the Temple Secretary, she was counselor, confidant and often the first face of Temple Beth Emet. Sylvia knew what huge shoes she was slipping into, but as we found out over the next 20 plus years, she truly showed, “dynamic people come in small packages.”
She did everything we asked of her and more. The more was her relationship with me. She would go beyond the normal boundaries of our relationship to nudge me. She nudged me about who needed a Rabbi pep talk, what my appointments were, so I wouldn’t forget them, and why we needed to be more socially and politically active.
She was always very much involved in the BHCC. Later it changed its name to the Burbank Human Relations Council and Sylvia would tirelessly work on the Days of Remembrance. One day, I found out that she was now in charge of the Holocaust Speakers’ Bureau of the Burbank Unified School District and once again our relationship changed. Sylvia was a master coordinator and scheduling all those Holocaust speakers was no mean feat. One day, after going through Temple business and reminding me who to call to cheer them up, I asked Sylvia how the Speakers’ Bureau was going and, for the first time I could remember, she was saddened. She did not have enough survivors and/ or their children to speak at all the schools on the days they were requested. So, I said to her,
“I will go if you need me. I only have one request, don’t make me speak at 9:00 AM. Valley traffic is so bad”. True to her word I almost never had to speak at 9. One day she called me. Here was this magnificent person who worked so hard coordinating so many important things dealing with the Holocaust, The Days of Remembrance, including the City Council, mini-Night of remembrance and the Speakers’ Bureau.
“I am so sorry, Rabbi, I don’t have anyone else, could you please go?” She was so humble, so genuine in her request, I just couldn’t and wouldn’t say no.
Of course, it was one of the best experiences I ever hade as a speaker.
Sylvia didn’t limit her efforts to just Jewish causes. Her work for the Burbank Human Relations Council was to benefit all groups of Burbank citizens. Woman’s Rights, I believe, was right up there on her agenda. She was appalled at the actions of men who treat women as chattel. She did not want anyone to be treated as another’s property. Someone asked me to describe her in one phrase, I said, “She was a Jewish suffragette”, and I meant it. A suffragette is one who believes in equal rights for all and who has suffered for his or her actions. But Sylvia was full of positivism. Anybody who plays tennis into their 80s is positive about themselves and the future. She read the Los Angeles Times until the stroke right before her passing.
My favorite memory of Sylvia amongst the many memories I have of her, was that every time I would come to visit her, her first question was ,”How are things at the Temple?” She was someone who put Temple, if not first, certainly up there with her greatest loves. And for this and for all your activities to better people’s lives, to paraphrase George M. Cohan, ‘Our Temple thanks you, our Human Relations Council thanks you, Our Holocaust Speakers’ Bureau thanks you and, Most of All, the people of Burbank thank you.
Rest in Peace Sara Bas Nataniel!
PS. Sylvia’s Memorial Service is being hosted by the Temple on November 11th at 2:00 PM