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B'nai Israel's Talmud Torah program—which provides innovative and immersive educational experiences to hundreds of students in grades K–12 each year—will be renamed following an impactful commitment from Dr. Stuart Lessans. 


by Jonathan Salant

B’nai Israel’s Talmud Torah will soon bear the name of one of the synagogue’s most generous benefactors.

It reflects the significant gift Stuart Lessans has given to B’nai to support the synagogue. The Lessans name is a familiar one to members; there’s already the Sara and Samuel J. Lessans Religious and Administrative Center, and the Sara and Samuel J. Lessans Adult Education Institute. They’re named in memory of Lessans’ parents.

The Hebrew school, though, will named for the donor himself, being called the Dr. Stuart Lessans Talmud Torah. He and his family—wife Ellen and twins Matthew and Faye—have been members since 2003, when they began attending Torah for Tots and other Shabbat Magic programing. His children are now attending the University of Maryland and spending this summer in Israel. 

“It was my dreadful, incurable illness that caused me to think about my personal legacy here at our beloved B’nai,” Lessans said. “As you know, up ‘til now, most of my philanthropy has been to honor the sacred memory of my truly remarkable parents.”

It’s especially meaningful given that the synagogue’s official name is Talmud Torah and B’nai Israel Congregation. In fact, the synagogue’s origins in 1925 were as a Hebrew School for residents of upper northwest Washington as parents didn’t want to send their children downtown.

“When he said he wanted to do something to honor his legacy and his values, we suggested B’nai Israel Talmud Torah,” Senior Rabbi Michael Safra said. “Jewish education is important to the Jewish community.”

Lessans’ own children went to the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. “I honored my mother’s wish—she had been a graduate of the renowned Jews Free School of London,” he said. That didn’t dim his ardor for B’nai’s Talmud Torah as another key vehicle for educating the next generation of Jews.

“I firmly believe we have an obligation to bequeath to the next generation our precious Jewish heritage which includes not only the pride of being a Jew, but also a love of the Jewish people and our ancient homeland Israel, a knowledge of Jewish history, Jewish values, and our ancient Hebrew Language and texts, and, above all, the gift of a Jewish heart and a Jewish soul,” he said.

“I feel strongly that our Talmud Torah is vital to accomplishing these goals; and, by doing so, assures Jewish Continuity from generation to generation, which is extremely important to me.“

That was the main topic of conversation between Lessans and Rabbi Emeritus Jonathan Schnitzer, who worked with Rabbi Safra to arrange this latest donation.

“It’s very much in the spirit of his valuation of Jewish education and the role Talmud Torah plays in ensuring a Jewish future,” Schnitzer said. “A majority of Jewish kids still go to synagogue schools.”

Such large gifts are key to a synagogue’s financial viability, Schnitzer said. “Endowment gifts are gifts that continue to provide fiscal strength every year into perpetuity,” he said.

B’nai’s Board of Governors welcomed the gift at its June meeting, Lessans’ last as a member of the governing body. The meeting, conducted virtually, then turned into a testimonial for him.

“Stuart continues to be a role model for us all,” said Immediate Past President Steve Rothenberg. “To be involved in our lay leadership, to find a meaningful connection within our community, to acknowledge how B’nai Israel has impacted his life, and to make a meaningful gift to help us continue to provide for our members is inspiring. We are so grateful.”

Sun, May 22 2022 21 Iyyar 5782