By Rabbi Harold Rabinowitz.
On the third day of Chanukah last month (27 Kislev—December 19, 2014,) we lost a great lady, Esther Rose Lowy, a loving person, whose work this past decade could only be described as heroic. The “we” I refer to is the Los Angeles Jewish community, but the loss extends far beyond that. The loss of Esther Lowy at a young 66, was the loss of a one-of-a-kind educator. She was a person who was dedicated to both the Institution of Touro College Los Angeles, and to the students, faculty and staff of TCLA.
Her devotion to her husband, her children, her parents and all of her relatives was legendary. And then there are those of us who knew her so well, worked with her, attended her classes, or discussed the issues facing Jewish education in Los Angeles. We all felt like family to Esther, because that was how she looked upon us. We were her family.
A native of New York, Esther distinguished herself early on when she won the U.S. Tanach (Bible) competition and traveled to Israel to compete in that country’s national Bible competition, the Chidon HaTanach, at a time when American participation was strictly a courtesy. The Israelis had the contest locked up in those days. She placed third, which was an astounding achievement. After school, she went on to be a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Brooklyn College, and then earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from the prestigious Courant Institute of NYU. A Ph.D. in mathematics! And from Courant, at a time when women accounted for less than 4% of Americans receiving doctorates in Mathematics. Being named a Woodrow Wilson Fellow upon graduating Brooklyn College was almost an afterthought for Esther.
She joined the mathematics faculty at City University in New York, but then married Rudy Lowy in 1974 and moved to the west coast. Esther became a respected member of the UCLA mathematics faculty, until the Lowy family started to grow. Esther put her career on hold for two decades as she raised eight children. Even then, she worked on behalf of Jewish education in the Los Angeles area, serving on the boards of many yeshivas and schools.
When the time came to create a branch of Touro in L.A., Esther was the natural choice as Dean and she worked tirelessly this past decade, nurturing the college and promoting it in the community. During that decade, the students of Touro found in Dean Lowy a compassionate and wise administrator who looked upon all her students as family. Getting Touro started in L.A. was no easy task, to put it mildly; the centers of Jewish learning were back east or in Israel. It has taken over a decade for the numbers of graduates from Orthodox Jewish secondary schools to reach the level required to support an institution such as TCLA. During that nascent period, it took a real “eshet chayil,”a fighter, who worked tirelessly to promote the school in all the far-flung corners of the community.
Dr. Lowy believed passionately in higher education for both men and women and would go to any length to assist students in achieving that education. She taught classes herself—a task she really didn’t have the time for, but she took great pride in the successes she could claim. As teacher, she was excellent in helping students overcome their math anxiety and hurdle the obstacles that kept them back in pursuing a career. I remember the nachas she felt when she told me about a student she had helped—person-to-person, face-to-face—to overcome his difficulty in mastering an element of elementary pre-calculus mathematics. “That’s the kind of teaching I like most,” she often said. That kind of dedication is a gift from above; a prize to the teacher, and, of course, a reward to the students, and ultimately, to the entire community as well.
I also remember the joy on her face when I told her that a non-Jewish student taking a course in Jewish Business Ethics had worked hard to familiarize himself with the basics of Jewish rabbinic literature and had performed admirably in class and on tests. (So well, that the students, some of them advanced students of Talmud in local Kollels, came to jokingly, but admiringly, calling him “Rabbi”.) That kind of success inspires work and commitment from everyone in an institution and radiates out into the world around it. And that source of energy and inspiration is irreplaceable. When it’s gone, a void is left that all her family and loved ones feel every moment, and which her friends, colleagues and supporters must strive to fill.
The halls of Touro are quiet these past few weeks. Missing is Dean Lowy’s lilting voice and her conversation, filled with Biblical references and Yiddishisms, her sense of humor and her palpable loving concern with the welfare of everyone connected with the institution. Anyone and everyone who came to her office with a problem knew they would be treated with respect and love and her genius for finding a solution. Dean Lowy was no pushover. She regarded the standards of the institution as sacred. Yet, one could count on her to find the solution to a problem, one that was compassionate, even as it called upon faculty and student alike, to apply ourselves and strive to achieve excellence, even when we ourselves weren’t certain we had it in us. Esther Lowy was the poster-child for the “You Can Do It!” philosophy, and how can one ever replace that?
Our hearts and condolences go out to her loving family, to her devoted husband, Rudy, and to her children and grandchildren, all of whom shine with the light that their mother has kindled in them. These may seem like glib words filled with sentiment, but just have a conversation with any of the Lowy children, and you’ll see the flame that Esther imparted to their souls and minds shining forth. This is the flame that she lit in all of them.
Rabbi Harold Rabinowitz is a member of the TC-LA Faculty.