Standing in the Presence of Greatness: Remembering Shoshana Cardin

Written by Phil Jacobs on . Posted in Features

I don’t know what I can offer that perhaps you haven’t already read or that you don’t already know about the late Shoshana S. Cardin. For younger readers of Kol HaBirah, especially young women, you need to learn everything you can about her. During many of my 29 years working for Alter Communications, the great owners of the Baltimore Jewish Times, I had every reason to connect with this local Conservative Jewish lay leader, typically with a reporter’s notebook in hand.


I would like to relate three personal reporting experiences with Shoshana Cardin.

The first experience is the most difficult one. When her husband, the late Jerome Cardin, was on trial and found guilty in 1986 during the savings and loan crisis, I sat behind Shoshana daily in my reporter’s post in the courtroom. It had to be an excruciating experience for her, yet I would wager my notes from back then were more about her demeanor than her husband’s trial.

During the entire litigation, she sat there, beautifully dressed, with a strong, stoic look on her face. We weren’t just witnessing a prime example of the demeanor of a dedicated spouse; there was more to it than that. She knew that everyone was watching her. She knew, as we did, that she was already a leader within world Jewry, and I believe she knew that the anti-Semites would have loved nothing more than to see her wilt emotionally. That was not going to happen. Even much later in her life, during one of our living room discussions of the trial, that strength remained.

The second is my favorite Shoshana Cardin story. This is the one you probably won’t know about unless you were there.

It was at an annual Council of Jewish Federations General Assembly (GA), as it was then called, held in Baltimore in the early 1990s. Cardin was the first female president of the Council of Jewish Federations, and would be the first woman president of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations as well.

At the opening plenary session, she stood at a podium facing some 3,000 GA delegates in the huge ballroom. Leaders of the global Jewish philanthropy community sat behind her on the multi-tiered dais — a living hall of fame of philanthropists. There were pressing Israel issues to discuss, not to mention the condition of the Diaspora.

But this speech wasn’t going to be one that we’d all heard before.

She spoke to the audience for several minutes before turning to look around at the mostly middle-aged and older men in suits sitting behind her. She acknowledged and thanked them for the monies they had given over the years to sustain world Jewry, but then she threw a curve ball.

 She asked how many of them could recite the Hebrew alphabet. She asked them if they’d ever read the Torah, and if they even knew what Torah portion we were reading that week.

She then told the room that we could raise millions of dollars, but if we don’t understand who we are as a people, and if we don’t know even the basics of Jewish history, Israel’s history, or the Torah, then who are we?

There wasn’t so much as a murmur after her speech. If one person could manage to prompt the giants of the Jewish world, not to mention the rest of us in the audience, to feel introspective in a hurry, it was Shoshana Cardin.

The very next year at the GA, the plenary was shorter, and the room was divided into workshops on Jewish spirituality and education.

Shoshana Cardin did that.

My third and final story is the George H.W. Bush story.

In 1991, there was great concern within American Jewry that President Bush, under the advice of then-Secretary of State James Baker, would hold up some $10 billion in loan guarantees for Israel. About 1,500 members of the Jewish community lobbied Capitol Hill to support the guarantees. The president subsequently remarked to the press that he was “one lonely little guy” who was opposing these advocates.

During this time, Shoshana told me, the White House received literally tons of mail from across the country, filled with letters commending the president for standing up to the Jews. Much of the mail, she said, was sick and anti-Semitic, and the president was taken aback that his words could unleash the gnarling teeth of anti-Semitism.

But here’s the kicker. Shoshana had a face-to-face meeting with the president during this time. According to Shoshana, the president asked her to apologize to the Jewish community for him.

She told me that this is when she told the 41st president of the United States that she wasn’t going to tell the Jewish people — he needed to. And he did.

Shoshana S. Cardin is a Jewish woman and leader of her people who we will be teaching about in Jewish history courses through the ages.

I was blessed to have known her, and to have been able to write about her in the present.

We were standing in the presence of greatness. And I think we knew it all along.

By Phil Jacobs