Jewish Journal

The Matriarch of Beth Am: Rose Pilch Turns 100

Rose Pilch on her 100th birthday with granddaughters Rebecca Greenberg (left) and Jessica Samuel. Photo courtesy of Jessica Samuel

When Rose Pilch was called to the Torah one recent Shabbat at Temple Beth Am, the entire congregation stood up in admiration and celebration. Two of her granddaughters and one great-grandson joined her. Her voice was clear, her pronunciation distinct, her presence so very familiar.

It’s not every week that a congregant turns 100, as Rose did in October, and it seemed fitting to celebrate at Beth Am, her spiritual home for more than two-thirds of her life. To add poignancy, the Torah that was chosen was the Pilch Torah, a gift from Rose and her late son, Howard, to honor the memory of Rose’s late husband, Charles.

Rabbi Ari Lucas could not let the moment pass without words of Torah. He chose the passage from Proverbs about a woman of valor, words that were not only applicable but seemed to be an understatement. Rose is truly a rose, beautiful inside and out.

Rose Cohen was born in 1917 to recent immigrants from a small shtetl outside of Smolensk, Russia. They had immigrated to find a better life, free of pogroms and
anti-Semitism, first to Milwaukee and then to Chicago, where Rose and her twin sister were born.

By 1925, the family had moved to Los Angeles, settling in Boyle Heights, then the center of the Jewish community. Her father worked with a horse and buggy to deliver milk until, to use his words, “people stopped leaving a nickel on the doorstep.”

Rose and her sister rode in that buggy to school when it rained. On other days, they walked. Her father then became an elevator operator downtown. It was a modest beginning, but Rose had a rich family life, surrounded by her sister and cousins, aunts and uncles.

She graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1935. Five years later, at a dance in Venice Beach, she met Charles “Chuck” Pilch, who became her husband. Their marriage was a love affair of 55 years — they often strolled hand in hand. But the early years were interrupted by World War II, as Chuck went to Europe, where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge, the last desperate effort of Germany to halt the Allied advance from the West.

Like many women of her generation, Rose worked during the war but when Chuck returned, he became the breadwinner, she the traditional and supportive homemaker.

Family remained central to Rose and Chuck, and family always included synagogue and community. In 1950, they joined Temple Beth Am. It became their second home, the source of their friendships, the subject of their philanthropy and the place to which Rose dedicated her considerable energy and her vital personality.

Just outside Beth Am’s chapel is a wall of honor: plaques and pictures celebrating the men and women who have been essential to the community. Rose’s plaque describes her role in broad strokes: she held every position in sisterhood, served on the temple board and was active in University Women for the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University). She also was committed to Los Angeles Hebrew High School, was integral to Camp Ramah in California and was active in Hadassah and B’nai B’rith Women.

To each task she has brought energy and dedication, cheerfulness and the human touch. She reached out to welcome the stranger. She drove those who were ill, infirm or merely shy to meetings. She served not only with intelligence, generosity and warmth but with a unique ability to embrace everyone, old or young, stranger or longtime friend — consoling, enjoying and celebrating.

To each task she has brought energy and dedication, cheerfulness and the human touch.

She and Chuck were generous. They dedicated the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies offices and a garden at AJU. They endowed a scholarship fund at Camp Ramah. Beth Am’s Pilch Hall is named for them. It is a multipurpose room, the most used room in the synagogue, for daily minyans and for lectures, for classes and for kiddushes, for film screening and meetings. It reflects many of Rose’s qualities: Warm and completely unpretentious, it has a grace of its own because everyone feels comfortable in that room, just as everyone feels comfortable with Rose.

Rose is an active mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. She has always been there. She didn’t miss an event, a performance or a game, a recital or a party. She picked up her grandchildren from school and practices. They joined her for Shabbat dinners and for sleepovers.

Like many women of her generation, Rose stood alongside her husband, content to have him play the central role. But when he died in 1997, everyone in the family and the community understood that she was the glue that kept it all together. While for that generation Jewish life — public and familial — seemed to be a patriarchy, in widowhood, even with its sadness, the matriarchs of the Jewish community came forth ready to shine. Accustomed to leading from behind, Rose was ready to step forward.

Rose does the large things well. She does the small things even better. For years, she accompanied the late Rabbi Jacob Pressman to synagogue and to meetings. When Rose could no longer do that alone, her son Howard took over, working with his mother to ensure that the traditional Pilch commitments were fulfilled. After Howard died last year, his daughters Jessica and Rebecca stepped into the breach, fulfilling those tasks not as a burden, but as a privilege bequeathed to them because of who they are and because of the values instilled in them.

To this day, Rose is in synagogue week in and week out, never alone, always accompanied by one, two or three generations.

As I recently spoke with three generations of Pilches, the family members were able to complete each other’s sentences, speaking of the same values they had learned from Rose: that no child should be denied a Jewish education for financial reasons (“and she was prepared to act on it.”); that no one should feel like an outsider at the synagogue (and she welcomed them); and that family is the center but not the only concern — from that center should come forth an embrace of community and a celebration of all things Jewish. That strengthens the community and makes
the family stand for something terribly
important.

Rose, the Matriarch of Beth Am, truly has been blessed with extended years, years used proudly and graciously. We, in turn, have been blessed with her presence and strengthened by her values.