Remembering Rabbi Benjamin Brilliant: A Walk Down Memory Lane with Rabbi’s Granddaughter, Great Granddaughter

[by Jerry Steinberg]

Facebook is defined as a social network for the world to come together. I now believe that, for it has brought me memories of the past and two new friends that I shall forever cherish.

It started with a message on Facebook from Shana Greenfield Nathanson of West Hempstead, NY. Her mother had given her a copy of a letter I had sent to her grandfather in 1975 – a letter he never threw away. Was I the same Jerry Steinberg who knew her grandfather, Rabbi Benjamin Brilliant, who served as Rabbi of Keneseth Israel Congregation till the mid 1950’s?

Rapidly I answered yes, and here is my cell phone. Please call as I want to know about his final years. Shana called and told me that she was bringing her daughter, Marissa, to Louisville to trace her grandfather’s steps. I offered to be their guide, and she accepted.

On Tuesday, July 31, Shana and her daughter pulled into my driveway. There was no shaking of hands, instead lots of hugs and smiles. I was hugging Rabbi’s granddaughter and great-granddaughter. No doubt the same type of emotional hugs that my family gave his when he left Louisville some 57 years ago.

We talked about Rabbi and his family. From Louisville, Rabbi moved to Pelham Parkway, Bronx, NY, where he remained the Rabbi at Pelham Parkway Jewish Center until his retirement in the early 80’s

He then moved to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, NY, where he remained till his death in 2000 at the age of 93.
His wife, Estelle, passed away last year. His daughter, Chani, as we called her, and with whom I talked on the phone, lives in Great Neck, NY, and his son, Akiva, a retired Rabbi, lives in Coral Gables, FL.

I explained to Shana that Rabbi lived only four doors from my grandparents, Abe and Sarah Salas, and that our family and the Brilliants were extremely close. Even after they left Louisville my mother, Sally, and my aunt, Rose Salas, continued to talk with him by phone.

I remember being in his home on many occasions, and he in my grandparents’. And I remember the many times my family walked with him to synagogue at Floyd and Jacob Streets. Although I was not 13 years old when he left, Rabbi left an everlasting impression on me. He instilled the love of God and the need to have God in my life. That was part of the reason I wrote him in 1975.

After our talk we proceeded to Shana’s grandparents’ home on Brook Street where we took lots of pictures. We knocked on the door, hoping to find someone to allow Shana and Marissa to walk through the home of her grandparents. Unfortunately no one was there.

We walked through Ouerbacker Court, that still beautiful hidden courtyard of homes and walkways. It brought back memories of such things as visiting the home of Ivan and Buddy Marks and losing to them in basketball. I remember crossing the street in front of my grandparents’ home to steal a cookie or two from the Pass residence.

We drove past the home of my grandparents and stopped to allow my guests to take a picture. For a moment in time, I could see our family sitting around the table for Friday night services and my grandmother passing out my favorite dinner – fried chicken, mashed potatoes and peas. And I could see my grandmother lighting the candles and my grandfather saying the blessing over wine and bread.

We then proceeded to the “old” Keneseth Israel Congregation. Luckily, someone was there and let us in. I had not been back inside since the move to Taylorsville Rd.

I was surprised to see that the only change, as it is now an Afro-American church, was a place in the corner for musicians. The seats were the same, the windows intact, the bimah where Rabbi Brilliant and Cantor Elias sat the same, the ark (without the doors) was still there, and the raised platform where Cantor stood and chanted had not been disturbed.

I led Shana to the chair where her grandfather sat and to the bimah from which he delivered his powerful and loving sermons that touched us all. I could feel the emotions in her heart. I could feel his presence and his smile.

As I stood on the bimah, I looked to the seats on the right. The fourth row is where my family sat for my bar mitzvah in 1957. I could see them so clearly. My Grandmother and Grandfather Salas sat first, my parents next to them, my dad’s parents next to them, then Aunt Rose and my cousins. It was as if they were smiling at me once more.

We went upstairs where the women once sat separate from the men. And we visited the second floor auditorium where I had my bar-mitzvah reception.

Since I was not quite 13 when Rabbi left, I wanted Shana to learn more of her grandfather from someone older than me. So we visited Faye Davis.

Faye, now 95 years old, still has that beautiful smile and a mountain of memories of the past that remain intact. When I told her who was with me she lit up like a Chanukah menorah, and proceeded to name each member of the Brilliant family. She graced my new-found friends with wonderful stories of Rabbi and his family. We laughed as she told us how Akiva, as a young child, would run through the aisles of the synagogue during services.

As we left Shana said that visit was one of the highlights of her trip.

We proceeded back to my house where Shana shared pictures of her family and pictures Rabbi kept of my family. We made a promise to each other. Shana would visit Rabbi’s grave and tell him about meeting me, and let him know I have never forgotten him. And I would do the same with my family.

The next day was my mother’s birthday, and, as in the past, I visited her grave site. But this time, I added more than singing happy birthday and I love you. On this day, I told her how I hugged Rabbi Brilliant’s granddaughter and great- granddaughter, and that Rabbi never forgot us as we never forgot him.

For a moment in time, I traveled through memories of my past. And those memories, as well as my new-found friends, will remain in my heart forever.

Note: As Shana arrived within a few days of our initial conversation, I did not have time to gather more people who knew the Brilliant family. If you would like to share a story with Shana, contact her by email at shana.nathanson@facebook.com and/or become her friend on Facebook. Shana would love to learn more about her family’s life in Louisville and how the Brilliant family touched your lives.


  1. Dear Jerry,

    I came across your post while searching Pelham Parkway Jewish Center and it brought tears to my eyes. We both were blessed to have Rabbi Brilliant in our lives. You and your family in Louisville and mine in Pelham Parkway. I grew up there with the PPJC, being the central part of our lives. I have never forgotten Rabbi Brilliant, his compassion, his wisdom and his capacity to bring us all together and share joy. This is so many year’s ago, but powerful memories remain and are treasured.

    Diane Rosenthal

  2. If it isn’t too late for a reply, I’d like to add one. I lived in Louisville in my teens, from 1937-1943. Our apartment was on the ground floor of a two family housee, and the Brilliants lived upstairs. My father, Eliezer Kishner, taught in the Hebrew School in Rabbi’s synagogue. I used to baby sit for Akiva . It’s hard to think of him as a Rabbi.

  3. We are answering this late, too, because I just found this wonderful post. We thought you might like to know about the most wonderful Rabbi who was our Rabbi—Rabbi Akiva Brilliant, the son of your wonderful Rabbi. Rabbi and his then wife Jeanette, who was tragically killed while walking in Miami, became my husband’s and my mentors.
    But I get ahead of myself. Before I met my husband or Rabbi Brilliant, I wanted to convert to Judaism and was actively seeking a rabbi who would help me in this endeavor. Soon I met my future husband whose family was Jewish. We began attending a Conservative temple in Palm Beach—a long drive from our apartments. Eventually, I approached Rabbi Brilliant, who was the young rabbi at the temple, to ask if he would consider a conversion. We had many long and amazing conversations, and when he finally said that he would convert me, I was so thankful and grateful. Each one of his sermons taught me a great deal about how to live a rich and full life. It was as if he knew exactly what I personally needed to hear each week. He married us after taking me to Miami Beach for a Mikva ceremony. We were saddened that he took a position in Ft. Lauderdale at a larger temple over an hour’s drive from our apartment, but we we understood and followed him there and went to Friday night services. His congregation embraced us and, though we did not become members, they allowed us to continue to attend, even sharing in our joy during a special holiday when Rabbi asked Ed to carry the Torah during the service! We remained a part of this temple until Rabbi Brilliant moved to Miami. We saw Akiva and Jeanette a few times in Miami but never had the pleasure of hearing him give a sermon again. Ed and I had adopted our two miracles and after Akiva remarried, we only have been in touch a few times. But we will never forget the brilliant, caring, gentle, wonderful Rabbi Akiva Brilliant.
    Cathy and Ed Yonkers

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