Rav Shlomo Maimon, beloved rov of the Seattle community and a spiritual guide and mentor to thousands, went to his eternal rest a few days before Rosh Hashana. He had served his community for over seventy years.
Rav Shlomo was born in Tekirdag, Turkey and came to the United States with his family in 1924 at the age of five. An almost sacred part of the Maimon family lore tells of a dramatic episode in the family’s voyage when the ship was struck by a fierce storm and was in danger of capsizing.
Young Shlomo’s father, Rav Avraham Maimon, gathered his frightened children together and asked each one to promise that if Hashem had mercy and brought them safely to shore, they would each be steadfast in keeping Shabbos in the new country. All the children gave their promise.
The storm gradually subsided and the ship reached Ellis Island without further incident. The Maimon children never forgot the solemn promise they had made at sea.
The family settled in Seattle, Washington where Rav Avraham, who had served as a rov in Turkey, assumed the leadership of Sephardic Bikur Holim, one of Seattle’s few Orthodox shuls in that era. Over the next several years, before tragically passing away at a young age, Rav Avraham succeeded in building up the shul’s membership and raising its level of Shabbos and kashrus observance.
In 1944, his youngest son, Shlomo, who had studied under and received smicha from Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, became his father’s successor. Faced with the generally weak state of religious education in Seattle, Rav Shlomo immediately threw his energies into teaching, and in laying the foundation for Seattle’s first religious day school.
He was the initiator and driving force behind the Seattle Hebrew Day School (now known as the Seattle Hebrew Academy), sparking resistance from many Jewish immigrant families who were swept up in becoming Americanized, and preferred free public schools for their children over a Jewish school. Rav Shlomo persevered and the day school, established in 1947, just a few years after he assumed the rabbanus, steadily grew and prospered.
A charismatic and tireless leader, Rav Shlomo’s joyous spirit, love of learning, and affection for others drew young and old into his orbit. Throughout the decades, even before kiruv became a popular movement, he consistently reached out to those with minimal Jewish background, creating and running Torah programs for his community.
He possessed a visionary streak that enabled him to push for educational initiatives at a time when Jewish religious education had few champions in the region. In order to fully service his community on the west coast where mohalim were often hard to find, he became a mohel, circumcising over a thousand babies in Seattle and neighboring states, and as far away as Alaska.
Rav Shlomo once remarked that when he gazed into the eyes of a baby whose bris he was performing, he pictured “the child…the teenager… the loving parent…and future Torah generations that would blossom from this eight-day old miracle.” These visions of generational continuity fueled the incentive he needed to continue his work.
Envisioning the youth as the community’s future leaders, he invested special efforts into building a relationship with them and inspiring their commitment to Torah. His enthusiasm for this cause led him to create the Sephardic Adventure Camp, a religious summer retreat for Sephardic children, founded in 1957, that introduced participants to the beauty of their Sephardic heritage within a religious setting.
Additionally, Rav Shlomo was a key builder of the Northwest Yeshiva High School, the Seattle Kollel, and more recently, the Seattle Torah Day School. He also served for many years as the Av Beth Din of the Seattle Va’ad, the organization of Orthodox Rabbis in the Seattle area.
Long after retiring in the late 1980’s, he continued teaching classes, giving shiurim, officiating in Houston or Detroit for the yomim noraim, and making himself available to people who needed advice, chizuk or just a compassionate ear.
Excerpts from hespedim given by his grandsons offer a rich appreciation of Rav Shlomo Maimon’s unique legacy to his family and community.
From his grandson, Rabbi Moshe Maimon:
The Power of His Love
Papoo was the living embodiment of oheiv es habrios umekarvon laTorah. His big heart had enough room for everyone; including the lonely, the downtrodden and neglected. People from all walks of life were drawn to his magnetic personality; his all-embracing ahavas Yisroel would comfort and nurture them, and inspire an appreciation for his rich Torah lifestyle.
Countless students and congregants from all over the world came to view themselves as members of his family, and that is how Papoo viewed them as well. In his later years, many of these congregants would vie for the zechus of gathering under Papoo’s tallis for birchas kohanim, and feel the power of his blessing and love.
In my mind’s eye, I see him greeting a stranger with his typically warm handshake, and after exchanging amenities, explaining that the word yad is numerically the same as the number of joints in a person’s hand – 14! He then asks the person to guess the significance of the 28 joints contained in the two hands—his own hand and that of his new friend—now clasped together.
Barely waiting for the answer, Papoo would exclaim with his infectious chuckle, “28—that’s koach—strength!”
This was more than just a catchy vort; it encapsulated Papoo’s very essence. He delighted in reaching out to others, spreading happiness and chizuk and demonstrating that together, they possessed the strength to overcome all of life’s travails.
Although Papoo always seemed to enjoy the spotlight, there was an unmistakable humility in the way he generously complimented everyone around him and in his profuse thanks for even the smallest of favors. That humility was especially evident in the way he treated young children with genuine interest and respect. For Papoo, kids were never in the way, never too troublesome to have around no matter how much bedlam they caused. He took special delight in talking to them and drawing them out.
Who can forget the familiar sight at family simchos where Papoo could be found in a corner engaging the grandchildren with his sparkling stories and jokes, while their parents, happily freed for the moment, chatted among themselves?
Although he could be critical, Papoo could never utter a disparaging word about anybody. He exhorted his grandchildren to avoid using belittling speech and always insisted that all groups of people had wonderful qualities worthy of emulation.
Even more inspiring than his relationships with his fellow man was Papoo’s close and personal relationship with Hashem. When he davened, always enunciating the words and always from a siddur, you got the sense that he was engaging in a real interpersonal relationship with the One Above, whose presence he genuinely felt.
How I loved to observe his morning ritual where he would wake at the crack of dawn and sit down at the kitchen table with a coffee and siddur in hand, ready for his morning prayers. He’d slowly wend his way through the lengthy portions preceding Shacharis and then prepare to go to shul, well before many of the congregants were even awake.
After Shacharis, Papoo would once again sit down at the table with coffee and now a Chok LeYisrael, and proceed to lovingly learn the daily portion of chumash, mishna, mussar and halacha.
Papoo’s dedication and enthusiasm for his minhagim was infectious; his grandchildren all absorbed a strong sense of pride for our family’s Sephardic minhagim. He didn’t simply carry out these unique traditions, he lived them with all his being. He delighted in chanting his time-hallowed pizmonim with such gusto, they had a contemporary tone and people couldn’t help but join in.
When Papoo would sing the centuries-old Turkish version of Yom HaShabbat at his Shabbat meal, his hands would simulate the crowns of naaseh venishmah descending from heaven. The song would spring to life; all the participants at the seudah would be drawn into it, alternating along with Papoo between the Hebrew, English and Ladino verses.
All his grandchildren and later, even many great-grandchildren, derived special joy in mastering the Ma Nishtana in Ladino and surprising Pappo on seder night with their recital. To see his face light up with delight when a child would finish the Hebrew, English and Yiddish renditions of Mah Nishtana and then launch into Quanto fue de mudada la noche la esta….(the Ladino version), was unforgettable.
Papoo experienced his share of tragedy and loss in his life but was steadfast in accepting Hashem’s judgment with love, refusing to allow misfortune to subdue his spirit.
When he lost his own father at age twelve; when he lost his beloved first wife and later two children to illnesses; when he lost his cherished second wife of twenty-five years; and later, when his health began to decline and he began to lose his sight and become increasingly dependent on others, his unwavering faith in Hashem would not permit him so much as to cry, let alone question.
By nature soft and sensitive, he suppressed his pain, never allowing sadness to consume him or weaken his resolve to carry out what he felt was his mission in life.
For the longest time, Papoo seemed to defy nature; he simply failed to age with time. Well into his nineties, he would travel around the world to minister to his adopted congregations in Detroit and Houston and attend family simchos, bringing his trademark joy and inspiration with him.
We all remember how Papoo invited all his friends and relatives to a party he threw himself for his eightieth birthday, and joyously pronounced a shehecheyahnu on a new suit he wore for the occasion. He gave public thanks to the Al-mighty for reaching that milestone, expressing the ardent wish to be able to do the same for his ninetieth birthday.
Ten years later, this wondrous scene repeated itself, and just a short few months ago, he celebrated his 100th birthday with his family and community at his side.
Papoo often commented that he felt he had merited arichas yomim because he had committed to live his life “in accordance with the will of the Al-mighty,” adding that he would keep up his holy work as long as he had the energy.
He would speak openly of his mortality, saying “I am here only as long as Al-mighty G-d wants me to be here.” Yet, I never heard him refer to himself as an old man until a few weeks before his passing, when he struggled to pick up something that fallen to the floor and muttered to himself, “Ay, I’m an old man.”
It came almost as a shock. We had hoped Papoo would live to see the gilui kevod Shomayim that he so longed for all his life. Witnessing his undimmed vitality for so many years, it really seemed possible.
The man who so loved life and had been the source of spiritual life for so many, now seemed resigned that his remaining days were slipping through the hour glass. Yet, exactly one week before his passing, close friends overheard his quiet entreaty, “Please, Hashem, one more week!” and Hashem granted him this last request.
Alas, anshei emunah ovdu, great men of faith have departed, and Papoo is surely enjoying his richly deserved portion in Gan Eden in the presence of his beloved Creator. As his grandson, my brother Shlomo, put it, “Now Papoo can finally meet the Ben Ish Chai and other Sephardic gedolim and the great talmidei chachomim he venerated all his life.”
Our consolation is knowing that Papoo lives on through the countless lives he enriched with his inspiration, and through those who became shomrei Torah umitzvos through his great influence. And most certainly he lives on through his myriad acts of righteousness and good deeds.
Zechuso yagen aleinu.
From his grandson, Rabbi Tzvi Maimon:
Papoo set out on a mission when he was a young man of seventeen. He left home to study in yeshiva for many years, nurturing a dream of one day becoming a builder of Torah, of builder of communities, of uplifting the downtrodden and inspiring generations.
Hashem knew that his desire came from the heart, and gave him the opportunity to turn that mission to reality over the course of his next eighty-plus years. Papoo refused to slacken even in his senior years, and even until very recently, he was active in helping to build communities in Detroit and Houston.
Papoo, your greatest joy was bringing joy to others, especially through divrei Torah delivered in your inimitable style.
I will never forget an incident that took place about four years ago when I made a bar mitzvah for my son in Cleveland. My son, Yosef, called up Papoo and told him how much it would mean to him if he would attend the bar mitzvah. Although long-distance travel was not as easy as it used to be for him, Papoo couldn’t refuse. At the age of 96, he made the trip from Seattle to Cleveland in honor of his great-grandson.
During his stay with us, I brought him to the school where I teach, to speak to the fifth and sixth grade boys. With the energy of a 20-year old, he stood before them and had them literally standing on their seats, chanting along with him.
‘Shema stands for Moshe oloh lamorom, Moshe ascended to the higher spheres,” he proclaimed to the class. ‘The mem is for Moshe…’ He asked the boys to repeat the words and they did so with gusto. ‘Ayin is for oloh,’ he declared, motioning for them to echo his words with the same relish. They obliged with obvious excitement.
He continued regaling them with the devar Torah, finishing up with, “Now everyone say, ‘Wow!’ Without missing a beat, the boys roared ‘Wow!’
This was vintage Papoo. Even at the age of 96, he had kids enraptured. This was his most quintessential desire, to reach out and inspire the youth.
Part Of His DNA
About a month ago, I came to visit him. I picked him up from the old age home where he would visit and give encouragement to the “old people,” as he called folks who were several years junior. Seeing him this last time was very different from previous visits… and it was very hard for me to observe the decline.
I needed to see that vigor, that charm and energy that was Papoo’s essence. On an impulse, I started humming the camp song that he composed so many years ago, the song that generations of Seattle kids have sung. To my surprise, he started singing along, both the tune and the lyrics! How was it possible, I wondered, when so much had already settled into the twilight zone of his memory?
I think it was because this song represented the very fiber of who he was; it was part of his DNA, the blood that flowed through his veins, driving him to inspire and encourage, to give chizuk to others and teach life’s lessons, especially to the youth. “We honor and obey/everything our parents say…!” Parts of that iconic camp song are ringing in my ears to this day.
During that same visit, I asked him, “Papoo, tell me… what do you think was your biggest accomplishment in life?” He reflected a bit and answered, “I was there for people; when they needed me, I was there for them.” To make sure he understood me, I asked him the same question a few hours later. I received the same response. Being there for others was so integral to his being that even at his very advanced age, the innermost desire that defined his entire life came flowing forth.
Papoo, you were such a fundamental part of our identity! When we’d meet people across the globe and tell them our name, they would inevitably ask, “Related to Rabbi Maimon from Seattle?” With such pride we’d respond, “Yes, he’s our grandfather.” You left us this wonderful legacy of what it means to cherish and enjoy every moment of life and the opportunities it presents, to encourage others and bring smiles to their faces.
This is ingrained and imbued within us and we will make sure to pass it on from generation to generation, until we merit to dance together once again, with the coming of Mashiach bimheirah beyameinu.