Simchat Torah, one of the most joyful Jewish holidays, turned bittersweet for members of the Anshe Sfard Revere Road Synagogue on Tuesday with the loss of their longtime rabbi, Mendy Sasonkin.
But for many, the timing was a testament of his unwavering faith.
“He passed at a moment when we were in the peak of celebrating his passion,” said Rabbi Josh Brown of Temple Israel Akron. “I’d like to believe that there was something poetic in that.”
Sasonkin, who has led the congregation since 1995, passed away Tuesday after a seven-year battle with lymphoma. He was 54.
Tuesday was also Simchat Torah, which celebrates the conclusion of the annual cycle of public Torah readings and the beginning of a new cycle, often marked by dancing and singing.
It was his favorite holiday, said Kaila Sasonkin, his wife and the education director at the synagogue.
“For a person to pass during that time ... that person is righteous,” said Meir Ohayon, who worked closely with the rabbi as a volunteer at the synagogue for the past 25 years.
Mendy Sasonkin’s life was always steeped in orthodox Jewish tradition that generations of his family worked to preserve.
He moved to Brooklyn, New York, from Israel when he was 17. There, he graduated from yeshivah, where he studied Chabad (an Orthodox Jewish movement) to become a rabbi.
He and his wife moved to Summit County in 1989 to establish a Chabad movement here, first to Agudas Achim Congregation in Canton the following year.
“When he first came to town, there was a big question about whether or not orthodox Judaism could be sustained in a small Jewish community like Akron,” said Sam Chestnut, the head of the Lippman School, an Akron school that teaches through the lens of Judaism. “He didn’t turn people into orthodox Jews, but he brought orthodox Jewish traditions to many people in the community. He helped us all understand that there is a rich and long tradition of Judaism that can reach any Jewish person’s life.”
In 1995, the Sasonkins became leaders of the Revere Road Synagogue in Bath Township, a congregation founded in 1915.
“When he came to our synagogue, he brought a lot of fire to a lot of people … all done in a very modest way,” Ohayon said.
Known for his kindness and humility, Mendy Sasonkin is credited in the Akron Jewish community for teaching about his faith to all people, from participating in Jewish outreach programs to bringing Hannukah celebrations to Summit Mall.
Many people’s first encounters with the Sasonkins were through invitations to join them for dinner or coffee at their house.
Even leisurely tasks, like playing basketball, became a way for Mendy Sasonkin to connect with others and spread his faith to them.
“Being a rabbi was not a profession for him. It was just who he was,” Brown said.
The Sasonkins have 10 children between the ages of 12 and 30 who are also very involved in their faith.
“The family is going to continue the legacy” of the synagogue, Kaila Sasonkin said.
Mendy Sasonkin is survived by his wife and children, his eight siblings — one of whom is Nachum Sasonkin, a survivor of the 1994 Brooklyn Bridge shooting — and his parents.
His funeral was held Wednesday at Anshe Sfard Synagogue, 646 N. Revere Road, followed by interment at Anshe Sfard Cemetery, 310 Swartz Road.
Shiva will be observed throughout the week at the Anshe Sfard Synagogue. Regular Shabbat services will be held at the synagogue Saturday, performed by members of the family.
Theresa Cottom-Bennett can be reached at 330-996-3216 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Theresa_Cottom.