Just two weeks ago, we read from Parashat Lech Lecha, which means “Go forth.” God told Abraham and Sara to leave their home in Haran and journey to the land of Canaan, taking with them all the people they had acquired in Haran. The sages interpreted the phrase, “the people they had acquired in Haran,” to refer to Abraham and Sara’s students, the proselytes who also believed in the power of the One God in the Universe. Abraham and especially Sarah were their mentors, their surrogate parents, who molded their characters and raised them to be righteous people and God revering Jews. I refer specifically to Sara this morning because she was a model for us, the mother of the Jewish people, a strong and determined woman who influenced countless generations for good.
Leona is our own Sara Imeinu, Sara our mother. We are all her children and her students. As a teacher, she imparted knowledge to us and taught us the ways of the world. Even more important, she has been a role model for us, showing us that age and optimism can be synonymous, that life does not atrophy with additional birthdays, and that change can be embraced no matter what one’s chronological age. She is a model for women everywhere: the first woman to teach in the History Department of the University of Maryland, the first woman to become a dean at what became Baltimore City Community College, the first female confirmation teacher (1950-1966) and the first female president of this holy congregation (1983-85).
Leona represents the highest ideals of our Faith. She is a student of Torah, a leader of our congregation and the community at large, and a doer of good deeds. In 2005, Leona said in her own words, “I hope to be remembered as one who loved learning, who loved people, who was always ready to try new things, who accepted change, who was ready to help those who needed assistance and who always used humor to lighten difficult situations.” Leona is a brilliant, erudite, witty, and irreverent person. She is warm, friendly, and welcoming. Leona has embraced thousands of students and made them her children. Her impact upon this congregation and the people of Baltimore cannot be overstated.
Leona’s dear father and mother, Samuel and Sadye Morris, raised Leona and her brother Vernon in small towns in Virginia and Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where they made a living as merchants. Always active in their communities, they taught Leona the importance of engaging with others in order to work for the common good. After high school, she left home for the big City of Baltimore where she attended Goucher College, majoring in history and political science and graduating Phi Beta Kappa. She earned her Master’s degree at the University of Maryland and took advanced courses through many distinguished universities. She taught at Southern High School and Poly for many years, eventually joining the faculty of Baltimore Junior College and its administration. In 1972, after formally retiring from her career in education, Leona embarked on a new endeavor. She became the senior on-air correspondent for WJZ, meeting thousands of new people and showing the entire state and nation that a vigorous and enthusiastic person such as Leona cannot be limited by any societal imposed boundaries.
In the course of her life, she has made countless friends, has influenced thousands of students, and has been a great mother to us all. As we celebrate her 100th birthday, we wish that Leona may continue to “go forth” and live as long as Sara Imeinu, until 127 years of age, with undimmed eyes, a clear mind, and the ability to find meaning and enjoyment each day of her life. She honors us by her presence today.
May Leona continue to go from “strength to strength” as together we say