Obermayer, Leon J.

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Obermayer, Leon J.

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Obermayer, Leon J.

Obermayer, Leon J., 1886-1984

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Obermayer, Leon J., 1886-1984


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Biographical History

Leon Jacob Obermayer (1886-1984)

Leon Jacob Obermayer was born on September 24, 1886, in Sciota, Illinois. He was a lawyer and a civic and communal leader. He was the son of Hermann and Veronika (Lehman) and attended Central High School in Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania. In 1908, he received his L.L.B. In 1923, he married Julia Sinsheimer and had three children, Herman, Helen Sellers and Arthur. Leon, a lifelong Philadelphian, was voted one of Philadelphia's 50 most outstanding citizens by Philadelphia Magazine on its 50 th anniversary.

Obermayer's father died in 1897 and his brother Henry assumed a working role while Leon attended school. Leon went on to attend a competitive school, Central High School, and later served as president of the school's alumni association and was his class archivist/historian. Leon's papers contain his annotated annual alumni directories which track the lives and deaths of each of the men who graduated from his year.

After a year of undergraduate work at the Wharton School, one of Obermayer's former teachers at Central High School, Franklin Spencer Edwards, encouraged Obermayer to attend law school at the University of Pennsylvania. "Mr. Edmonds" left Central High School to form his own law firm and upon graduation, Obeymayer joined the firm. In 1925, the firm's name changed to Edmonds, Obermayer, and Rebmann and continues today in Philadelphia under the name of Obermayer, Rebmann, Maxwell and Hippel.

Eventually, Obermayer's firm became one of the largest and most successful civil litigation firms in Philadelphia and Obermayer himself was a specialist in trusts and estates. He served as chair of the Board of Governors of the Philadelphia Bar Association and chair of the Ethics Committee and vice president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, chairman of the Board of Governors of the Philadelphia Bar Association and chairman of its Committee on Professional Guidance. In 1971, Leon received the Philadelphia Bar Association's Fidelity Award for his lifelong commitment to the law and remained active in the practice of law until just a few weeks before his death. On his 90 th birthday, Leon revealed to the Philadelphia Ledger that he still went to office five or six days a week. In 2002, Leon was inducted in the new Philadelphia Bar Association's Hall of Fame.

Besides his regard for the law, Obermayer also possessed a concern for children, starting out, as Libo and Feldberg write, at the age of 25 when he became a Scout leader. Obermayer went on to serve as chair of the Philadelphia Council of the Boy Scouts of America and "participated in the governance of the national Scouting movement." Obermayer also worked in the service of public education, the care of the mentally disabled, vocational training, religious instruction, and care of the elderly as well as a myriad of other humanitarian causes. In 1938, Obermayer joined the Philadelphia Board of Public Education and sat on the Board for more than 23 years. During the height of anti-Communist purges in America, Obermayer called for the firing of teachers invoking the First or Fifth Amendments to the Constitution before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the 1950s. Although the teachers were initially fired, they were reinstated by a federal appeals court. Libo and Feldberg note that "despite his conservative stance on loyalty issues, Leon proved himself a liberal regarding most other issues during his tenure on the board. Two years after Leon's term as president, the first of the major civil rights measures passed Congress and the United States made a commitment to desegregation, civil rights for African-Americans and the equality of opportunity for all of the nation's citizens."

Obermayer took a clear stance that racial discrimination was wrong and that public education was an important medium to encourage upward mobility and opportunity for all of Philadelphia's citizens. As president of the school board, Leon studied the issues raised by unequal education and encouraged the Philadelphia School District's managers to train the city's public school teachers to combat racism and pushed for improved Philadelphia schools. Among these improvements were funding university professors to educate in math, language, and science; mainstreaming mentally and physically handicapped students into regular classrooms rather than isolating them into separate ones, strengthening vocational training programs and providing internships for students in his law firm as well as pushing for music and art education. He retired from the Board of Education in 1961.

Obermayer was a staunch Republican and worked actively in the Republican Party. In regards to his congregational affiliation, he was a member and the president of Congregation Adath Jeshurum until 1935, when he resigned after a dispute with the Congregation's rabbi. Obermayer and his wife then moved on to Congregation Rodeph Shalom where they funded the newsletter and served as various officers of the Congregation. Obermayer also served on the board of the Albert Einstein Medical Center and was president of the Young Men's Hebrew Association.

In 1921, Obermayer was nominated by Cyrus Adler to become a member of the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) and eventually became its president in 1963. During his time as President, Obermayer helped the AJHS establish a permanent (at the time) home in Waltham, MA, on the campus of Brandeis University with the help of a large bequest by former AJHS president Lee M. Friedman, who wanted a permanent home for the Society created. According to Libo and Feldman, "When time came for the AJHS Board of Trustees to select a site for the organization's first real home, controversy arose. Some members insisted that New York City remain the Society's base of operations. A small group wanted AJHS to move to Philadelphia. A third faction argued in favor of a solution in which AJHS would acquire a parcel of land at Brandeis University and construct its new building in Waltham, MA. Feelings over the question of where to relocate became heated and divided the trustees. Leon favored the Brandeis proposal, where Abram L. Sachar, the university's president, promised to employ the university's academic resources to assist the Society in establishing its new home."

"Forty-seven percent of the board voted for Waltham, forty-three percent for New York and ten percent voted for Philadelphia. AJHS began building its Waltham facility under Leon's direction and the holdouts formed what is now the Jewish Historical Society of New York. The Society's budget expanded greatly under Leon's stewardship and its new home provided at the time the largest space in the United States dedicated solely to preserving the historical record of the American Jewish experience." (The AJHS eventually joined forces with the Center for Jewish History located in New York City and keeps its current New England and Boston collections in Newton Centre, MA.)

The Obermayers had an extensive Judaica collection. Again, Libo and Feldman write: "Leon and Julia extended their acquisitions into the realm of anti-Semitica, sports memorabilia and other unusual items. They particularly enjoyed discovering items from daily life that began with no Jewish content but to which craftsmen later applied some Jewish identifier. The Obermayers tried to collect as many of these hidur mitzvah artifacts as possible. Leon and Julia enlisted some of their cousins living in Germany to collect Judaica, at the time of Hitler becoming ruler, asking them to purchase any Judaica objects they could find.

When their relatives purchased items, the Obermayers put the money used aside to help relatives and others flee Germany to the States, Cuba, or Costa Rica, but many of these efforts to help did not pan out. Obermayer attempted to persuade governments to accept Jewish German refugees but was thwarted. Obermayer represented the International Committee for Jewish Refugees and was almost successful in getting Costa Rica to accept more Jews from Europe but his plans fell through after meeting with that country's President Leon Cortes Castro. He did eventually get some of his relatives out of Germany.

An avid traveler, Obermayer first visited Israel in 1951. During this visit, he met with the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Isaac Herzog and the visit sparked Obermayer's will to plant Reform Judaism in Israel based upon a comment from Herzog.

According to Libo and Feldberg: "During the family trip, the Obermayers had the opportunity after Shabbat services to visit the home of Rabbi Isaac Herzog, the Chief Rabbi of Israel. When Leon told Rabbi Herzog that he was active in the Reform Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia, the rabbi's response was "Then you really are goyim." That comment shocked the family and intensified Leon's desire to see Reform Judaism gain a foothold in Israel. Leon was well connected with the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion" and an honorary degree of Doctor of Hebrew Letters was conferred on Obermayer in 1954. He joined their board in 1958, and became its vice chairman in 1962. Obermayer was a friend of the college's president, Nelson Glueck, a world renowned archaeologist who had spent many years in the Middle East on archaeological digs. In 1963 with Leon's encouragement the HUC opened a Biblical and Archaeological School in Jerusalem. Until that time, no Reform synagogues were allowed in Israel, and the HUC was reluctantly allowed to have a chapel for limited use within its own facilities. The acceptance of Reform Judaism in Israel increased with the establishment by HUC in 1970 of a Year-in-Israel Program for U.S. rabbinical students, and eventually, a program to train Reform rabbis to serve in Israel.

Despite his self-critical nature, Leon's skill as an orator and narrator was legendary. As his son Herman reflected at Leon's eulogy, by virtue of his strength of character and charisma wherever Leon sat became the head of the table. He never lost his sociability or enjoyment of companionship. His 90 th birthday party in September of 1976 was held at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, the source of many unexplained deaths from "Legionnaire's Disease" a few weeks earlier. Many people feared a new outbreak, but Leon would not be deterred. At the party he gave an eloquent talk and rarely sat at the table, as he circulated from table to table, greeting each of the 250 guests who attended. The list of attendees included Leon's three children, nine grandchildren, Senator Hugh Scott, David Maxwell and Bernard Segal (both former presidents of the American Bar Association) and several judges. At one point, he engages with repartee with bandleader Harold Ruben, who provided music for the occasion. Ruben remarked to Leon, "I played at your 80 th birthday party." Leon replied, "I hope you play at my 100 th !"

That was not to be. On October 2, 1984, Leon Jacob Obermayer passed away at 98. Until six weeks before his death, Leon was mentally alert and physically active. He enjoyed his ninety-eight birthday with his wife, children and their spouses. The next day, he went to bed, never got up and died a week later with no apparent suffering. His beloved Julia lived for another 12 years, still very much the center of the Obermayer family.

For a listing of civic, religious and professional organizations Leon belonged to, please consult The Obermayers: A History of a Jewish Family in Germany and America 1618-2009 .

Sources: Libo, Kenneth and Michael Feldberg. The Obermayers: A History of a Jewish Family in Germany and America 1618-2009 . Massachusetts: Obermayer Foundation Inc., 2009. Who's Who in American Jewry, 1980 . AJHS Call # E184.J5 W6 The Concise Dictionary of American Jewish Biography, vol. 2. AJHS Call # E184.J5 C653 1994

From the guide to the Leon J. Obermayer, papers, undated, 1913, 1919-1920, 1922, 1924-1930, 1932-1934, 1936-1973, 1976-1978, (American Jewish Historical Society)



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