Meyera’s Jewishness was front and center at her well attended memorial service

March 20, 2015

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There have been funerals of significant Jewish business and philanthropic leaders over the years in Hampton Roads, but not of many prominent political figures who observed our faith. Virginia Beach Mayor Meyera E. Oberndorf was one of the few. The memorial service in her honor on Monday, March 16 following her death on the previous Friday at the age of 74, let the more than 500 in attendance know this was a courageous woman who was proud to be a Jew.

The audience at the Virginia Beach Convention Center included family, friends, members of city councils and the state legislature, plus dozens of admirers who remembered Meyera as a populist champion of everyday people who morphed into a citywide leader as mayor for 20 years (1988-2008). Her schedule took her many places here and abroad, but she never strayed from her commitment to kashrut. “Chefs from all over town, out of love and respect for her, knew to call her secretary to see what she could and couldn’t eat,” recalled David Proser, chazzan at Kehilat Bet Hamidrash, Meyera’s synagogue in Kempsville. But if you did not notice what was on Meyera’s plate, you only had to listen to her mention, as she did often, about being the “petite Jewish woman” who took on the establishment.

Mayor Will Sessoms noted the major infrastructure achievements that occurred during Meyera’s watch, including the Lake Gaston Pipeline, the Virginia Beach Convention Center, Town Center and even the central library that today bears her name. Others, like former Virginia Beach Social Services Director Terry Jenkins, focused on Meyera’s love of children and compassion for the underserved as well as her ability to face difficult challenges, both political and personal. Indeed she won five tough elections for Mayor and overcame breast cancer, but not dementia and later Alzheimer’s disease, which led first to her admission to Beth Sholom Village and then to a facility in Charlotte, where her daughter Marcie lives.

Rabbi David Ellenson, Meyera’s first cousin and the former head of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, presided at the service, reciting Hebrew psalms and prayers and translating for the crowd the verse on the coffin cover, “righteousness walks before the person.”

Just before an honor guard representing all the city’s public safety departments prepared to carry the casket to a waiting H.D. Oliver hearse, the former Mayor’s favorite musician stepped onto the podium. In 2005 at the age of 10, Annika Jenkins came to City Council with quarters and dimes she had earned and announced she was donating it toward the cost of constructing what is today the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts. Smitten, Meyera had Annika play the violin at the subsequent groundbreaking and dedication of the building. Today Annika is studying at Julliard in New York and has performed around the world. When she heard Mrs. Oberndorf had died, she rushed home to Virginia Beach to perform the mayor’s favorite Bach selection, then also provided accompanying music as the family departed the ballroom.

“Meyera was a wonderful public servant who made us all very proud of our own Jewishness,” says Harry Graber, UJFT executive director, who was in attendance. “The service was a very moving tribute to her public accomplishments, but also to her Jewish life,” which the Chevrah Kadisah at Temple Israel honored by preparing the body for internment.

Following the Convention Center program, the Virginia Beach police department escorted the hearse onto Interstate 264 for the short trip to the Peninsula where Meyera was raised. In Hampton, officers from that city guided the motorcade into the Jewish Cemetery on Kecoughtan Road, where Meyera was laid to rest beside her husband Roger, who died in 2012, and her parents, Louis and Hilda Ellenson. Heidi Oberndorf along with her sister Marcie, her husband Marty and their children Lila and Joey plus other family members, including first cousin Jimmy Ellenson, now of Franklin, Va., recited the kaddish. It was a fitting end to a day and a life of a truly Jewish woman who according to David Proser “showed us all just how big a little person can be.”

by Joel Rubin

Letter to the Editor