Buddy Lebman

Buddy Lebman in 2014. Photo: Yana Hotter/Spoonful of Sugar Photography

By Ellie Grossman, Special to the Jewish Light

When the lexicon of the Yiddish language was created, the word mensch originated from the description of Buddy Lebman,” said one of his longtime friends, Elsie Roth. “Buddy has made a profound difference in the lives of many people, not only in Jewish community, but everywhere.”

Even though Lebman has touched so many people in his 89 years, his nomination as an Unsung Hero comes as a surprise to him. He has no idea who nominated him or why.

“My first thought is that there is a mistake. The second thought is that I have not done anything to warrant this honor. It should go to a person who achieved success after much effort. Whatever I have done was through a love of the goal,” said Lebman, who was a major force behind the creation of the Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy (RJA), which was founded in 2000. At the time, Jewish day schools generally only existed in the Orthodox and Conservative communities, not Reform. RJA merged with Solomon Schechter Day School in 2012 to form the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School.

“The concept of RJA is a result of the experience that students were being confirmed from religious school after 10 or 11 years and still lacked a solid Jewish education,” Lebman explained. “There was not nearly enough time to learn about being Jewish in the weekend religious school, and I became convinced that even if the schools could spend more and more money on student programs, it still wouldn’t make a difference in the result.”

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So Lebman spent three years discussing the idea of a Jewish day school with the Reform rabbis. During this time, a board of very prominent men and women joined this undertaking to study the fiscal feasibility of the concept as well as its practicality. Would parents enroll their children in the school? Turns out, the answer is yes.

“RJA started with just a headmaster and an assistant headmaster, a teacher and a prayer,” said Lebman. “From a beginning with seven children, the school grew each year, getting accredited and being recognized by the community,” until its merger with Schechter.

In addition to being a founder and past president of RJA, Lebman’s list of accomplishments is long. It includes serving on the boards of Congregation Shaare Emeth (also past president), the St. Louis Jewish Light, the Jewish Community Center, Central Agency for Jewish Education, B’nai B’rith Institute of Judaism, Covenant Place (formerly Covenant House), Camp Sabra and the Older Adult Community Action Program (OACAP).

Before Lebman made his mark in St. Louis, he left his mark on history. As a 20-year-old corporal and the only Jewish boy in the outfit attached to the 42nd Infantry Division, Lebman was involved in the liberation of the Dachau Concentration Camp, near Munich, towards the end of World War II.

“When we arrived at the death camp, I got sick to my stomach and threw up,” he recalled. “The stench was so overwhelming that I could imagine for miles before we arrived something unholy had happened. There were bodies all over the place, in wagons, and stacked three layers high on wooden slats in the barracks. I saw bodies waiting in ovens to be cremated. We all cried.”

He said he tried to feed the starving inmates, who looked like cadavers, with whatever food he had in his pocket.

“I got chewed out by the officers,” he added. “They said giving them food would kill them.”

Lebman will never forget his experience in Germany, and thanks to the photographs that he took of the death camp, neither will we. In fact, the most interesting artifact that Lebman brought home with him in 1946 was a letter signed by Adolf Hitler.

“I was in a truck with my arm was hanging down,” Lebman said. “Some guy ran across the road and slapped an envelope in my hand and ran away. I never saw his face. Turns out it was a letter of commendation for this man from the German government, and was signed by Hitler. The letter has been certified authentic and is now in the archives, along with photographs, in the St. Louis Holocaust Museum.”

Over the years, Lebman has stayed physically and socially active. A lifelong swimmer and avid biker, he competed in the Senior Olympics and “came in second out of two riders in the 75-year age group.”

In 1991, Lebman and an Israeli friend rode their bikes from Jericho to Eilat in the Israeli desert. It took three days to travel the isolated, barren road in 120-degree heat and was a tremendous accomplishment.

A few years ago, he gave up the bike, but he still loves the water. Today, his home away from home is still the JCC, especially the men’s health club where likes to play bridge, swim and kibbitz with the guys. In fact, he has been a member of the JCC since he was nine years old, when it cost $9 a year to join, and his dad paid it off 50 cents a week.

Lebman and his wife, Hadassah, will celebrate their 67th wedding anniversary in June. They have three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Lebman passed on the athletic gene to his 33-year-old grandson Mati Oren, who is an accomplished swimmer in the Special Olympics in Israel, winning more than a dozen gold medals and breaking a world record.

The Lebman legacy continues.

Buddy Lebman

Age: 89

Residence: Creve Coeur

Quote: “Whatever I have done was through a love of the goal.”