NEW YORK — There’s no way to tally all who were lost to the worldwide Jewish community in 2020, a year when we mourned even our ability to carry out time-tested rituals of burial and shiva.
Among those who died this year were some of the Jewish world’s most well known and influential pillars in a range of industries, realms of thought and areas of activism — from the pioneer jurist Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the moral thought leader Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to film legend Kirk Douglas.
But many of the people whose deaths tell the story of 2020 were not widely known, except among the people who loved them and the communities they enriched.
To honor the loss that defined this year, we’re departing from our usual end-of-year practice of highlighting only a few luminaries. COVID struck the known and the obscure alike.
VICTIMS OF COVID-19
Nearly two million people worldwide have died of COVID-19, the new coronavirus that emerged in China at the end of 2019.
Among them were countless Jews, including thousands of Israelis, large numbers of aging Holocaust survivors and rabbinic leaders around the world.
The disease felled prominent people, such as the Novominsker rebbe, Yaakov Perlow, and Fountains of Wayne songwriter Adam Schlesinger, who was just 52 when he died April 1.
But it also took mothers, fathers, grandparents, young adults with promising futures and dear friends — the full range of human experience extinguished by an unrelenting pandemic.
William Wolff: This later-in-life rabbi returned to Germany, where he had fled the Nazis as a child, to lead a community in a former East German state.
Adin Steinsaltz: His landmark translation of the Talmud made it more accessible.
Jonathan Sacks: The former chief rabbi of Britain was one of the Jewish world’s leading moral and intellectual voices.
Dovid Feinstein: Feinstein was one of the foremost haredi Orthodox legal authorities in the US and a symbol of the rich Jewish history of the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Gedaliah Schwartz: This major Orthodox beit din (or rabbinical court) leader sometimes clashed with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.
Yehuda Herzl Henkin: Henkin and his wife, Rabbanit Chana Henkin, started a groundbreaking program for Orthodox women to answer questions of Jewish law.
ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
David Stern: The longtime commissioner of the NBA helped turn the league into a global powerhouse.
Elizabeth Wurzel: Wurzel, only 52, helped kickstart the literary memoir genre boom with her 1994 book Prozac Nation.
Buck Henry: Henry, born Henry Zuckerman, was another Mel Brooks acolyte but a star screenwriter in his own right, penning scripts for films such as “The Graduate.”
Kirk Douglas: The movie star of Hollywood’s early golden age, who was born Issur Danielovitch and lived until 103, reconnected with his Jewish roots later in life.
Sy Sperling: The Jewish son of a Bronx plumber was famous for his Hair Club for Men ads in the New York City subway, noting that he wasn’t only the company’s president, he was also a client.
James Lipton: He hosted the famed “Inside the Actors Studio,” interviewing hundreds of movie stars over decades.
Danny Goldman: The actor and casting director, who attended Jewish day school, was best known as the voice of a Smurf.
Alan Shestack: The influential museum director helped lead the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Yale University Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Art.
Jerry Stiller: One generation knows him best as the father of Ben, and another knows him as George Costanza’s cranky dad on “Seinfeld,” but Stiller was an actor with broad range.
Joel Schumacher: The director of blockbusters was known for helming “St. Elmo’s Fire” and two Batman films.
Milton Glaser: One of the most famous and influential designers of all time made some pretty Jewish graphics in his heyday.
Carl Reiner: The comedy legend and his best friend Mel Brooks from writing some of the 20th century’s best Jewish comedy.
Angela Buxton: The 1956 Wimbledon doubles champion was denied admission to the All England Club, which hosts the prestigious tennis tournament and normally gives lifetime access to all winners, because of anti-Semitism.
Arnold Spielberg: His war experiences inspired his son Steven to make “Saving Private Ryan,” and he helped make the USC Shoah Foundation into a leading archive of Holocaust testimony.
Ronald Harwood: The acclaimed screenwriter won an Oscar for his script for “The Pianist,” based on the memoir of a Polish Holocaust survivor.
Helen Reddy: The Grammy Award winner for the feminist anthem “I Am Woman” converted to Judaism.
Marlee Shapiro Asher: The visual artist, who lived until 107, survived the Spanish flu pandemic as an infant and COVID-19 in the last year of her life.
Catie Lazarus: The comedian and writer hosted one of the entertainment world’s best kept secrets: “Employee of the Month,” a live show that involved standup and interviews with celebrities.
LAW AND BUSINESS
Sumner Redstone: The media industry giant born Sumner Murray Rothstein created an empire that included CBS and Viacom.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The first Jewish woman on the Supreme Court was a feminist pioneer, liberal warrior and in her later years a pop culture icon.
Linda Sher: Sher founded JACPAC, the first political action committee run by Jewish women.
James Wolfensohn: The investor-turned-World Bank president was a philanthropist to Jewish causes and shepherded Israel’s exit from Gaza in 2005.
Theodore Mann: Mann led the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the American Jewish Congress, and was an early critic of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
Gabor Hirsch: Hirsch, who survived near death in Auschwitz, was one of Switzerland’s most prominent advocates for Holocaust commemoration.
Justin Sonder: Sonder became a police officer in his native Germany just six months after US troops liberated him from a death march from Auschwitz, and later a left-wing politician and activist.
Renzo Gattegna: In addition to testifying before young people about the Holocaust, Gattegna helped rebuild the Jewish community in Italy after the genocide and eventually led the Union of Italian Jewish Communities.
Paul Sobol: The Belgian Auschwitz survivor became dubbed “a conveyer of memory” by local media in his later years.
Maurice Cling: Cling, who survived Auschwitz and Dachau, became an English teacher who also told his story to teens in France, where he eventually fled to.
Esther Cohen: Cohen, who escaped Auschwitz, educated her fellow Greeks about the Shoah.
Larry Tesler: The Xerox and Apple innovator invented the now-ubiquitous copy and paste function.
Norman Lamm: The prolific Jewish scholar and author helped turn Yeshiva University back into a flagship institution of modern Orthodoxy as its longtime president.
Zeev Sternhell: The Israeli expert on fascism and ultranationalism taught at The Hebrew University for decades and was an outspoken critic of the settler movement.
Martha Nierenberg: The Hungarian Holocaust survivor and MIT biochemist who spoke six languages helped bring Scandinavian furniture design to the US through a company with her husband.
David Schneer: The brilliant Jewish studies professor at the University of Colorado died at 48.
Jack Steinberger: The pioneering physicist won a Nobel Prize for helping to identify the universe’s smallest particle.
JEWISH COMMUNAL LIFE
Albert Sherman: The influential communal and political insider in Boston held leadership positions at several major Jewish organizations, including the New England ADL.
Stephan Ross: The Holocaust survivor founded the New England Holocaust Memorial.
Robert Lappin: The giver to Jewish causes helped found the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and sponsored teen trips to Israel decades before the start of the Birthright program.
Ilia Salita: His Genesis Philanthropy Group worked to strengthen the Jewish identity of Russian-speaking Jews around the globe.
Maurice Bidermann: The Holocaust survivor became a leading men’s fashion magnate but was also eventually convicted of corruption.
Yefim Goldberg: The 106-year-old Jewish veteran of WW II who was honored frequently by the governments of Belarus and Russia.
Tedje van der Sluis: The Dutch Holocaust survivor was the subject, along with her survivor husband, of a hit documentary in her native Holland.
Jackie Jakubowski: He became one of Sweden’s most important Jewish voices as editor of the local cultural magazine the Jewish Chronicle.
Albert Memmi: The famed French author often referenced his Jewish identity and wrote about anti-Semitism.
Beny Zlochisty: The Mexican Jewish leader helped Jews in the Soviet Union, led trips to Holocaust sites in Europe through March of the Living and helmed the Mexican Zionist Council.
David Galante: It took decades for the Auschwitz survivor to teach younger generations about his experience in his adopted Argentina.
Jorge Kirszenbaum: The former president of Argentina’s Jewish community helped the relatives of those who were kidnapped and disappeared under the last military dictatorship that ruled Argentina, from 1976 to 1983.
Mikhail Zhvanetsky: The Holocaust survivor from Odessa became one of Russia’s most famous standup comedians, against all odds during the oppressive Soviet Union years.
Suzanne Belling: The former JTA correspondent was a leading writer on Jewish issues in South Africa.
Joseph Safra: Brazil’s richest man at the time of his death, with a fortune of over $23 billion, was a global Jewish philanthropist.