Synagogue’s director plays by own rules

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His mom admits she is not the most religious person around - “I’m not that observant,” she will insist.

“No, she is not the most observant person,” her son agrees, “but she’s always had a real commitment to the Jewish people and the idea of Jewish continuity. Being a Holocaust survivor has a lot to do with that commitment.”

Her tale begins even before she was born to two Ukrainian refugees: Louis Safran and his wife, Ethel. Ethel was not his first love; before that, he was married to a woman called Zipporah and together they had an infant daughter. But one late summer day in 1942, the Nazi occupiers of the area sent the father off on a work detail.

While he was gone, they slaughtered the inhabitants of the village, including Zipporah and her daughter. Esther Foer’s eyes tear up when she thinks about the half-sister she never knew.

“I’d love to have known her name,” she says. “I’d just like a name, so I could honor her memory.”

Louis Safran never talked about the incident and Esther herself only found out about the deaths about 20 years ago.

He met his second wife in Lodz, Poland, and they fled to Germany to escape the onrushing Russian army. Esther was born in a displaced persons camp and they lived in the barracks, speaking Yiddish. She still has a sweater given to her back then by a woman who could not have children.

“I actually have happy memories,” she says. “I had parents who adored me. Children who were born at that time were so adored.”

Her family applied to Brazil but was turned down. They arrived in the United States in 1949 when she was 3 1/2. She grew up in the District and attended the University of Maryland. Her first job was writing for Congressional Quarterly, and she was the press secretary in 1972 to Democratic presidential hopeful George McGovern.

But she ended up in marketing, eventually founding her own firm, FM Strategic Communications. She balanced this with the raising of three sons: Franklin, Jonathan and Joshua. They ended up at Columbia, Princeton or Yale universities as journalists or novelists. The younger two sons have gotten advances of more than $1 million for recent novels such as “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and “Moonwalking With Einstein.”

Glowing biographies of those sons have mentioned the mother’s role in raising them.

“It wasn’t that highbrow,” Franklin Foer said. “We watched a lot of television as kids. It’s not like we sat around playing chess or the violin. But my parents did place a lot of value on the life of the intellectual.”

Ed Kopf, president of the Foer’s home synagogue, Adas Israel in Cleveland Park, has known the family for 20 years.

“She’s delightful, bright, outgoing, strategic when she’s working on something and warm. Those are just some of the words to describe her,” he says. “She knows how to communicate and how to create excitement. There was a surge in visibility at Sixth and I after she came on.”

Her sons “experienced a rich Jewish life,” he said. “Look at their work. Either their writings have substantial elements of Judaism or don’t neglect it.”

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About the Author
Julia Duin

Julia Duin

Julia Duin is the Times’ religion editor. She has a master’s degree in religion from Trinity School for Ministry (an Episcopal seminary) and has covered the beat for three decades. Before coming to The Washington Times, she worked for five newspapers, including a stint as a religion writer for the Houston Chronicle and a year as city editor at the ...

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