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David Schechner, leader in local Jewish community, dies at 89
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David Schechner, leader in local Jewish community, dies at 89

Scion of families rooted in Oheb Shalom founded long-running Talmud class

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

David Schechner of South Orange and Bradley Beach, a leader of the local Jewish community, died April 12. The cause of death was congestive heart failure. He was 89.

The funeral was held April 15 at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, where he was a fourth-generation descendant of the synagogue’s founding religious leader, Rabbi Isaac Schwarz. Burial was at the Oheb Shalom Cemetery in Hillside.

In addition to serving as the 26th president of the congregation, Mr. Schechner was a 68-year board member — he began in 1953 upon his marriage, even before he was paying full dues — and the synagogue’s historian. He also sat on the board of the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey, and served as vice president of national United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) and president of its N.J. region. His involvement in USCJ stemmed naturally from his history with Oheb Shalom, which was among the founding congregations of the national organization. 

In 1994 Mr. Schechner founded a weekly Talmud class that still meets today and has regularly drawn more than 30 people. It began in his law offices in West Orange, and over the years it has attracted rabbis to teach and lay people to learn from across the religious spectrum. A rabbi once quipped that the participants, mostly lawyers, asked such tough questions as they wrangled with legal points in the texts being studied that every candidate for rabbinical ordination should be required to teach the class. 

Mr. Schechner took the course preparation seriously, and as recently as early April when he was in the hospital, he was insistent about getting readings out to class members. His daughter, Sara Jane Schechner, said that her father never considered not running the class. Now, she pointed out, its future depends on finding a new leader to step up, saying, “That would be a real testament” to her father.

His identity was closely tied to the synagogue where he spent his entire life. “Dad was Oheb Shalom, and Oheb Shalom was Dad,” said his elder son, Paul Sheridan Schechner, a Short Hills resident and a member of Oheb Shalom. That is in part because his father was the first member of the congregation who was both a Schechner and a Schwarz, the scion of two families with deep roots in the Conservative congregation. While Isaac Schwarz, on his mother’s side, was the founding rabbi, the first Schechner to arrive was David’s paternal great-grandfather, a “Johnny-come-lately” to the Oheb scene, quipped Paul, adding, however, that descendants of that first Schechner were usually expected to serve a stint as president. 

Commenting on the proliferation of Schechners and Schwarzes among the Oheb Shalom members, David Schechner used to joke that everyone on the left side of the center aisle were relatives. Because the Schechner and Schwarz sections of the Oheb Shalom cemetery are next to each other, his son said, “I picked a plot that…put him between the two [families]. He was the crossover.” 

Born in Newark, Schechner grew up in the Weequahic section of the city and spent his summers in Bradley Beach, where he met his future wife, Norma Nurkin, as a teenager. After earning a B.A. from Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., and a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1953, he married Norma and then served in the United States Army. 

A partner in the West Orange law firm Schechner & Targan, he was proud of his membership in the ACLU and took on many civil rights cases pro bono. It was important to him to “help the downtrodden and the helpless,” his son said. Schechner served as village attorney for South Orange, Essex County’s representative on the ethics committee of the New Jersey State Bar Association, and board president of Orange Memorial Hospital. 

He is survived by Norma, his wife of 64 years; daughter Sara Jane Schechner (Kenneth Launie) of Newton, Mass.; sons Paul Sheridan Schechner (Amy) of Short Hills and David Sydney Schechner (Lori) of Lexington, Mass.; and grandchildren Daniel, Alina, Miriam, Jennifer, Naomi, Sheridan Benjamin, Jaime, and Ryan. Also surviving are his brothers, Arthur of West Orange (an Oheb Shalom member), Richard of Manhattan, and William of Berkeley, Calif. 

At a 2016 celebration of Schechner’s 87th birthday held during the Talmud class, Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom said, “David has embodied the commitment to regular study in the life he lives…. It’s one thing to pore over the holy books in isolation, by yourself…. To draw others into the study of Torah with you — well, that’s a double, if not a triple, virtue.”

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