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Two Worlds Intersect:  Meet Longstanding Members Richard and Dorothy Dorsay

Building Bridges

by Azriella Friedman

Dorothy (Kurzrock) Dorsay was born in Newark, New Jersey to a family that enjoyed Jewish life and customs. Before she turned 6, her family moved to a house that was just three blocks away from B’nai Abraham, a Conservative synagogue with Reform Rabbi Dr. Joachim Prinz. There, she attended religious school three times a week, joined the children’s choir, and later was a part of the Young Judaea. She attended Camp Ramah as a teen for three summers, studied Hebrew at her public high school, and attended Hebrew High School in the evenings. After returning from a thrilling trip to Israel, she entered her senior year of college.  At that point, Dorothy was the president of BU Hillel and continued to fulfill her love for Judaism and Israel in this role. In Dorothy’s words, “if it was something Jewish, I was there.” Her parents wanted to ensure their family’s “Jewishness” and Dorothy was a happy recipient of this philosophy. Dorothy’s mother was an active member of Hadassah, a Zionist women’s organization. During the War of Independence, Dorothy’s entire family fell silent every morning so that her mother could hear the radio with the latest news coming out of Israel. Yet, when asked about her commitment to her synagogue and the plethora of other Jewish clubs and groups she was a part of, Dorothy explained that she joined these organizations because of her own desire and draw to Judaism. Richard Dorsay was born in Manhattan, to parents who were first generation Americans. His parents’ desire was to be proper Americans and not to be bothered with attending synagogue every week or keeping kosher felt too “difficult.” His parents were brought up in Orthodox homes, keeping kosher and speaking Yiddish. They spoke Yiddish in their home only to ensure Richard and his brother could not understand them. At the same time, they kept glass dishes for his grandparents to use. Richard attended Hebrew school only to please his grandparents and had a Bar Mitzvah because they would have been heartbroken if he had not. His parents’ disinterest in Judaism influenced Richard for most of his early life and he was not drawn to Judaism. In fact, in college, he served as an usher in a Universalist Chapel. It was not until he attended medical school, that Richard decided to give Judaism a chance. He called the Boston Board of Rabbis to see if they could recommend a synagogue. Richard went to the recommended Reform Temple Israel and then went almost every Friday night during his four years at Tufts Medical School. It was there in that community when Richard finally found a religious home and a connection to Judaism. Dorothy and Richard had been living opposite lives. Their upbringing and feelings towards Judaism were very different. Dorothy grew up in a conservative household and community, with a strong connection to Israel.  Richard grew up with very little knowledge of Judaism and did not grow up as a Zionist because his parents had little attachment to Israel. So how Richard and Dorothy ever get together? Where else but at an Episcopal church in New York, where their friend Pamela, a Black woman, was getting married to a Black minister! The newlyweds, Pamela and Bob, went to live in Alabama, where they worked to correct the dreadful inequities, including voting rights, education, housing and employment. 1962, when Dorothy and Richard met, was the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Individually, they each had marched and picketed. Civil rights meant a lot to them and still does. Interestingly enough, when Richard learned that Dorothy had gone to Israel, he was puzzled as to why she’d gone there instead of Europe. Thus Dorothy doubted that he was Jewish. They started to see one another in Boston after this chance meeting and managed to build a foundation of mutual interests, then decided to get married. Their January 1964 wedding ceremony at Temple B’nai Abraham was officiated by Rabbi Prinz and Dorothy’s Hillel rabbi. Richard admits he would not have gone to Israel if it weren’t for Dorothy. He planned a one-month trip to Italy and Israel in 1966. When he found himself unenthused with time spent in Italy but rather enjoying Israel so much more, Richard discovered his love for the country. During this time, Jerusalem was partitioned, and Richard became very concerned about Israel’s future and wellbeing. Stepping off the plane in Israel for the first time was an eye-opening experience. Richard now believes that he “loves Israel as much as Dorothy.” It was as if two divergent worlds became one. In 1968, Richard had finished his residency and went into the public health service which was in San Francisco. The Dorsay family immediately joined a synagogue, Beth Sholom. Their first child Adam was only five months old. Richard and Dorothy were committed from the start. They went to Beth Sholom every Friday night. They loved San Francisco! On November 1st, 1970 the Dorsay family of four moved from San Francisco to Saratoga. Dorothy felt “like she was going to die” as she loved the vibrancy and diversity of San Francisco as well as her synagogue community. They moved to Saratoga only because Richard got a job. When they arrived in Saratoga, there was no Jewish life. As they both recalled, “It was a desert. We were the only Jews in our neighborhood.”  It was a difficult and painful transition for Dorothy, as it was very important to her to be a part of a conservative synagogue and a Jewish community. Richard wanted to do what would make her happy, despite his own comfort in Reform communities. As a result, they immediately joined Congregation Beth David, which at that time was meeting at the YMCA. Richard vividly remembers that the cello, which was incorporated into the Kol Nidre service, moved him greatly. Both Richard and Dorothy felt a natural draw to want to participate in the synagogue. When Beth David had a house on Stelling Road as a synagogue, Dorothy taught second grade in one of the bedrooms. The garage was where services were held. Richard sold tickets at a premium for the Fiddler on the Roof movie to raise money for CBD. Dorothy was the chair of the Committee of Concern, which evolved into the Social Action Committee for about twenty five years. She helped start the blood drive, Mitzvah Day,  recruited volunteers to serve Christmas dinner at a homeless shelter, and started the yearly housing of homeless men every June at Congregation Beth David. The University of Judaism honored Dorothy for her work with the Social Action Committee, particularly for establishing the first Mitzvah Day. Richard was the co-chair of Chevrat Chesed for ten years with Doris Katz. Chevrat Chesed focused on community building and would bring meals to those who were ill. They also organized volunteers to drive people to/from the doctor and visit members in the hospital. In the late 70’s, the Dorsay family lived in Guatemala so that Richard could serve as volunteer teaching radiology to doctors for Project Hope. Beth David honored them for tikkun olam. For Dorothy, this dedication to a synagogue and Jewish community was very similar to her experiences as a child and young adult. For Richard, it was completely different from how he grew up, but he loved it. When their two children Adam and Jenny were growing up, they were required to be home on Friday nights for Shabbat dinner. Dorothy would make a special dinner every Friday and set the table with nice plates and cutlery. This tradition was not something Richard grew up with, but he wanted to give his children a better Jewish experience than the one he had. In anticipation of Adam’s Bar Mitzvah, Richard learned trope and read from the Torah, as did Dorothy. When asked about what has motivated them to keep their Jewish identity strong, Dorothy replied, “It’s in my gut. I don’t know anything else or any other way of living.” Richard explained that he was very close to his mother’s father, who was an Orthodox Jew. Richard did not want Judaism to die on his watch, especially after knowing about all that his grandfather had experienced when emigrating from Eastern Europe. When he went to Israel for the first time with Dorothy, he became enamored with the state of Israel and all that it had accomplished. “Dorothy has opened my eyes to things that I would have never seen if I had married someone that did not care as much for Judaism. She is my motivator.” When Richard and Dorothy joined Beth David in 1971, it was a very small community and they were struggling to get 100 members. Now, Beth David has become a much larger community but still maintains the feeling of one that is close-knit. Richard loves how the Rabbi tries to incorporate music into some of the services, as music helps him get in touch with his spiritual side. Dorothy loves the people, “I genuinely love seeing the members of Beth David” she exclaimed. In giving advice about surviving this challenging time — Richard and Dorothy emphasized that despite the sadness of the pandemic, “there are also some magnificent experiences that would not have occurred without this pandemic.” Richard has been taking university courses offered virtually and suggests that during this time of uncertainty we take time to learn, whether that be via university lectures or conversations with friends and community members. Dorothy now (virtually) visits weekly with four college roommates, and frequently with six of her New Jersey childhood friends. “Reach out to people, call them or text them. And make time to read!” Participating in this project was an excellent opportunity to become more involved in the Beth David community. I find great value in sharing the stories of those who have helped make our community what it is today. Towards the end of our interview, I asked the Dorsays what their favorite Jewish holiday is, to which they both replied, “Passover.” Richard emphasized, “Once we were slaves, now we are free. We cannot rest until everybody else is free.” The lessons I took away from this experience are endless, but I will especially remember that phrase. In today’s world there is so much unrest and hatred, and we should not stand by and watch as others are oppressed. As Hillel said, “…. If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” I am grateful for the opportunity to have learned more about the Dorsay’s devotion to Judaism and the synagogue.