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On 100th birthday, Temple Emanu-El volunteer gets a blessing and a laugh

Elsa Leibovitz celebrated her 100th birthday on June 25 in grand style by receiving a blessing from Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon at Temple Emanu-El’s Friday night service and sponsoring the evening’s Oneg Shabbat.

Elsa Leibovitz receives a blessingfrom Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon of Temple Emanu-El on her 100th birthday, June 25. (Joe Steiner)

“It’s wonderful to reach this age,” Leibovitz told the AJP by phone on the morning of her birthday, “because I have wonderful children — three children, nine grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.”

The spirited centenarian had just returned from a two-week trip to New York to visit members of her extended family, with the California contingent traveling in to join her at the Temple Emanu-El celebration last week.

“My traveling days may be over, though,” says Leibovitz. “My head is 40 and my body is 100. It’s not quite in sync. The head wants to do so much.”

Born in New York City and raised in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, Leibovitz says she and her first husband, Robert Sidney, traveled around quite a bit before setting in Philadelphia for 17 years. They moved to Tucson in 1969 after Sidney, a CPA who was in poor health, came here on business and found the climate agreed with him.

“We came to Tucson on May 6, 1969,” says Leibovitz, displaying a memory many half her age would envy.

Sidney died in 1972. “I remained here and made a life for myself,” says Leibovitz, which included volunteering at Temple Emanu-El and part-time work for a few of her late husband’s clients. As a girl, she had wanted to be a nurse, but was discouraged by her parents. Instead, she attended secretarial school and found work in a doctor’s office before marrying Sidney and helping him in his work.

“I was a widow for 11 years. I never dated,” says Leibovitz. “Then I met the love of my senior years.”

That was Albert Leibovitz, a scientist at the University of Arizona Cancer Center who’d retired as a colonel in the U.S. Army. They married in 1983 and were together for 23 years. “He died two years ago, November,” says Leibovitz, who continues to live in the condominium they bought after Albert retired, where she is assisted by a live-in companion.

Cohon, who blessed Leibovitz at the Temple Emanu-El service, said, “Elsa is a remarkable person. She has an indomitable spirit.”

“We talk about an eshat chayil — a woman of valor — she has courage and gets through things with such strength,” says the rabbi. Leibovitz also has “a tremendous commitment to Judaism, Yiddishkeit and the people of Israel.”

And she has a sense of humor, says Cohon. On her 90th birthday, the late Bishop Manuel Moreno happened to speak at Temple Emanu-El, so Leibovitz received a blessing from both the rabbi and the bishop. “It’s very nice to have a bishop,” she ribbed the rabbi, “but couldn’t you get a pope?”

Cohon told this story to Jason Holtz, Temple’s new assistant rabbi, whose first service with Temple Emanu-El was June 25. Holtz decided to get a pope costume to wear when Cohon introduced him. Leibovitz, says Cohon, “thought it was hysterical.”