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Tucsonan Gladys Hanfling is a people person — and a synagogue stalwart

Gladys Hanfling holds a Torah with a needlepoint mantle she created in 2003 for Temple Emanu-El.
Gladys Hanfling holds a Torah with a needlepoint mantle she created in 2003 for Temple Emanu-El.

Gladys Hanfling, 87, isn’t afraid of anything. “I’m chutzpahdik,” she says, smiling. Life is full of experiences so why should anything stop her? As for her age, “I don’t look it. I don’t act it. I don’t think it,” Hanfling told the AJP.

Born in the Bronx, N.Y., she attributes some of her confidence to her father, Sigmund Spitz, a Hungarian immigrant. “He was my role model. He was Orthodox and put on tefillin every day. I was his favorite,” she says. “He would say after my brother was born, ‘He’s never going to be as smart as Gladys. He’s never going to be as good as Gladys.’”

When her father died at age 49, “I couldn’t cry until I met my husband. He taught me to feel again,” says Hanfling, adding, “Is that corny?”

On Nov. 29, 1952, “I married the best man in the whole world, Arthur Hanfling. He was my best friend.” In addition to a happy 48-year marriage, she devised her own career. Following her 24-day hospital recuperation from gall bladder surgery in 1964, she says, “I needed to get out of the house. My mother was living with us and we had run out of things to talk about.” While in the hospital, “I saw things that I didn’t approve of. Food was brought up unprepared. I said, ‘I don’t eat pink chicken.’ Cobwebs were hanging from the ceiling. First I called the hospital

administrator and told him he should hire me” to be in charge of patient relations. Next, she went to his office.

Perhaps the administrator knew he had no choice, because he hired Hanfling. “When you don’t need a job, you can be chutzpahdik,” she notes. The administrator took her around to meet the staff, who “groaned when I met them. They all asked, “What are you going to be doing here?’ I said, ‘I’m going to meet with patients.’”

Hanfling worked at the hospital for 21 years, eventually becoming the director of patient relations with three assistants reporting to her. The couple’s two sons had moved to Seattle, got married and lived there. When she retired in 1986, she and her husband moved to Seattle to be close to them. “I hated the weather,” says Hanfling. They lived there for 12 years but started to come to Tucson for extended stays in 1997.

On one of their stays, “my husband said, ‘Why are we schlepping back and forth? You’re so happy here. Why don’t we move here?’” It took her no time to agree, says Hanfling. In Seattle, “I got sick and tired of being there for everybody. I needed to be there for me. I’m a good feminist.”

The Hanflings became members of Temple Emanu-El, which has been a home to her ever since. Her husband died on Jan. 16, 2001, while she was studying to become an adult Bat Mitzvah. “He was so proud of me,” says Hanfling.

Her husband was buried in Seattle and the family sat shiva there. As a widow, she was ready to leave Tucson, “where I’m all alone” without family, she says. Hanfling considered moving back to Seattle, but “Rabbi [Samuel M.] Cohon saved my life. ‘You’re not going anywhere,’ he said to me. ‘You’re staying here with us. Your husband will always be with you.’” Her Bat Mitzvah took place in May 2001.

Everyone at Temple “has become my family,” says Hanfling, who was named Temple’s volunteer of the year in 2008. “I was here when they needed me. They wanted me here on Tuesday mornings when they had staff meetings. I answered the phone.” Plus, she says, “I’m not afraid to go to people and say what’s needed. I get things done.”

Hanfling’s life revolves around her committee participation and activities at Temple. She’s instrumental in convincing newcomers to join the synagogue. Hanfling has been taking Cohon’s “Zohar: Soul-Text of the Kabbalah” classes for 11 years. Also, she says, “I’m here every Friday night and Saturday morning. I’m a people person. When I see a new face I zoom in and introduce myself. Some people need food. Some people need travel. I need people.

“I need to be needed. There’s a purpose to my life. You can always have a purpose in life,” she says, “no matter what your age.” Hanfling’s memory is sharp as a tack. She chuckles, recalling that her husband used to say, “I wish you’d forget half of what you remember.”

Her activities outside Temple include needlepoint, having people over for dinner parties and occasionally going to lunch with friends. She drives during the day but not at night. Her Temple family is “so kind to me,” says Hanfling. “They call Mondays and ask what my appointments are for the week.”