Jimmy Young, public face and guardian of Adas Israel Congregation, dies at 86


Jimmy Young spends time with the religious school students of Adas Israel before class in Washington, D.C. Mr. Young, longtime caretaker and chief custodian at Adas Israel, died Jan. 30 at 86. (Courtesy of Adas Israel )
March 14

In childhood and in youth, Jimmy Young was an African American of the streets, alleys and asphalt-paved playgrounds of inner-city Washington. As a man, he was for 53 years one of Cleveland Park’s best-known public faces of Adas Israel Congregation, the largest conservative synagogue in the national capital.

Mr. Young’s title at Adas Israel was caretaker and chief custodian. But he was also the synagogue’s chief greeter, a keeper of records and archives, the founder and proprietor of the congregation’s snacks and candy store, the director of security, a mentor, counselor to and guardian of its children, and goodwill ambassador to nearby residents of the synagogue.

For walk-ins Friday night or Saturday morning Shabbat services, his was the first face they saw upon arrival, seated as always, at his desk just inside the main entrance.

Mr. Young wasn’t Jewish, but he wore a Jewish star and an Adas Israel shirt with his name on it.

“He knew the Hebrew prayers better than some of our members,” said Glenn S. Easton, the synagogue’s former executive director and Mr. Young’s supervisor for 22 years. Senior Rabbi Emeritus Jeffrey Wohlberg remembers hearing him “chanting the Torah and haphtara blessings while sitting at his desk.”

On Dec. 31, 2005, Mr. Young retired from Adas Israel. He had worked there for more than half a century and also had lived in the building as a de facto security guard and watchman.

“In a sense, he was like the ancient Levites who guarded the Temple in Jerusalem,” Cantor Emeritus Arnold Saltzman wrote in a remembrance. “He lived in constant contact with Adas members and their children. He had his own little garden which he tended.”

Jimmy Young died Jan. 30 at 86 at the Lisner Home nursing center in Washington of end-stage vascular disease, the synagogue said.

A native Washingtonian and the youngest of six siblings, James Milton Young was born Aug. 2, 1927. He began working at Adas Israel in the early 1950s, not long after the congregation had relocated to Cleveland Park from Sixth and I streets NW in an older neighborhood east of downtown Washington.

It was a chance encounter that brought him to Adas Israel. He was walking by the building one day when someone on the custodial staff saw him and shouted out, “Hey, want a job?”

The pay was either $20 or $40 a week — no one is quite sure. Jimmy Young took it and stayed for 53 years.

He opened a candy and snacks store for children at the Adas Israel religious school, countering objections from concerned parents with his argument that it was safer to sell snacks at the synagogue than to have children cross traffic-ridden streets to a nearby 7-Eleven store.

Mr. Young’s store would eventually serve Adas Israel staff as well. It had two microwave ovens, one for hot dogs — kosher, of course — and one for cheese and pizza, to comply with Jewish dietary laws mandating the separation of meat and dairy products. There was an unofficial committee to make sure that everything stayed kosher.

On the wall, Mr. Young posted a sign: “Do not steal. God is watching.” He made videotapes and cassettes of special events — weddings, bar mitzvahs, guest appearances by such public figures as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

He may not have known everyone at Adas Israel by name, but he knew most of them. Adults who during their own childhood had been mentored and counseled by Mr. Young brought their own children in to meet him.

“I am forever young,” he liked to say. “Just like my name.”

In 2000, Mr. Young received the Yad Hakavod Award at Adas Israel, an honor generally reserved for members who have made extraordinary contributions to the congregation, rarely if ever awarded to a non-Jew.

Mr. Young has no immediate surviving family. Two nephews were his closest relatives. In retirement, Adas Israel staff members supervised his care.

Although Jewish law prohibits the burial of non-Jews at Jewish cemeteries, Mr. Young was interred at the Adas Israel cemetery in Southeast Washington, in a special plot that had been set aside for him.

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