Rabbi Morris Gordon, who help establish more than a dozen Washington area synagogues and later guided scores of couples in building strong marriages, died March 26 from complications of a stroke at his home in Falls Church. He was 90.
Rabbi Gordon devoted much of his life to interfaith dialogue and collaboration. He was a decorated World War II Army chaplain, a former construction company executive and a sought-after speaker on topics ranging from Albert Einstein's spirituality to Jewish mysticism. In the mid-1980s, he helped created the international PAIRS Foundation, teaching relationship skills to couples and how to form happy families.
Rabbi Morris Gordon, center, worked with couples before and after marriage. Vitaly Ralehman and Lidia Rakhman assisted with a 1981 workshop.
(Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By the time Rabbi Gordon moved to the Washington area in the early 1950s, the number of Jewish families settling in the suburbs had been steadily increasing. When a group representing 30 couples in Bethesda approached him for help in starting a synagogue, he agreed. Congregation Beth El became the first of several congregations he would help as an itinerant rabbi.
He oversaw the founding of eight Conservative Jewish congregations and help nurture at least six other young congregations in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs.
"When the newcomers, particularly those with young families settling in the suburbs, came, I saw that if you want them to remain [active in their faith,] you have to build synagogues where the people are," he said in a 1978 Washington Post article.
The Har Shalom Congregation in Potomac, of which he was the founder, named its sanctuary the Rabbi Morris Gordon Sanctuary, an honor never before bestowed on a living rabbi by any synagogue in the area.
Rabbi Gordon was born in the Latvian frontier town of Baranowich and lived there until the age of 6. His father, a Hebrew scholar, had traveled to the United States shortly before Russians occupied the small Jewish village after the outbreak of World War I. In 1920, Rabbi Gordon, along with his mother and his sister, joined his father in Albany, N.Y.
He graduated with distinction from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, where he was later awarded a doctorate.
He took his first pulpit in Youngstown, Ohio, and then entered the Army. As a chaplain in the Air Force in World War II, he served in the famed Flying Tigers unit under the command of Gen. Claire L. Chennault. He was the first, and for a time the only, chaplain to make it up the besieged Burma Road to minister to troops fighting in the vicious war.
Theological barriers fell away, and he counseled Protestants, Catholics and Jews alike. "I would see as many as 1,000 men a day," he recalled in a Post article. "I gave them a good solid Biblical service, and they thought it was great. I preached from the Old Testament and brought them right to the heart of their tradition."
He was under constant enemy sniper attack in the Burma jungle. After his evacuation by air, he was awarded the Bronze Star. He also received the Chinese Medal of Honor.
One of Rabbi Gordon's most cherished memories of his service during World War II was the personal role he played organizing safe passage for 1,000 refugee children to travel by ship from Shanghai to Israel, according to his wife.
Decades later, he crossed paths with some of them, who were working on a road project in Israel.
After military service, Rabbi Gordon became the spiritual leader of Temple Adath Jeshurun in Minneapolis. During that time, he help create the United Synagogue Youth program, which has become a worldwide movement that has helped connect hundreds of thousand of Jewish teenagers with their spiritual roots.
He also befriended Minneapolis's young mayor, Hubert H. Humphrey. Years later in 1961, then-Sen. Humphrey asked Rabbi Gordon to lead the invocation before a joint session of Congress for President John F. Kennedy's inauguration.
From the 1950s until the 1970s, he was president of the Roberts Co. in Washington, a building supplies firm owned by his first wife's family.
Since 1984, Rabbi Gordon's fervent passion had been to help couples and children of all backgrounds, cultures and religions. He and his wife, Dr. Lori Heyman Gordon, an internationally acclaimed author and family therapist, established the PAIRS Foundation to teach relationship skills. A network of more than 1,000 professionals and lay leaders share their innovative techniques in emotional development, communications and conflict resolution.
He was past president of the Rabbinical Assembly of Greater Washington, representative to the Interfaith Council and former chairman of education of the Washington Board of Rabbis.
His first wife, Frances R. Gordon, died in 1978.
Survivors include his wife, Lori Heyman Gordon of Falls Church and Weston, Fla.; two children from his first marriage, Arlene Bar Yosef of Sataria, Israel, and Albee Gordon of Los Angeles; three grandchildren; a great-granddaughter; four stepchildren, Jonathan Eisenberg of Westfield, N.J., David Eisenberg of Needham, Mass., and Seth Eisenberg and Peggy Eisenberg, both of Weston, Fla.; and nine step-grandchildren.
"I have felt the hand of a higher destiny in my life," Rabbi Gordon said in 1978. "It is as if God said: 'Look, man, I put you here -- make the most of it."