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Sarah Shane, Baltimore Jewish organizer who led national volunteer groups, dies at 98

Sarah Shane, a former teacher and longtime Baltimore Jewish organizer, died of heart failure at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem on Feb. 27.
Sarah Shane, a former teacher and longtime Baltimore Jewish organizer, died of heart failure at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem on Feb. 27.(HANDOUT)

Sarah Poliakoff Shane, a former teacher, longtime Baltimore Jewish organizer and past president of the largest religious Zionist organization in the U.S., died of heart failure at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem on Feb. 27, one day after the birth of her 35th great-grandchild.

From parent-teacher associations to national Jewish conferences, Mrs. Shane — “Suzie,” as she was known to friends and family — dedicated much of her life to volunteering.

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As president of the American Mizrachi Women and more than a dozen other local and national groups, she trained women to lead by example and came up with innovative solutions, such as night meetings, to allow women entering the workplace to continue their volunteer efforts, according to friends and family.

But all of her various commitments didn’t keep her from rising early each morning and cooking her family a hot breakfast with fresh-squeezed orange, her daughter Ruth Shane recalled fondly.

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“Our alarm clock was the sound of that juicer in the kitchen,” she said. “We never knew orange juice came in a carton or a bottle.”

Sarah Poliakoff was born in Baltimore on Christmas Eve 1919 to Hannah “Gussie” Gittel, a homemaker, and C. Raphael Poliakoff, who worked as a ritual kosher slaughterer. She grew up in a home in East Baltimore, across Aisquith Street from her maternal grandparents, Golda Miriam Schwartz and Rabbi Avraham Nachman Schwartz, the chief rabbi of Baltimore in the early 20th century.

She graduated from Western High School in 1936 and attended Isaac Davidson Hebrew School and the Baltimore Hebrew College. She received a bachelor’s degree in education from the Towson Teachers College, now Towson University, and a master’s degree in remedial reading from the University of Maryland.

She married Sylvan Shane in 1943, and the couple lived in an apartment in Park Heights before moving to a home Mr. Shane built in Mount Washington in 1950. They raised four children together. The marriage ended in divorce, and Mr. Shane died in 2010.

Mrs. Shane worked as a kindergarten teacher at the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore, which her maternal grandfather had founded, until she became a mother. From 1975 to 1979, she was national president of American Mizrachi Women, now known as AMIT, a religious Zionist group whose more than 40,000 members support 110 schools and educational programs in Israel.

Ruth Shane attributed her mother’s dedication to her upbringing, which she said gave her “a front-row seat” to her grandfather’s advocacy in the Jewish community. Her uncle, Joseph J. Schwartz, saved tens of thousands of lives as the Joint Distribution Committee’s director of European operations during the Holocaust.

“She was raised with a responsibility for the Jewish people,” she said. “You don’t sit on your hands. You do what has to be done.”

Mrs. Shane served as president of the ladies’ auxiliary and parent-teacher association of the Bais Yaakov School and the Talmudical Academy, the Baltimore Zionist Federation, the women’s branch of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America’s Maryland Chapter and the Jewish Community Center Associates.

She was a board member of the old Beth Jacob Synagogue and Lutheran Hospital sisterhoods, the Federation of Jewish Women’s Organizations of Maryland and the Associated Jewish Charities of Baltimore.

She also served on the boards of the American Zionist Federation, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Jewish National Fund, the United Israel Appeal, American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Israel Bonds, the American Council of Voluntary Agencies for Foreign Service Inc. and the World Zionist Organization (WZO).

Mrs. Shane was a mentor, a role model and leader to countless women, said Linda Elman, chair of the women’s division of Israel Bonds of Maryland and president of the Women’s Institute of Torah.

“She was one of the first women I met when I came to Baltimore more than 30 years ago,” she said. “I wanted to be like her. … She was a leader before everyone talked about being a leader.”

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At a time when women were prohibited from holding executive-level jobs, Mrs. Shane and others channeled their time and efforts into volunteerism.

“Like so many super-smart, capable women, Sarah used volunteerism to exercise her prodigious talent and give back to her community by building a strong, vibrant volunteer-run organization,” said Debra Moed, current president of AMIT.

In 1998, Mrs. Shane moved to Israel, “something she’d dreamed about in her modest, quiet way,” Ruth Shane said. Her youngest great-grandchild, named Israel, was born upstairs from her hospital room the day before her death, and Mrs. Shane was buried at Har HaMenuchot, Jerusalem’s largest cemetery.

In addition to her daughter Ruth, Mrs. Shane is survived by her daughters Betty Ginsburg, of Baltimore, and Nancy Fleischman, of Telshe Stone, Israel, and her son, Frank Shane, of Fort Myers, Fla., as well as 15 grandchildren and 35 great-grandchildren.

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