Alfred Raider strolled up to the bimah when he was called for the third aliyah during a recent Shabbat morning service at Shaarey Zedek Congregation, an Orthodox congregation in Valley Village. After services, family, friends and fellow congregants gathered to join Raider for the Kiddush, which he hosted in celebration of his birthday and the 89th anniversary of his bar mitzvah.
For those who know him, Raider’s vitality and independence at 102 is a source of pride.
“He has a sense of humor and optimism about life,” said Rabbi Jonathan Rosenberg, who recalled the congregation’s shock and surprise when Raider jogged to the bimah on his 100th birthday.
“Being in his presence encourages others, because of his love for life,” Rosenberg said.
Raider doesn’t look 102 years old; if pressed to guess, most people would say he’s at least 20 years younger. He defies other expectations as well. Raider lives by himself and cooks for himself in a well-kept condo, which a housekeeper visits once a week. An avid reader, he is able to recite facts, figures and historical anecdotes with startling accuracy. He is also the proud owner — and regular user — of an iPad and has a profile on Facebook.
Whether critiquing the past 16 presidential administrations — the only decent president in the last century was Harry Truman, he says, calling him a “man of the people” — or expounding on Jewish folklore, Raider thrives on conversation.
“I love people. I love to talk. I love discussions, but not arguments. I can talk extemporaneously on any subject in the world for five minutes,” he said.
Raider jokingly refers to himself as a “high school dropout.” Although he never made it past 10th grade, his education didn’t stop there.
“My father is always on the search for knowledge,” said David Raider, his 72-year-old son. “He keeps up with the news. He watches the History Channel or Public Broadcasting. And he has a great deal of knowledge that he’s learned by being proactive throughout his entire life.”
Born in Slutsk, Russia, in 1909, Raider recalls scavenging the streets for potato peels and stealing apples during Russia’s 1921 famine. By bribing Polish and Russian officials, Raider, along with his mother and younger brother, smuggled themselves into Poland in 1922, hidden under a pile of hay on the back of a truck. Once Raider made it to America at the age of 12, he spent the next five years cooped up in Pittsburgh libraries, listening to librarians and trying to mimic their English.
In 1929, Raider relocated to New York, where he landed a job as a bookkeeper on Wall Street. After meeting his future wife, Estelle, at a cousin’s wedding in Cleveland, he quit his job in 1932 and moved to marry her. Raider jokes that he was probably the only person in the country to quit a job during the Great Depression.
“We struggled for a while in the Depression. But we always did whatever we wanted to do. I never stuck with something I didn’t like,” he said.
After leaving his job as a buyer for a hospital, Raider and his wife opened a household appliance discount store in Cleveland after World War II. The couple sold the business in 1962 and moved to the San Fernando Valley.
“When I first moved [to Los Angeles] in 1962, there were only two kosher restaurants. Now there are over 70 kosher restaurants and schools galore. It makes me so happy,” he said.
The Raiders operated a wholesale sundries business in downtown Los Angeles for 10 years. In 1975, while visiting Israel, Raider spent $45,000 on Israeli merchandise and opened the gift store Jerusalem Fair in Sherman Oaks, which he ran with his wife until 1977.
In their retirement, the couple circled the globe in a series of trips and volunteered for the gift shop at the University of Judaism, now American Jewish University.
His first visit to Israel in 1961 spurred Raider’s intense devotion to the Jewish state, Raider says. He returned more than 15 times and tried persuading his wife to move there. He even financially sponsored a young orphan girl in Jerusalem 30 years ago; today, he proudly displays a pillow, which features a photo of her daughter, on his couch.
Raider has four sons, 10 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. Estelle died in 1998, the year the couple celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary.
Raider’s Valley Glen condo is filled with mementos from his life, from his restored wedding ketubah to his collection of kosher cookbooks to his just-received birthday cards from L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Sen. Barbara Boxer, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Henry Waxman.
Up until two years ago, Raider still had a driver’s license. Now he drives around his neighborhood in a motorized cart decorated with fringes.
“Sometimes I feel like a celebrity — people stop me on the street to take a picture,” he said.
As he sits at his kitchen table tapping away on his iPad — a gift from two of his great-grandchildren — he discusses how the features on the new model trump the original. Specifically, he likes the camera.
“You can just lift up the iPad wherever you are and take a picture of anything,” he said.
He considers the greatest technological advancement of his lifetime to be mass communication, but he carefully articulates its pros (the ease and speed) and its cons (how it fails to make people more understanding of one another).
“He grew up almost before electricity was invented,” David Raider said. “But now he uses the computer, he uses the iPad, and he checks his e-mail. That’s quite a feat.”
Raider’s life hasn’t been without its fair share of hurdles when it comes to health. He has had two open-heart surgeries — “I liked it so much I came back for a second one,” he said — as well as gall and kidney stones and surgeries for throat cancer.
But Raider says he has never let his age get in the way of living.
As he considers the reasons for his long life, Raider mentions getting a blessing from Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the Chofetz Chaim, as a child. But then it hits him.
The secret to his longevity, he said, is to “keep breathing.”