Dr. José Nessim, a beloved family man, respected physician and transformative Jewish leader, died peacefully in his home on Shabbat, July 26, surrounded by his loving family, at the age of 91.
Born in Asuncion, Paraguay, on Oct. 28, 1922, the young Nessim came to the United States in 1941 to enroll as a pre-med student. He received his bachelor’s degree from Pacific Union College and earned his M.D. from Loma Linda University. In 1949, he became a Diplomate of the National Board of Medical Examiners, subsequently becoming the only doctor in Lake Tahoe, Calif., where he practiced until 1954. He was the first resident in obstetrics and gynecology at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles, and he pioneered the creation of the obstetrics/gynecology residency program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, also in L.A. A skilled surgeon and physician who loved his profession, his private practice in Beverly Hills earned him the respect of his medical colleagues and patients for its expert care and professionalism.
He met the love of his life, Freda Safdeye, in 1953. They were married in March 1954 and enjoyed more than 60 years of a beautiful and loving marriage. Nessim was the father of Ron (Paulette), Steve (Veronica) and B. David Nessim, and the grandfather of Danny, Naomi, Leora, Mia and Joelle. Family life was a top priority for Nessim. From his morning walks with his wife to Shabbat dinners, family vacations and special weekends in the family’s home in Laguna Beach, Nessim viewed his family as his greatest blessing.
A witness to growing assimilation in the Jewish world, especially in the Sephardic communities of the Diaspora, Nessim singlehandedly embarked on a mission that, in 1980, would see the creation of the Sephardic Educational Center (SEC), an international educational and cultural organization dedicated to the preservation of the Sephardic religious heritage. Through the SEC, he sought to fight assimilation and return the classic model of Sephardic moderation and tolerance to the Jewish world. His crowning achievements were the acquisition of a beautiful campus for the SEC in the Old City of Jerusalem and the creation of SEC chapters all over the world.
The SEC’s unique Israel trips and study programs helped strengthen Jewish identity and deepen the bond to Israel for thousands of Jews from around the world. The successful results of the SEC include hundreds of Jewish weddings, the creation of new leaders for the Jewish world and a return of Sephardic Judaism to a respected place at the world’s “Jewish table.” More so than many rabbis and Jewish community professionals, Nessim’s visionary leadership was a trigger for Jewish continuity long before the Jewish community used that term. A sampling of some of the condolence messages received reflect his unique legacy:
“I am sure many Jewish couples are forever grateful to him and the SEC for finding each other. I know I am!”
“An incredible, beautiful man with extraordinary vision, way ahead of others.”
“If not for his tenacity, commitment and vision, I don’t think my Jewish life during my teens and 20s would have been nearly as fun and educational. His Sephardic center gave positive Jewish identity to so many of us.”
“Few people are able to leave their positive impact on so many thousands of souls.”
A deeply spiritual person committed to Jewish unity, Nessim was the epitome of “chesed” (kindness) and believed that life is ultimately about being a “ben Adam” (Ladino for “good person”). He always taught: “Don’t wait for something to happen — make it happen!” His signature “thumbs up” is the everlasting symbol of a visionary man who spent a lifetime translating his dreams into deeds.
Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center (SEC), an international educational and cultural organization with its own campus in the Old City of Jerusalem. Follow his blogs at rabbidanielbouskila.blogspot.com or at jewishjournal.com.