Stephen H. Hoffman

President, Jewish Federation of Cleveland

Stephen H. Hoffman, president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, doesn’t remember how many people attended his bar mitzvah more than 50 years ago. But he clearly recalls seeing Wilt Chamberlain – one of the most dominant players in the history of pro basketball – at the kiddush after the service.

Hoffman, 64, celebrated his bar mitzvah on his 13th birthday – Dec. 28, 1963 – at Temple Sholom, a Conservative synagogue in Philadelphia that has since closed. He says the 7-foot-1 Chamberlain was there with Ike Richman, co-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers at the time, who was a founding member of Temple Sholom.

“If I remember right, (Richman) had a yahrzeit that week,” Hoffman says. “So he came that day to recite the kaddish, and for whatever reason, Chamberlain was with him. I didn’t know he was there until after the service was over … they came to say hello at the oneg Shabbat-kiddush.”

Interestingly, Chamberlain was not a member of the 76ers at the time. He was drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors, who moved to San Francisco before the 1962-63 NBA season. So Philadelphia was without an NBA team for one season, until Richman and Irv Kosloff purchased the Syracuse Nationals and relocated them to Philadelphia. That team was renamed the 76ers and began play in 1963-64.

But Richman, who was Chamberlain’s lawyer and signed him to his first pro contract, remained close friends with the big center and brought him back to Philadelphia via a trade during the 1964-65 season.

Hoffman, who grew up in Philadelphia, says Chamberlain congratulated him at the kiddush, but he doesn’t recall much else about their meeting.

“He wasn’t invited to the party,” Hoffman says with a chuckle.

At the bar mitzvah service, Hoffman says he read from the Torah, which was unusual at his congregation, and read his haftorah portion from a Torah scroll, without vowels.

“My rabbi and cantor thought I had mastered it quickly enough to move on to the Torah portion,” he says.

Hoffman says it went well – “it was flawless” – but he was nervous.

“My knees and legs were shaking uncontrollably from behind the bimah,” he says. “But my family thought it was great. Most important was my zeyde (grandfather Joseph Leese). He approved, and that’s all I cared about.”

The party was a luncheon following the service at The Northwood, a kosher catering establishment in Philadelphia. Hoffman says his mother, Ruth, planned it and “seemed happy.”

“One of my classmates from school, Andrew Levin, had his bar mitzvah the same day,” he says. “It was a twilight service, so I finished my own bar mitzvah and then I had to hustle to get to his. A lot of my classmates had to get over there, too.”

Hoffman says he doesn’t remember giving a speech at his bar mitzvah.

“Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t; it doesn’t stand out,” he says. “In those days they just didn’t expect much from you when you had a bar mitzvah.”

Hoffman, of Shaker Heights, has served as president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland since December 1983, except for a three-year stint (2001 to 2004) as president and CEO of United Jewish Communities in New York. He and his wife, Amy, are members of B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in Pepper Pike. They have two daughters, Emily and Jessica, and two grandchildren. 

 This article appeared in the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of Bar•Bat Mitzvah.