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OBITUARIES / Pauline Weinstein Ledeen, 1910 - 2007

Retired lawyer visited Jewish inmates in jails

December 10, 2007|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Pauline Weinstein Ledeen, who for decades visited Jewish inmates in jails and prisons, offering grandmotherly concern, wise advice and a connection to the Jewish community, has died. She was 97.

Ledeen, whose work earned her the nickname "Bubbe Teresa," or Grandmother Teresa, died Nov. 27 at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena from congestive heart failure caused by pneumonia, said her great-nephew Larry Tashman.

"To those of us who were actually visited by Pauline while incarcerated, she listened to us intently and with genuine interest," Carrie Newman, who met Ledeen while in jail, wrote in an e-mail. "She made it a point to let us know we were still cared for, and she gently urged us to become better human beings."

For years Ledeen also celebrated Passover with inmates "to let them know they're cared about," she said in a 2000 Daily News article. Spending time with criminals, even convicted murderers, did not frighten her; prison guards and law enforcement officials were all around, she said.

"The only time I was ever afraid was when a paranoid schizophrenic threatened to kill me," Ledeen told The Times in 1992. "I said, 'Wait a minute. You can say anything you want, but don't you raise your hands.' Nothing happened. . . ."

The visits were part of Ledeen's volunteer work with the Jewish Committee for Personal Service, a service of Gateways Hospital and Mental Health Center in Los Angeles. The committee was formed in 1921 to address the needs of Jewish prisoners and the mentally ill. Ledeen joined in 1947 and served on its board for 20 years.

After Ledeen and her husband, Hyman, sold the family business in 1967, they had more free time and the committee's executive director asked her to visit prisoners. Ledeen was 57 when she and her husband began driving through the state, visiting inmates.

But in 1980 she suffered an injury and the next year her husband died, so she limited her visits to the Los Angeles County Jail.

Before a visit could take place, Ledeen had to first identify the Jewish inmates of an institution, a task that involved studying a printout of more than 20,000 names and looking for those that sounded Jewish. Then Ledeen or a colleague would visit the inmates, who were handcuffed by a chain to a bolt in the floor in the presence of guests.

Often, men who have just been jailed are "thinking of family problems," Ledeen said in The Times article. "Maybe their car is on the street. Maybe they have an apartment and their belongings are there. Maybe they have a pet which needs to be taken care of."

Sometimes Ledeen assisted by telephoning an inmate's family for him, and on occasion she interceded with judges, according to The Times article. At the heart of the work was her philosophy of separating the offender from the offense.

"A person can get himself dirty, but no one is inherently dirty," she told The Times. "I believe everyone is entitled to respect unless they have reached the point where they throw it away, like your wanton killers who don't give a damn about anybody, including themselves."

Born in 1910 in Boston to activist parents, Ledeen moved with her family to Highland Park at 12. In Los Angeles, her mother was instrumental in founding what is now known as Temple Beth Israel, according to the Jewish Journal website.

Ledeen graduated from Southwestern University School of Law in 1933. Eventually she opened a practice in Los Angeles and later in El Monte, where she specialized in contract law and estate planning. Ledeen also worked for and was on the board of directors of Gateways Hospital and Mental Health Center and was a founder of Beit T'Shuvah, a drug and rehabilitation center for Jewish offenders.

Until two years ago Ledeen made occasional visits to the county jail, Tashman said. "She finally considered herself retired last year and didn't like it."

As she ushered others on their paths to redemption, Ledeen also increased the ranks of those reaching out to inmates. She mentored Newman, who now visits others, just as Ledeen once visited her. "For 50 years she reached out to us, and many like us, with unbelievable optimism and faith that we could lead better lives," said Newman, now the alternative sentencing coordinator at Beit T'Shuvah.

Ledeen is survived by three stepchildren, Helen Fiul and Amo Etlin of Los Angeles, and Robert Ledeen of New Jersey. A memorial service for Ledeen will be held at 7 p.m. Dec. 19 at Beit T'Shuvah, 8831 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles. Memorial donations may be made to Temple Beth Israel, 5711 Monte Vista St., Los Angeles, CA 90042, or Gateways Hospital and Mental Health Center, 1891 Effie St., Los Angeles, CA 90026.

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