SOMERVILLE – Mary Jo Blunt first stepped into Temple B’nai Brith a little more than 25 years ago, eager to add the Jewish congregation to her business, cleaning small commercial properties and the homes of private clients.
As a single mother of four, Blunt had launched her independent, woman-owned business to provide a more secure future for her family.
She could hardly have known then that taking on the regular gig of cleaning the synagogue and other caretaking responsibilities would lead to a decades-long appreciation for the old building and a beloved relationship with the Jewish congregation, its leaders and members.
At the time, in the early 1990s, one of Blunt’s clients was a local Jewish funeral home, said Lisa Gregerman, TBB’s executive director, who hired Blunt, who was not Jewish and not familiar with Jewish observance or practice.
That all changed, as Blunt, a quick study, learned the ins and outs of Jewish religious rituals and customs followed by the independent, egalitarian congregation, from readying the synagogue for services, to arranging kiddush meals to the fine details of maintaining a kosher kitchen.
Along the way, Blunt became an ever-present part of the fabric of the community. She cherished the rituals, the celebrations and the way the congregation welcomed people of all backgrounds.
Blunt, a Tewksbury resident, died Oct. 29, following years of living with a serious cancer diagnosis and treatment. She is being remembered by the synagogue’s leaders, its congregants and family for her warmth, her radiant smile and her fierce, can-do spirit.
“She was very strong-willed, a fighter,” her daughter Tye Febbi told the Journal. She noted that her mother stood firm in her conviction to avoid powerful pain medication.
“Through the years of being in so much pain, she made it through without taking anything,” Febbi said.
Febbi admired her mother for continuing about her day-to-day life throughout treatment and going back to work. She continued to spend as much time as possible with her adored grandchildren.
Blunt grew up in Squantum, a neighborhood of Quincy, where she lived with her mother, who had health problems. From an early age, Blunt helped take care of her. To Febbi’s knowledge, her mother’s family was not particularly religious. Her mother appreciated aspects of many religious beliefs, Febbi said.
“She fell in love with the Jewish temple and the holidays and how everybody comes together,” at events like the potluck dinners. “She craved that family, that sense of home, that sense of lovingness. It didn’t matter where you were from or what color you were or what religion. She was welcomed there and taken in by everybody,” Febbi said.
Taking care of the historic building that dates back to 1919 had its challenges, noted Gregerman, especially at the time Blunt began working there. The congregation, founded in 1904, was revitalizing, after years of dwindling membership.
In those years, before the congregation undertook major repairs and restoration projects, many parts of the building were in disrepair. “Mary Jo wanted it to shine where it could shine,” said Gregerman.
Blunt would often express her desire to give back to the temple during her conversation with Gregerman. She pledged to refurbish the shul’s decades-old basement level restrooms if she somehow won the lottery.
“She came early to set up and stayed after everyone else had gone home to close up,” Gregerman said in an email to the congregation. “She reamed out closets, scoured after construction projects, stocked supplies, and polished floors. And she did it with such love! She was proud of doing whatever it took to make our sweet, charming, old building feel welcoming. She has been as much a part of our community as each of us, sharing in our celebrations, joys and sorrows.”
“Cleaning for her was making people happy,” said TBB Rabbi Eliana Jacobowitz, who remembered that Blunt would occasionally show her the work she’d done with a sense of pride.
Throughout Blunt’s illness, the two had conversations about faith, heaven and hell and the power of prayer and healing.
Before one of the rabbi’s visits home to Israel, she asked Blunt if she’d like a rosary from Jerusalem, uncertain if it would have meaning for her. Jacobowitz selected a rosary from a Franciscan monastery and brought it back to Somerville for Blunt. In the last few months, as Blunt’s health declined, she always made a point of telling the rabbi that she prayed with the rosary.
Blunt saw the good in life, despite the difficulties she faced, the rabbi observed. “She wanted to live in a world that was good. She smiled at people and helped others, living a life as if surrounded by good,” she said.
To put it in Jewish terms, “I felt it was menschlich,” said Jacobowitz, using the Yiddish term that means being an exemplary person of integrity who does what is right. “Mary Jo was definitely a mensch. She will be