On December 31, 2017, the world lost a special soul and I lost a friend. Hannah Weiss tragically passed away in a plane crash together with her younger brother Ari, and their parents Mitch and Leslie while on a trip in Costa Rica. She was 19 years old and a sophomore in a joint undergraduate degree program at List College of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University. Ari was 16. They were from Belleair, Florida.
My name is Rayna, and I had the privilege of working with Hannah Weiss as my intern at StandWithUs, when she was a senior in Shorecrest Prep in St. Petersburg, Florida. I am the Southeast High School Coordinator of the StandWithUs High School Internship. The StandWithUs program selects and trains student leaders to educate about Israel in their schools and communities and prepares them for the challenges they may face in college with anti-Israel rhetoric and campaigns.
The entire StandWithUs family was touched by Hannah, and loved being around her at our conferences. She was thoughtful, well organized, and always asked if the staff needed help. She loved to make people laugh, and her smile inspired everyone. Hannah was one of the kindest people I have ever met. She always remembered everyone’s name, even if you didn’t know her that well. Anyone was always welcome to sit at her table.
A few weeks ago, I was at Disney World in Orlando with two Holocaust survivors and we met an elderly woman named Phyllis. She was by herself, and I invited her to join us for dinner. Phyllis explained she had a granddaughter who was a freshman in the JTS program at Columbia U. In my final conversation with Hannah, I asked if she knew Phyllis’s granddaughter. Hannah said she did. After learning the tragic news of Hannah’s passing, I asked Phyllis’ granddaughter if she knew her and she replied not that well. Incidentally, she also didn’t believe her grandmother was alone at Disney World until I sent pictures. This was just another example of how special Hannah was – she always remembered peoples’ names – and a reminder of just how small the Jewish world is!
StandWithUs was my first job out of college. Hannah was one of my first students I ever met with. I remember her email signature said: “one small act of kindness at a time.” This was the mantra of our friendship. She treated me and the other interns like family, and inspired us all to love and accept each other.
Dalilah Bernier, who was an Intern this same year as Hannah, commented that our region would have been so different without Hannah’s presence. She had a “get-it-done” personality. I learned from Hannah: if you have time to think about it, then you have time to do it. She believed in long to-do lists, the kind that are constantly evolving with new tasks.
Hannah and I had long discussions about the importance of the future of the conservative movement and what USY (United Synagogue Youth of which she was a student leader) meant to the Jewish people. I never met someone so young, so completely in tune with her mission of making the world a better place. Hannah saw Judaism and the environment as her vessels to add meaning to all of our lives. She made it clear to me on multiple occasions that her goal was to continue to strengthen the conservative movement while empowering those around her. It makes me so proud to see her vision became clearer and stronger as she went to college. She never gave up on those dreams.
When Hannah was my intern, she had 3 goals. These goals are in her own words:
Goal Number 1): Achieve some sort of unity between youth organizations in my community.
This was Hannah’s number one goal. Hannah was dedicated to the idea of bringing the different youth groups together. Hannah saw Israel and Shabbat Dinner as an invitation for people of all different backgrounds to feel welcome. She worked very hard with fellow intern Jack Steinberg and I on a project targeting these students.
Goal Number 2): Acquire grant(s) needed to use Israeli technology in an organic farming effort.
Hannah had a vision for combining her love of the environment and Israel by developing a plan for community gardens to use Israeli technology. She saw this as an opportunity for community members of all ages to work together, learn about sustainability, and Israel’s impact on environmental technologies.
Goal Number 3): Aid in elimination of Israel and Middle Eastern related stereotypes in my community.
This was extremely important to Hannah. Hate attacks against Jews and Muslims have never been higher. Let us be inspired to be a voice for other minority communities. Hannah saw this happening in 3 ways.
1. Programming at schools targeting stereotypes;
2. Programming with younger children concerning issues in Israel; and,
3. General programming about culture.
Of all the memories, why have I chosen to share Hannah’s goals? These are ways we can honor her memory, by making the Jewish community and our environment a better place. A place where we treat each other with kindness, and see the best in everyone. These goals will make us feel closer to Hannah, but most importantly to each other. The light she once added to our lives, has tragically been extinguished. It is our responsibility to create just a little bit more resonance, so that together we can shine more brightly in this extremely difficult time. I heard the news about the catastrophic accident while I was at a wedding, 30 minutes before midnight on New Years EVE. Just as one couple begins their newlywed life, somewhere else in the world tragedy may strike. Life can be altered in seconds, minutes before the New Year begins.
Hannah’s internship experience can be best described in her own words,
My experience as a StandWithUs High School Intern has shaped the way I look at advocating for Israel. Israel education in countries outside of Israel will not only shape Israel’s future, but the future of the Jewish people as a whole. Being a StandWithUs intern is not just about education – it’s about building a strong community among interns and working together to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment.”
– Hannah Weiss
Hannah and I kept in touch since the internship; we tried to see each other during my last trip to NYC. I wish I had tried harder. Even in tragedy, we can learn and continue to love. Hannah would want us all to channel our sadness into living life to the fullest and being the best versions of ourselves. To treat everyone with love and kindness, and most importantly telling those who have made our day better, that we love them. Hannah may not have lived long, but many of us will always remember how she made us feel. In life, it can be easy to get distracted by a variety of things. Let us honor Hannah by how we make others feel- close friends and total strangers. Let our actions heal our grief.
I only met Ari once, and spoke with her Dad a few times during our hangouts. I feel it is very important to include how much Hannah loved her family, and being a big sister. I’ll never forget the story of Ari accidentally taking Hannah’s suitcase to Washington DC. Since it was full of Hannah’s dirty clothes, he had to go to Walmart to get clothes for the week. Her family was goofy, loving, and kind. Hannah embodied those qualities.
Southeast alumna Neta Gal decided to volunteer in the Israeli Army as a lone soldier (a soldier without immediate family in Israel) instead of going straight to college after graduating high school. When Neta learned about the tragedy she shared,”What Hannah did for Israel was inspiring. Without her work I wouldn’t have the privilege to wear this uniform. Every day from now on, when I put my uniform on, I will think of her.”
StandWithUs educates our students about different leaders in Israeli history. I’d like to conclude my message with a quote from another role model of the Jewish people who shares Hannah’s name, passion, and who also passed away at a young age. At 19, Hannah Senesh was a paratrooper before Israel was formally established. Her passion for writing, Israel, and Judaism continue to inspire generations since her passing in 1944.
Hannah Mae Weiss was always a role model, but the days since her passing show she will have a similar impact on future generations of Jewish people. Her Judaism and spirit touched us all.
“There are stars whose radiance is visible on Earth though they have long been extinct. There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world even though they are no longer among the living. These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark.” – Hannah Senesh.
Hannah will always be in our hearts and among the stars.