Of Condolences, Compassion and Community

Like so many this morning, I am profoundly sad at the loss of 9 lives that I never knew yet I knew so well. Like so many this morning within the American Conservative Jewish community, those who were USYers, whose children were USYers, those who sent their children to Ramah Darom and watched with pride as they grew to become staff, I mourn the loss of the Weiss family. Like so many this morning in Scarsdale, those, who like my sorority sister Nancy belong to the vibrant Westchester Reform Temple, I mourn the loss of the Steinberg family. I am thinking about the three campus communities that are reeling, easily seeing one of my three young adult children among the mourners, and I am profoundly sad for all the young people who are learning to mourn at a young age.

Like so many this morning who are deeply involved in the Jewish Federation movement, I mourn the loss of present and future leadership and of lives that were literally changing the world, lives that shared that core Jewish value of tikun olam. Like so many this morning who dare to believe that peace may be possible between Israelis and Palestinians, I mourn a young man who was literally a seed for that peace. And like so many this morning, I am struck by the ironic numeric significance surrounding the date of this tragic accident. On the first day of the year 2018, two Jewish families that represent the best of who we are as a liberal American Jewish community were killed in a fiery crash, ending life — chai — 18. The symbolism is as chilling as the weather in most of the US.

How is it that so many of us are grieving for two families that we never met? Why do so many of us feel touched by this tragic loss? As I see it, this outpouring of sympathy and sadness emanates from the power source of contemporary Jewish life – the current of shared values that are rooted in our shared experiences. As I hear and read about the Weiss and Steinberg families, I am struck by the level of involvement, commitment and overlap between people I know who knew them. Like the family of one of my son David’s Ramah Darom friends Jesse, the Weiss’s moved to the St. Petersburg area from the north. Despite leaving Philadelphia 12 years ago, the Philly community is grieving the loss of their own. As is B’nai Israel in St. Petersburg. While the loss of my parents 11 years ago within 9 months of each other was not tragic like these losses, it was a difficult time for me and it was with the support of my strong synagogue community at the time, Congregation Shaarey Tikvah in Beachwood, that I got through my shiva weeks. And then B’nai Jeshurun in next door Pepper Pike held me in their daily minyan for 1 year and 9 months. I pray that those who are “official” mourners of the Steinberg and Weiss families will find comfort in their synagogue communities that were clearly a part of both families lives.

It was in United Synagogue Youth, the youth movement that is mourning the loss of Hannah and Ari Weiss, “zl”, that I first experienced the power of shared ritual and communal engagement with the Divine. It was those USY experiences that gave me the foundation to become an active and involved Zionist as an adult, finding my voice in my 50’s, advocating for social change within the State of Israel. For the Zionist community to lose 5 young American Jews who were developing into proud advocates for a just Jewish state is a profound loss. That the families came from two different streams of American Jewish life is a tragically beautiful reminder that we are all flying together on this journey of contemporary Jewish life, with all of its challenges.

The former rabbi of the Westchester Reform Temple, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, now heads the organized Reform movement, and is the current “poster child” for opposing rabbinic abuses of power at the Kotel. Clearly, Rabbi Jacobs was able to share his passionate Zionism with the middle Steinberg son, William ‘zl’, as shown by William’s involvement in Seeds of Peace. The power of youth movements to catalyze young people to become activists is one of the enduring facts of contemporary American Jewish life. Youth movements also create communities that serve as cushions when life is hard, when hardship and death intrude on life. The shared experiences built around the values we share as a Jewish community are what fills those cushions. And those who have had similar experiences understand how that cushion of community can comfort those whose heart is broken. Unfortunately, Ramah Darom is a community that understands tragic loss. Those experiences of communal grieving after a tragic rafting accident took the life of my son David’s campmate Andrew Silvershein during their Gesher year will hopefully guide the community during the dark days ahead.

I was blessed to raise my children in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland in the middle of a vibrant Jewish community, immersing our family in all things Jewish 24/7. The Steinberg and Weiss families were doing the exact same thing. I am still the mother of students, with David graduating this spring and Sarah in her second year of a five year graduate program. Since moving to New York City, not only have I stepped in to help Bill raise his son in the Jewish community of the Upper West Side, I have become involved with the UJA-Federation of New York, yet another community mourning the loss of an important community leader, Irene Steinberg, ‘zl’. So many of us Federation lay leaders feel as if we lost one of our Federation friends yesterday, and we know the tear in the fabric of the community will be felt for years to come. In the case of people who lived as the Steinberg and Weiss families, their memories will be blessings for decades to come as their communities remember who they were and what values they held dear. Those who share that strong sense of responsibility for the Jewish community as a whole, whether expressed through Federation work, AJC work, JCC work, ORT work, etc. will ensure that the memories of these 9 individuals will serve as motivators to continue to repair the world.

Finally, I write these thoughts as someone who experienced a tragic loss 39 years ago this coming February 4, when I was a junior at the University of Michigan. Like the tragedy of the Steinberg and the Weiss families, on that day two Jewish families in my hometown of Akron, Ohio lost a child. Jimmy was the brother of my friend Jennifer and the best friend of my brother Barry. Vicki was my first cousin, the youngest daughter of my mother’s only brother. Since those days, I have understood the profound darkness that comes with deep grief. During that period of deep mourning, I didn’t have the wisdom to know that healing comes from that deep current of Jewish living. When I very sadly lost Mom and Dad within 9 months of each other 11 years ago, I had that wisdom and relied heavily upon it. And like those who have been down that same emotional road, I developed a sense of compassion for those who suffer loss.

Today, I join the thousands who embrace that core Jewish value of comforting the mourner, within the context of community, within the context of multiple communities of meaning. While mourning the profound loss of life, I take note of the power of our American Jewish community as represented by these two families who exemplified the very best of who we are as a People. May all of us who mourn their loss, recommit ourselves to being the best we can be and to work toward creating a better, more just world with an Israel at peace with her neighbors at the center of it all.

About the Author
Francine M. Gordon is an artist/activist who maintains homes in New York and Cleveland. From November 2010 through November 2016, through The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project, she produced over 10 Concerts of Concern in the US and Israel. Since establishing her New York residence, Ms. Gordon has become a member of the New York Federation’s Israeli Judaism committee which focuses on exactly the same issues as SRSS. In addition, she has become a proud member of the Zamir Chorale which allows her to express her Zionism through song.
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