As the sun set this evening, the Jewish calendar, a lunar calendar, clicked over to the 6th day of the month of Iyar. For most Jews the start of Iyar is a mix of mourning and celebration; Yom Hazikaron, the Israeli Memorial Day on the 4th of Iyar, is a day of deep reflection, and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day on the 5th of Iyar, is a day of great exuberance. It is a bit of a rollercoaster, though it makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Afterall, how does one celebrate winning the battle for independence without thinking about those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in obtaining that freedom?
For my family, there is one more hill recently added to that coaster ride. Saturday, May 11, 2019, the day Abba passed away, corresponded to the 6th of Iyar. This year the 6th of Iyar began tonight. It is a Jewish tradition for those who mourned to annually recall that date by lighting a special candle that burns for 25 hours, and by reciting the Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer) in the setting of ten Jews who gather for prayer. In Yiddish the memorial date is called a yahrzeit. This evening, as I lit my yahrzeit candle, I reflected on the last two years.
To summarize, it has been rough. In the last two years my father, my closest friend, who I spoke with nearly every day, became seriously ill and was forced to take extreme measures to attempt survival, my marriage came to an end, my father passed away, my former brother-in-law passed away, my paternal grandmother passed away moments before the nation descended into the chaos that has been this response to the outbreak, and now the world is stuck in quarantine and our nation is being run by murderous morons. I have seen the loss to COVID-19 of thousands in our nation including several I’ve known personally, and while those same ignoramuses holding highest office in this country tell us to inject disinfectant and find it acceptable to visit the Mayo clinic (where Abba was once a patient) without wearing a mask, their followers are in the streets protesting against the late measures our society has attempted to take to flatten the uptick of this outbreak and lower the ultimate total lives lost to it.
Shortly after Abba’s death I felt mostly numb, putting on a brave face when I left my private spaces. It is an odd experience being the son of someone so loved by so many. In public whenever I came in contact with others who knew him I discovered they were in a great deal of pain and often found myself comforting them for their loss. In private I cried alone—at first several times per day and eventually just in the shower in the morning and sometimes when I was falling asleep at night. Everything reminded me of him and whenever I closed my eyes I would see his face—often in his final moments.
I attended services every day to say Kaddish. When I attended services in places where only mourners say the Kaddish I felt a great deal of comfort. I was often alone saying the Kaddish and experienced comfort from the knowledge that others around me knew why I was there. Times when I was not the only mourner saying Kaddish gave me an opportunity to experience a strange comradery. There were even times when I was able to guide men and women far older than I am through their first times saying Kaddish after they lost someone. I also had the special experience of saying Kaddish while traveling, the most exciting of which was in Switzerland on New Years Day.
As time passed, life became a bit easier and seemed to be returning to (a new) normal. That is until I hit the six-month mark. I don’t know what it was about that timing, but for that sixth month I was a complete mess. I couldn’t hold onto thoughts, I couldn’t have conversations, I couldn’t remember things, and I’d easily lose track of time. Then that too began to ease and my mind and spirit returned. It was almost as if I went through some sort of emotional reset process.
A few weeks ago, this reset was tested with the celebration of the holiday of Pessach (Passover), the freedom holiday. Pessach was both Abba’s and my favorite holiday. There was only one other time in my life that he and I were apart for the holiday (when I was living in Israel from 2000-2001) and it was extraordinarily challenging for us both. This year I took a rather drastic measure. I decided to take a year off from Pessach. Last year Pessach began bedside in the ICU—Abba was able to listen to prayers but not participate and was able to take a sip of the kiddush wine but not eat any matzah (the unleavened bread of the holiday)—and I recognized I needed more time before I could return to celebrating freedom. Even without directly engaging in the holiday, however, it was still very difficult this year, though it was not nearly as difficult as things had been earlier in the year. Progress.
Now it is more of a day-to-day sort of things. On balance there are finally more days when I am not entirely sad and no days when I fail to find the will to leave my apartment (though with COVID I don’t leave ‘cause that would just be stupid). I even have returned to finding joy on occasion and I can see light at the end of this tunnel.
It’s ironic that I began writing to you in September of 2018 when my Eama and Abba moved to Boston and into quarantine and now the entire world (perhaps with exception to the buffoons that call themselves president and vice president) knows the pain of that isolation. I can’t help but think, what would Abba make of all of this?
Abba was the penultimate optimist. He would be giddy imagining the opportunities which could rise, phoenix-like, from these ashes. In the short-run this has allowed some to find creative ways to connect with friends and loved ones. There is a new respect for what teachers do in the classroom, what nurses and doctors do in the hospitals, and what sanitation workers do to keep a separation between us and our ick. There is a new light cast on the disparity in our society between the haves and have-nots as the poor and as racial minorities are disproportionately sick and dying in greater numbers. There is a reawakening among some as they rediscover that they are not alone in society and must act not just for their own good but for the good of those around them.
In the slightly less short run this has allowed the rational among us to recognize that electing Biden is a matter of life or death. But looking a bit further out, the stress on our nation’s health care system was extraordinary before the outbreak but now we are seeing it fail altogether absent governmental support which may finally pave the way to universal healthcare. With unemployment skyrocketing we are reconnecting with why we have government entitlements and why it is so important that we continue to have them going forward. We are even seeing a new found reliance on and respect for science so perhaps climate change, let alone the next pandemic, will finally be more universally cared for and about.
Abba would also be taking delight in deep dives into the science and math surrounding the virus and its possible treatments. He would be calculating the amount of carbon being removed from the air by fewer drivers on the roads. He would be elated by the rapid adoption of technological solutions to everyday problems (like the use of video conferencing for everything).
He would also be writing. With the world moving at a slower pace he would have far fewer disruptions to his writing. The only problem he would face on that front was keyboards which he went through more often than anyone I’ve ever known despite being reminded that the keyboards of today are not the typewriters of his youth. He would also be smoking a lot of cigars while missing his cigar-smoking-buddies, and he would be smoking a lot of cannabis (making up for the time in Boston when his doctors wouldn’t let him).
And then there is that strange joy he would have because he would finally be stuck at home with Eama, with no disruption, and, unlike the quarantine in Boston, this time without feeling weak and ill.
Most of all, however, he would be reassuring all of us that, though things may be difficult in this moment, the sun will continue to rise, the seasons will continue to change, and things will get better.
Abba—As I light my yahrzeit candle as the sun disappears behind the Rockies, I miss you and wish you were here with us, but know you will continue to inspire happiness and hope and love. Love,
Earlier today we met and celebrated the life and impact of my Abba Z”L. In case you missed it I’ve embedded it below. You can also take a look at the program from today’s gathering which includes bios from our participants. Enjoy!
This Sunday, July 14, 2019, we will gather here in Milwaukee at Congregation Emanu’El B’ne Jeshurun, 2020 West Brown Deer Road, River Hills, Wisconsin 53217 (https://www.ceebj.org/). The doors will open at 10AM and the event will begin promptly at 11AM. Valet parking will be available for those in need. Please ensure you have sufficient time for parking and to pass through security. For those unable to attend in person, the gathering will be live-casted on the synagogue’s website:
Just a reminder that if you are coming in from out of town,
please let me know your travel plans. There will be additional gatherings
throughout the weekend for all of our out-of-town guests and we want to be
certain to include you. We are looking forward to celebrating with you.
This is just a quick update regarding hotels for the
community gathering on July 14. We have secured reduced rates at two hotels
under the name “Benjamin Gathering.”
The first is at the Fairfield
Inn located at 7035 N Port Washington Rd, Glendale, WI 53217. The rate at
the Fairfield is $169/night but must be booked by July 3. Note that you may get
a better rate if you pre-pay and are a “member” which just means you sign up
for a free Marriott rewards account (if you don’t already have one). There may also
be special rates for things like AAA. The Fairfield is between Congregation
Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun and the Benjamin family home. It is the newer of the
properties we considered.
The second is at the Four
Points Sheraton located at 8900 N. Kildeer Ct., Brown Deer, Milwaukee, WI
53209. The rate at the Four Points is $129/night but must be booked by July 1.
This is a dramatic savings as compared to the offered rate on their website
(even with a AAA discount).
As before, if you are coming in from out of town, please let
me know as soon as possible. If you are booking a hotel room, please mind those
deadlines for each of the properties. Note that there are several events in
Milwaukee that weekend which may cause rooms to fill as we approach the
gathering. If you have any questions please let me know. I look forward to
seeing you on the 14th.
I made a trip to visit Eama for an extended weekend and
wanted to give you a progress report.
In Judaism we divide mourning into four periods. The first
is the period between when a loved one dies and when he is buried. During this
time, our tradition teaches, we are generally excused from rational and
productive existence. There is an expectation that we make no big decisions and
that we are permitted to just be numb. In our case Abba Z”L passed on May 11
and was buried on May 16.
A new clock begins when we burry our loved ones. From burial
we sit with our loss for seven days. This period is called shivah which is a
bit of a play on words because the word for seven is shivah and the word meaning
to sit is shev. During this second period those formally recognized as mourners—mothers,
fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, and spouses—sit on low chairs or
even on the floor and the community rallies around them addressing their needs
while giving them time and space to adjust to their new normal. Shivah for Abba
began following the funeral on May 16 and ended when we got up from our sitting
on May 24.
The third period, known as shloshim (the Hebrew word for
30), continues the formal mourning process for all formally recognized mourners.
Encompassing shivah, it too begins at the conclusion of the funeral but extends
for thirty days. Even though shivah may have ended, Judaism recognizes that those
mourners need more time to adjust to the new normal. June 14 marked the end of shloshim.
There is a tradition that during shloshim mourners stay
close to home and only travel when absolutely necessary. As shloshim came to a
close, so too did Eama’s time in Boston. She packed up what remained of her
belongings there and moved back home to Milwaukee. While the end of shloshim
marked the end of the formal mourning period for everyone but the children of
the departed, there is always room in Judaism for being reasonable in one’s approach
to finding the end to formal mourning. Eama has found a pace that makes sense
to her and she is slowly moving toward an end to the formal mourning and a
return to a slightly more normal life. She is not there yet and so she is not
yet ready for visitors and callers. For some perspective here are a few vital
Eama and Abba grew up in the same small town, Canton, Ohio,
where they attended the same synagogue as children. They first dated in high
school and got married while in college. They were married for 45 years and
marked their 45th anniversary in December of 2018. Eama was 15 months
younger than Abba. Eama and Abba got married not long before Eama lost her
father to complications associated with cancer. Given that they knew each other
for the majority of their memories and they were married for far longer than
Jews in ancient times even could expect to live, it seems only fitting that shloshim
for Eama is longer than thirty days.
Additionally, since Abba’s passing we have collectively
received 1,000s of messages in one form or another and most of those messages contained
a sentiment that the sender would like to speak with Eama and visit with her as
soon as she is ready. While she is receiving a great deal of love and strength
from this outpouring of support, you can imagine how easy it would be for her
to be overwhelmed if she hurried her shloshim. Though she is not ready to open
the flood gates to these visitors and callers just yet, she gets closer each
The final period, the remainder of the year following the
funeral, is reserved for the children of the deceased. During that period it is
tradition for the children to say Kaddish every day. This is a practice I’ve been
observing and will continue to observe for the remainder of my year. On this
trip, as I continue to say kaddish each day and attend synagogues around
Milwaukee, I am touched by the kindness of folks at each location who tell me
that they are saddened by the loss of Abba, that they feel deeply for Savta,
Uncle Sheldon, Eama, Nadav and me, and that they are aware that Eama isn’t
ready yet for them to visit or call and they are trying very hard to respect
her wishes. Eama has expressed to me several times during this trip that she is
so grateful for that support and for that restraint. As soon as she is ready,
she will begin reaching out to friends. Until then, know she is doing what she
needs to do as she adjusts to this strange new normal.
Apart from visiting my mother (and my cousin Leslie who was
able to stop in Milwaukee on her way back to Colorado from a road trip to the
east coast), I was also able to spend some time working with my mother and
cousin on preparations for the community gathering occurring next month for Abba.
As you will recall, the gathering will be held on Sunday, July 14, but I promised
I would send additional details to you as they became available.
The gathering will be hosted by Rabbi Marc Berkson at his synagogue, Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun (2020 W. Brown Deer Rd., River Hills, WI 53217). The gathering is open to all and there is no cost to attend. For this event we have requested that various friends from various parts of Abba’s life gather to collectively paint a picture for us of Abba. We’ll hear from old friends, new friends, friends from his involvement in the secular world, and the Jewish world, and even the fantastic world that was his creative writer-mind. Doors will open at 10AM and this shared expression will begin promptly at 11AM (and is expected to last about an hour give or take).
For those of you who will be unable to attend the gathering
in person, it will be webcasted live and recorded for offline viewing. More
information will be provided as it becomes available closer to the 14th.
For those of you who will be attended in person, if you are coming from out of
town, the Milwaukee airport is abbreviated MKE and we are working on obtaining
a discounted rate at three hotels:
the Fairfield Inn
(7035 N Port Washington Rd, Glendale, WI 53217) which is the newest of the three
has rooms for around $160/night
the Residence Inn
(7003 N Port Washington Rd, Glendale, WI 53217) which is next door to the Fairfield
is around $200/night, but you get a kitchen
the Four Points
Sheraton (8900 N Kildeer Ct, Brown Deer, Milwaukee, WI 53209) is
around $170/night and offers a shuttle from the airport
If you are coming from out of town, please let me know when you’ll arrive and how long you’ll stay as soon as possible. If you require housing that is Shomer Shabbat and/or Shomer Kashrut, our friend Ronna Pachefsky has offered to assist you in making those arrangements. Email me and I’ll connect you with her. If you visit the Abba Updates website you’ll find there is a new “home” page which contains this information (and more) and on which I will continue to add additional details as they become known. I look forward to seeing you in mid-July or whenever next we meet.
PS Check out that front page for information on donations in honor of my Abba.
Wednesday morning, after shacharit (morning prayers) and an
amazing breakfast for those who attended prepared by my aunt Miriam (who tirelessly
stepped in and up in managing the shiva house and providing all that goes with
it), we observed a final shiva tradition—we got up, went outside and took a
walk together. Along the way we came across another family out taking their
little ones for a walk. Photo below.
That evening I returned to Denver and began observing the
remainder of my shloshim (literally 30 referring to the 30 days from the date
of burial) hopping from minyan to minyan (the gathering of ten, most
traditionally, men though in more liberal Judaism men and women) so I could say
kaddish. Nadav returned to Portland on Thursday, leaving Eama to have some down
Apart from determining how and when she would pack up and
leave Boston to return to Milwaukee, Eama was also focused on choosing the date
for Abba’s (z”l) memorial. With some coordination of various calendars we have
landed on a date. The memorial will be the morning of Sunday, July 14, 2019 at Congregation
Emanu-El B’ne Jeshrun (https://www.ceebj.org/).
More details will follow.
For those observing a memorial on this Memorial Day holiday,
I wish you peace and reflection.
Yesterday we buried Abba. You’ll notice there are some additional
letters next to his name now: z”l. This is shorthand for Zichrono li’vracha—זכרונו לברכה—which means he will be remembered for a
blessing. Because the funeral was something we attempted to keep small, most of
you were not there. In an effort to share the experience with you, I’ve
attempted to capture the event for you below.
I had a feeling I would struggle to hold it together during the
funeral and so I planned ahead. The day began with family staying in the Hyatt
Place Canton (Abba’s hotel of choice when visiting Savta) meeting in the lobby
for breakfast. Rather than fly directly from Boston to Canton I made a quick
trip to Denver (for a handful of hours) to pick up provisions (like a suit) and
arrange things a tiny bit before leaving town for another week for the funeral
and shiva. One of those provisions was arranging for some comfort food for the
morning of the funeral. My favorite Denver bagel and fish purveyor (Rosenberg’s)
has hours that wouldn’t line up with such a short trip, but I felt like
bringing breakfast. I enlisted my dear friend Dan to pick up and store my order
until I arrived for my Denver-layover.
Two dozen bagels, a pound of gravlax (cured salmon speckled with
fresh dill), a pound of smoked Scottish salmon (traditional lox sliced so thin
you could read the Rosenberg logo through each slice), and a half pound of
sable (smoked black cod that, as my Uncle Sheldon put it, was the best he had
ever had) were carefully packed into a reinforced box complete with bubble
packs and ice packs, and were labeled to be taken as a checked bag to Canton.
Yesterday morning I enlisted the assistance of my cousin Leslie (Abba’s eldest
nieces) to act as caterer and to lay out the spread. When I introduced Abba to
Rosenberg’s a few years ago it instantly became a favorite.
With the family well fed, we retired to our rooms to don our
funeral attire. As you may recall, Abba wasn’t fond of neckties. When he wore a
suit or a tuxedo he generally wore a tee shirt beneath his jacket in place of a
starched white button down. Most of us the men brought black tee shirts, but
for the couple who didn’t, there happens to be a Duluth Trading Company store
next to the hotel (one of Abba’s favorite clothing stores—he loved the wicking
Dressed in a black yarmulka, black suit, black suspenders, black
socks, black shoes and a black tee shirt (the Jewish version of a
full-blues-brothers) we made our way to Shaaray Torah, Abba’s childhood
synagogue and where Savta remains a member to this day.
Parked out front of the synagogue was Abba’s ride from Arnolds
Funeral Home. Now you may think the reason we used Arnolds was because it is
the only funeral home in Canton that performs Jewish funerals. While that is
true, in fact back when Jews first came to Canton and eventually needed a
funeral home, when they approached the other homes in town, due to the
pervasive antisemitism, the other homes would not work with the Jews. Great
Grandpa Arnold didn’t even hesitate when he was approached; “of course I’ll
work with you,” he said. But there is another reason—Arnolds is the funeral
home used by every United States President buried in Canton. Below is a picture
from the wall in the funeral home of the procession held for the late President
William McKinley who is buried here.
We pulled in and left our car in the circle just behind the Arnolds
vehicles. Just inside Shaaray Torah Synagogue, to save our suits from
destruction, a black ribbon was pinned on each of our chests.
We entered the main sanctuary and there was Abba’s coffin along the
back wall. I tried very hard to ignore it, but when in a room with Abba, no
matter how little he says, he is impossible to ignore. I sat in the front row
with my back to him and read through the hesped (Jewish eulogy) I wrote the day
before. I made it through the first sentence and began to cry.
Get it together, I told myself and willed myself into stopping the
tears. I made some last-minute edits only breaking down in tears three more
times, before Savta entered the sanctuary followed by a train of other family
members. After saying hello to some I couldn’t hold it together any longer. I
ducked away into a hallway out of site just to the left of the bimah (pulpit)
and tried to just let the tears flow thinking if I got it out I would be able
to hold it together for my family during the rest of the service.
When the tears stopped I returned the sanctuary and immediately
began to cry again. Savta, my Uncle Sheldon, Eama, Nadav and I were called into
the Rabbi’s room just to the right of the bimah to meet with Rabbi Cherie
Koller-Fox and Cantor Bruce Braun. There we began the initial funeral rites
with prayer and formal kriyah (the Jewish tradition of expressing the
overwhelming loss and broken hearts by tearing that black ribbon pinned to our
chests). By this point I was crying uncontrollably, only takin short breaks to
catch my breath before starting again. I turned to Cherie’s husband, Everett
Fox, and asked if he could pinch hit for me on the delivery of my hesped. We
agreed that I would sit next to him as he recited it.
We returned to the sanctuary and sat in the front row. Eama was on
the left aisle, I sat next to her, Nadav to my right, Uncle Sheldon to his
right, and Savta on the right aisle. As the service began the five of us held
hands. We were welcomed by Cherie with blessings and song. Cherie was one of
Abba’s closest friends, confidant and rabbi. She shared an adaption of Psalm
A light shines through the darkness for the upstanding—
For they are gracious, compassionate and beneficent.
Happy is the man who reveres God
Who relishes observing the commandments that speak to his heart.
His sons will be men of strong of character—
They are the wealth and the riches he leaves in this world.
It is good for a man to be compassionate, to lend his time and
Those in need and to conduct his business lawfully.
Such a man will never be shaken.
He will forever be remembered as a tzaddik—a righteous man.
Know that his good name is his crown
and that his good works will stand forever.
Then Cantor Braun sang Shviti (Psalm 16). Abba loved hearing Cantor
Braun sing. And the connections in a small town run deep; Cantor Braun’s wife
was one of Abba’s classmates in high school.
Cherie then delivered the first of the hespeds. Her’s was as follows:
Jerry Benjamin’s untimely death has left a deep void in the lives
of his family and in the lives of the thousands of people whose lives he
touched. He had an unabashed joy for living that made him a magnet—the kind of
person that everyone loves and wants to be near. Some people talk about how he changed the
trajectory of their lives. Others were moved to join the causes he was
passionate about or were inspired to be their best selves because he believed
Jerry was a man who lived large. So large, in fact, that it would
be impossible for me to even attempt to distill his accomplishments, leadership
roles and accolades into a few minutes. But through a lifetime of friendship, I
had a front row seat to observe Jerry and learn from him and be inspired by
him. The word that most comes to my mind when I think of Jerry is “passion” and
that I can begin to speak of as we gather to honor his life and bid him
The Bible has a phrase that captures the notion of passion—Kano
Key-Nay-Ti–. It describes someone who gives everything he has for what he
believes in. The root letters repeat in this expression for emphasis. A person
is “Kano-Key-Nay-Ti” when they are really passionate, deeply passionate. To me,
that describes Jerry perfectly.
A loving family, a supportive Jewish community and a small town
upbringing—these are the building blocks that made Jerry the passionate man,
the mensch that he was. He grew up immersed in Yiddishkeit yhanks to
grandparents who spoke Yiddish and told him stories of what came before
him—stories he loved to retell. His hard-working and dedicated doctor father
Stanley modeled for him the value of helping people and being passionate about
work. His brother Sheldon, Jerry often said, was his oldest and closest friend.
Sheldon will speak about this. And his beloved mother Edie—Edie, you were his
heart. Jerry learned his love of words and poetry from you. You taught him he
had a responsibility in this world to do the right and moral thing and which
meant being politically active. You taught him to ignore outward differences in
people and to focus on what’s in their heart. All the great acts of kindness
and generosity that marked his life, he learned at your feet. No wonder he
loved you so very much.
And then there was Cindy. They met as children and were married for
46 years. Jerry was deeply in love with Cindy and said he was the luckiest man
in the universe to have her as his partner, his muse and the one who kept him
grounded. His sons Ariel and Nadav: if you received Ariel’s Abba updates, you
got a glimpse of the great love and close bond Ariel shared with his Abba.
Ariel carries so much of his Abba’s spirit in him. Nadav opened up new worlds
for Jerry. He got great pleasure watching him develop into a talented artist
and photographer. Nadav said he and Abba would have extended and ongoing
conversations about deep philosophical issues. Jerry embraced Nadav’s wife
Lindsay and her parents Chris and Pat into the family with enormous joy. His
family was Jerry’s number one passion and he considered his life with them his
Growing up in the Canton Jewish community, Jerry was surrounded by
a community that carried about and supported each other. He never understood
why that wasn’t true in larger cities and one of his passions was to make that
so, everywhere he lived. In Canton, everyone knew each other, or at least it
looked like that to a child. Most of us are curious about some people we meet,
but Jerry was genuinely curious about everyone. He wanted to know what they
did, where they came from and what their passions were. He wanted to hear their
The author Malcolm Gladwell developed “the phone book test for
connectors.” The idea was to look over 250 names and count how many people you
knew that had the same name as those 250. Your score indicated how social a
person you are. Jerry’s number was way higher than predicted, so he actually
called Gladwell to tell him. The author was astounded. Jerry’s contact list is
ginormous, yes, but he didn’t just collect names, he collected stories and they
remember him because of that. It’s a passion he learned growing up here. That
is one reason why he was loved by so many and why he will be so deeply missed.
Jerry and I both taught in Hebrew Schools during our years at the
Harvard Graduate School of education. Those schools perplexed us. If Judaism
was so great, why was Jewish education so dismal? This could have been a
one-off conversation over coffee but instead it was a problem that we became
determined to actually solve. We developed our ideas to improve Jewish
education nationwide and a practical strategy of how to fund our plan. We
accused the powers that be of not providing enough money for the schools. We planned a conference and 750 colleagues
came. No one thought this was doable. And No wonder! Jerry was 23 at the time
and I was a couple years older. Now that was Chutzpah—the kind that Jerry
majored in his whole life. That organization, CAJE, became the premier address
for Jewish educators in the country and continues to this day. It never would
have happened without Jerry’s vision and skills. And we had great fun, dreaming
it and making it come true. Jerry went on to become an advocate for Jewish
education in Milwaukee and on the national scene.
But despite Jerry’s passion
for Jewish education, he was a businessman at heart. When he moved from Boston
to Milwaukee to go into business in the early 80’s, I have to admit, I thought
he was “selling out”—giving up passion for business. But that’s not at all what
happened. He built a strong and successful business to be sure, but found a way
to take a company that collected and sold addresses and used it to work for the
good of the country and the Jewish people. Through his company, he reached into
the highest places in American politics and became friends with many senators
and congresspersons. He helped Barak Obama and so many others gain traction in
their campaigns. Sure he regaled us with stories of his Washington adventures,
but if you listened carefully, what you heard in those stories was the sincere
friendship and respect that Jerry and the politicians had for each other.
Jerry undertook the practically impossible job of finding as many
Holocaust survivors in Europe as possible to make sure that they received
reparations and insurance payouts. He came to the interview for this job by
himself, while others came with teams of fancy lawyers. But he got the job. I
assume it was because the Claims Commission could hear his passion to succeed
at this impossible task and because Jerry, the “infuriating optimist” never
once thought it was an impossible task! Just another challenge! And so typical of the way he thought, Jerry
decided as long as he was looking for the Jewish survivors, why not find the
Roma and the gay victims too? And he did. And the victims got the money they
were owed. Jerry was proudest of this accomplishment among the invaluable
contributions he made to Jewish life.
Jerry used to say, “If the only thing you want is to make money, then
all you do in your life is make money”.
He also had a strong intellectual life. He was a proliofic writer and he
loved good food, wine and cigars. But most of all, what he wanted was to be
that person who spread kindness and generosity wherever he could. That he was
kind to friends goes without saying. In so many notes and email posts people
are recalling the kindnesses Jerry did for them—how he mentored them, how he
talked them through a difficult time. How he showed up when friends needed him. I’m sure you have stories about his
kindnesses to you.
He loved the fact that he had the means to be a philanthropist and
he believed that we all do. He had a philosophy about fundraising that applied
to his own giving. He loved asking people for money. He said giving money to a
cause you are passionate about makes a person feel great. (He loved to make
people feel great!) So he gave with joy.
He also operated his businesses with kindness and generosity. For
example, during an economic downturn, he could have laid off employees to save
money but he didn’t. He couldn’t. It would have hurt his heart too much. If you
look up the word mensch in any dictionary, you will see Jerry’s picture there.
Family, Jewish community, Kindness and generosity, being a role model
and an inspiration, and embodying a joy for living—those were the passions and
the themes of Jerry’s life. A life so well lived! A life too short but a life
in which each day mattered, each day counted. Like you, I loved him so and I
thank God for him as I am sure you do. If you knew him, if he impacted your
life, you own a piece of him, a piece of his passion. Hold tight to it and make
Jerry proud of what you accomplish with it.
Cherie was followed by a recitation of Hannah Senesh’s poem, יש כחבים—There are Stars read in English by
cousin Rafi (Abba’s youngest nephew):
יש כוכבים שאורם מגיע ארצה
רק כאשר הם עצמם אבדו ואינם.
יש אנשים שזיו זיכרם מאיר
כאשר הם עצמם אינם יותר בתוכנו.
אורות אלה – המבהיקים בחשכת הלילה –
הם הם שמראים לאדם את הדרך.
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.
They light the way for humankind.
This was followed by Uncle Sheldon’s hesped:
This is a eulogy with a chorus.
When I give you the cue, please say the line with me. It’s a little complicated but I think you
will catch on quickly. Ready? Repeat
after me: THINK BIG. LOUDER!
On a cloudy day in April 1968, I was home alone after school when
the doorbell rang. Jerry was out of town.
My parents were at work. We knew that
the Shaaray Torah USY Passover candy order would be delivered that week. The USY Passover candy sale was an annual
ritual that raised a few hundred dollars for charity. That year, Jerry was fundraising vice president. “We can do better. THINK BIG,” he said as he
marshalled his candy-selling army. When
I answered the door and the semi driver asked where they should put the delivery,
I was prepared. My parents had said to
have them put it in the corner of the garage.
I opened one of the 2 garage doors and showed the delivery men which
corner to put it in. “Sign here,” they said. Without looking at the invoice, I
went in the house. A half hour later the bell rang again. “Where should we put
the rest?” the driver asked. I walked
out back to find the garage completely filled, stacked floor to ceiling with
boxes. The driver said they’d only
unloaded half the truck. With great
trepidation I opened the other side of the garage and watched them fill
it. That year, USY made $10,000 for
charity, 20 times the usual. READY? Together: THINK BIG.
Jerry always had a head for business. By the time I was 12, Jerry
and I had had a half dozen businesses. We
made pot holders and sold them door to door.
Then Jerry got the idea that we could make a better margin if we took
advance orders for custom colors. He and
I used to work at our Uncle Leonard’s junk yard in Cleveland in the
summers. One year, Leonard bought a
truck load of metal trimmings. Seeing the boxes of shiny rolls of colored metal
tape, I asked Uncle Leonard if we could have a box to take home. I saw shiny
rolls of colored metal. Jerry saw Christmas decorations that we could sell door
to door for 25¢ each. Neither of us
noticed that the edges were dangerously sharp.
But he did get me to (together): THINK BIG.
When I was working with Rabbi Jacobson to prepare for my bar
mitzvah at Shaaray Torah, Jerry convinced me that I should learn all 7 parts
instead of just the last one as was customary.
I did it and because of Jerry’s influence, I went on to read Torah
frequently in my adult life. Jerry, by
the way, had not done this at his own bar mitzvah. But he inspired me to: (together) THINK
On May 4, 1970, 4 students were killed at Kent State protesting the
US invasion of Cambodia and 1500 American students marched on the American
Embassy in Tel Aviv. Jerry and a few peers
who had led the demonstration declared a hunger strike on the steps of the
embassy demanding the flag be lowered to half staff. They fasted for over a week until Minnesota Senator
Hubert Humphrey, whom Jerry had met while working on his presidential campaign
in 1968, visited the hunger strikers and negotiated a compromise. He held fast to his convictions and reminded
us all to: (together) THINK BIG.
I believe it was Passover 1974, after our family seder, that Cherie
Koller Fox dropped by for animated conversation with Jerry in the living
room. Jewish educators need to take
themselves seriously they said. We are
professionals. We need a Jewish teachers union.
And over the following year, the Coalition for Alternatives in Jewish
Education (CAJE) was born. What’s the
moral? Together: THINK BIG.
After completing his Masters in Education at Harvard, 28-year-old
Jerry became Executive Director of Maimonides Day School. One of his tasks was
to raise funds to build an addition for the school. “A celebrity auction might
do it,” he told the board. Then he talked
The Fonz, Henry Winkler, into donating a leather jacket, Anwar Sadat
into donating one of his iconic pipes, Barney Frank into bringing 100 hotdogs
and personally grilling them for a party at the winner’s home—Jerry called that
101 Franks, got countless other collectibles from the rich and famous–and then
topped it off by getting Ed Asner to be the auctioneer. That year he raised a million dollars for the
school and taught us to: (Together) THINK BIG.
The Eagleburger Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims had negotiated
a settlement that called for German banks and then Swiss insurance companies to
pay reparations to all survivors of the holocaust or their descendants. But to make the payments they would have to
find all of the living Holocaust survivors in the world. At the NY offices of the Commission there
were groups of bidders in tailored suits.
In walks Jerry, alone, with his battered briefcase and tells the
senator: “I can find them for you.” He got the contract, hired a phalanx of assistants
around the world, and he actually did it.
THINK BIG doesn’t quite capture it.
Being ill didn’t stopped Jerry from thinking big, either. Last
year, he created a totally new paradigm—the Shul Card. Why not, said he, THINK
BIG and support ALL of the synagogues in Milwaukee instead of just one? They all need funds. So he paid dues and joined them all.
All of us who knew Jerry knew his incredible generosity and knew
that he THOUGHT BIG when it came to gifts as well. How many of you have ever received one of
Jerry’s unique and thoughtful gifts? (show of hands) For our wedding, one
of the most unusual Jewish ceremonial objects in the world, something called a
hodas (ask me later). For a bar mitzvah,
a coin from the Bar Kokhba revolt. For his son’s Denver apartment an antique
American flag from the year Colorado became a state. For our son, Rafi’s wedding, a custom made
tzedakah (charity) box containing one of the first ever Hebrew coins from 130
BCE. And for Cindy on their 45th, since the stem cell transplant
meant no flowers in the house, and his long tradition was to give Cindy 2 roses
for every year of marriage, he commissioned Nadav to arrange 90 green roses,
photograph them and send him a huge bacteria-free print to frame.
So how can we best remember Jerry?
Be generous to one another. Give to tzedakah. And above all: (together)THINK BIG.
Next, cousin Malka (you remember—the pilgrim introduced in previous
updates and Savta’s only granddaughter), delivered another poem. She introduced
it as follows:
I always knew my Uncle Jerry had a deep and abiding love for
language, but it was only recently that I found out where he got it from.
It was from his parents, Stan and Edie.
Apparently, when Jerry was little, instead of reading him the usual
childhood bedtime stories, Edie, would read him poetry. Grown-up poetry.
When I visited Uncle Jerry after he moved to Boston this past fall,
I remember the awe and wonder in his voice as he lovingly showed me his
original signed copy of Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, which
he had chosen to bring with him from Milwaukee. Cindy, Ariel, and Nadav asked
me to share it today.
The Road Not Taken
BY ROBERT FROST
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on the [to] way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Malka was followed by Abba’s childhood best friend, Dr. Jimmy Rudick,
who produced a cat-in-the-hat style red and white striped hat which he placed
on his head as he delivered his hesped:
You’re finally finished
With doctors and such
But I hope that this doctor
Won’t bother you much…
On the day that we met
It was cold, it was wet
Or perhaps it was hot
Or perhaps it was not
You were 7, I was 8
At the old center lake
That’s it, I am sure
Though my memory is poor
And even back then
You were way over-sized
The stories you told
Were they truth, were they lies?
Your uncle, you said
Kept a whale in his bed
Or in his junk yard
I believed every word
Big Fish, Jew fish
I swallowed your stories
Hook, line and sinker
Oh the tsouros you brought
Oh the mish, mishigas
You got me in trouble
In trouble a lot
We both had a crush
On a girl named Amy
We lifted her dress
In Hebrew school maybe
When we were 15
But not legal to drive
We borrowed dad’s car
And took a joy ride
It was easy to see
It was plain as can be
Crazy things happened
When you were with me
Remember the sermon you gave at the shul
They made you a guest speaker
Wasn’t that cool?
Except for the date… it was ‘68
With racism, war, and Nixon and hate
You ranted and raged, Oh Kenahora
That didn’t sit well with our Shaaray Torah
Herm Davis our president was not a bit curious
You might even say that he was quite furious
And the night in Ann Arbor
I’ll never forget
A fire broke out
In the Phi Epsilon House
You stayed in the room with the pot-head in residence
Who started it all with his candles and incense
It happened so fast, there was no alarm
You climbed out a window and cut open your arm
But then we grew up, or so I am told
We were so young then
And then we were old…
Somewhere in between
Cindy entered your life
I can’t say she tamed you
But she was your wife
Who loved you and fed you
And kept you afloat
And gave you two sons
Over whom you would gloat
Ben (our son) asked about college
Go to Williams, you said
You were the one
Who put that in his head
And there he met Sarah
It appears that he liked her
And one year ago
There came little Micah
So fate has a way
To keep us in line
No Jerry, no Micah
It boggles my mind
Oh the places you went
Oh, the great things you did
Who would have guessed it
When you were a kid
You never slowed down
Your mind never rested
Your crazy ideas
Had yet to be tested
Like power from garbage
And you had a notion
To build a machine
With perpetual motion
Oh by the way
Good God, Glory Be
I discovered some stuff
That you wrote in ’03!
Jewish Boy meets Ashram
You went there with Marvin
To hear the wisdom
Of Guru Ma Jaya
You entered the temple
And soon you were met
With Four legged Gods
And Elephant Heads
What’s a Jew boy to do
When there’s idols about
You put on a kippah
To keep them all out
To use your own words
And to quote you directly
“I had slipped it on as a religious condom to practice
You wrote about shopping with Golda Meir
You wrote about God and Camus and Fear
You discovered George Bush in a mens room somewhere
But I can’t repeat here what had happened in there
Your words were inspiring, concise, never wasteful
At times pornographic,
but always so tasteful.
Let’s hope you get published
Let’s hope folks will read
The words of a dreamer , a seer indeed
Brother of mine
I don’t know where you are
You’re Nearer than Near
And Farther than Far
SO wherever I go
And whatever I do
I’LL TAKE YOU ALONG
THAT’S JUST WHAT I’LL DO
Everett was next and read Psalm 15:
Who is the one who loves life and does what is right?
He who walks blamelessly,
and speaks truth from his heart;
He who does not slander with his tongue,
does no evil to his friend,
does no wrong to his companions;
and can’t be faulted for his dealings with those near
Those who act unkindly frustrate him,
but those who fear the Lord, he honors.
He is a man who keeps his promises and his values,
even at his own detriment.
Who lends money to those in need.
The man who lives in such an ethical manner, shall
never be shaken.
Everett remained on the bimah and I joined him. He and Cherie
confirmed one last time that I didn’t want to try to deliver my hesped myself.
I took a deep breath and again began to cry. I squeaked out that I could not
and took my seat on the stool next to Everett. With my eyes closed tightly,
Everett delivered my hesped for Abba:
In Abba’s words from his diary following the death of Saba:
Love is the most powerful force in the universe. It is the atom
bomb of human emotion. It is the loud clanging bell of life. It rings with such
strength. And the love for a father? It is overpowering, how much he gave me,
how much I took, how often I took him for granted, and how he was there for me
with unconditional love.
This is surreal. For the last several months I wrote to you about
Abba and all he was experiencing. I focused your attention, your well wishes,
your prayers, and your thoughts by telling you his story as it unfolded. But no
one wanted this to be how that story ended.
It may come as no surprise that during my lifetime, when I would
write something important, I would send it off to Abba for comment. Those
updates were only the second time in my life that I was unable to ask for his
input. The first was the memorial I wrote for the dedication of Saba’s grave
stone; I didn’t want to burden him with my emotional outpouring at a time when
he had his own. Similarly, when he came to me to request that I write updates
on his journey he explicitly told me it was because he needed that burden
lifted; that he would not be in a position to do it himself.
So here we are. For the third time I am unable to consult him on
I have received more than 1,000 messages during this period of
updates and now since his passage. They ranged in length and content from
simple thank you notes for the updates, to condolences, to extensive shared
memories. One thing that is clear from your notes is that I don’t need to tell
you stories about his accomplishments and his impact on the world. You already
Instead I thought I could tell you a little bit about what it was
like to be his eldest son.
Before I get into that though, I want to give you one bit of
disclaimer. You might think, from what I am about to tell you, that Abba played
favorites. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. With each of you, there
were probably times when he caused you to feel as though you were his favorite.
He was good at that. Think about it for a moment. You each felt some level of
love for him. Now think about how he felt an immense level of love for each of
you. That adds up. It was a bit of a bottomless well when it came to how much
love he had. But regarding favorites, in our house he did the opposite when it
came to me and Nadav. Whenever he was alone with me all he could talk about was
Nadav and whenever he was alone with Nadav all he could talk about was me.
Unintentionally he left us each believing the other was his favorite when in
fact he loved us both fully and equally.
But back to his relationship with me. First, the early years
(pre-Nadav). Eama jokes that Abba didn’t like babies. It’s not that he didn’t
like me when I was a newborn; he didn’t really know how to relate to me when I
was new. It should come as no surprise that if he couldn’t have a conversation
with you he didn’t know what to do with you. He recently revealed to me that
one of his professors in grad school had done some experiments with early
childhood acquisition of grammar and syntax and he immediately came home and
tried it out. Must have worked because I was talking before I was walking and I
was walking at 10 months. From then on we were able to converse so the
relationship leveled out a bit.
You should know, though, that these early conversations were not
the normal conversations a father might be expected to have with a toddler. He
wasn’t interested in whether I had a booboo or if I needed to go to the potty.
No, pretty much from the beginning he wanted to know how I related to the
world. Consequently the conversations were about ethics and morality.
Here’s an example—one Shabbat dinner I recall him first posing the Kantian
Lifeboat Scenario in the frame of his late professor Lawrence Kohlberg. By this
point Nadav had joined us but barely—certainly not joining the conversation
yet—so I was still receiving the bulk of his attention. (And besides, Nadav
didn’t really talk in his earliest years—he waited until he could poetically
philosophize like when Eama once discovered him one night in his crib calling
out to the moon, arms wide, as he said, “moon, come to Duvvy” or another time
when she found him in the early morning standing quietly in the dark and upon
turning on the light in his room, he asked, “where did the darkness go?”). This
early conversation about Kant was when I was barely five years old. He wanted
to know how I would choose who lives and who dies when abandoning ship for an
insufficient numbers of spots on a lifeboat.
At age 10, when he noticed I had to shave to keep my beard at bey,
he decided to sit me down for our first sex talk. There was no discussion about
the birds and bees; nothing mechanical. Instead he told me that at some point I
would love a woman so much and she would love me so much that we would want to
express our love for one another in an intimate way. When that occurred I should
be gentle and tender and loving.
He nearly cried at my bar mitzvah when I didn’t want to shave off
my beard. He told me he wasn’t ready yet for me to look that grown up and he
needed me to do this for him. It seemed overbearing and irrational and flew in
the face of the deep commitment he taught me from a young age to defy authority
and find moments for antiestablishmentarianism. Nonetheless I eventually
As high school came to a close, I began researching colleges. I
decided I wanted to go to school in the northeast, but insisted on visiting
schools alone. I was initially surprised that my parents readily agreed to
allow me to take a car and set out with my best friend from high school (a
gorgeous, non-jewish, blond named Susan) for a week+ of campuses. We visited
ten schools in seven days. That surprise was alleviated however, when I got the
second sex talk. You’ll need a little context for this one though. When I
started high school there was an outbreak of sexually transmitted diseases that
ran through the school. The local health department even had a chart mapping
the spread from patient zero. The village decided they preferred the
head-in-the-sand approach and claimed there was nothing wrong. In response, my
friends and I created the organization, Students for Sexual Responsibility,
handed out mass quantities of condoms and literature about transmission, and
committed to not be sexually active ourselves. This second sex talk went
something like this:
Abba sat me and Susan down on the couch in the den. You know the
room. Even with all the lights on it remains pretty dark. It was especially
dark that evening. He and Eama stood in front of us. Abba then looked at us and
said, “you two will be away and on your own for more than a week; no parents or
other adults to tell you what to do. It will all be up to you. This may be a
good time for you (now just looking at me) to be less rigid with the celibacy.
Could be a good time for the two of you to experiment.” Very different than the
talk we received from Susan’s parents who were both in prison administration.
During and after college Abba and I grew closer than ever. I’m not
sure when precisely it began. Perhaps when he visited me at Hampshire and
commented that the price tag was justified by the cannabis smoke pumped into
the rooms through the vents. Or perhaps it was the work I did on alternative
fuel systems. We started to fall into a pattern where he would often confuse me
with him; he would forget that we are actually two separate people. He would
make plans for me without talking to me first because he was free. He would
volunteer me for tasks without consultation because they needed to be done. He
would sacrifice my needs for the needs of others. That may sound harsh, but if
you think about it, Abba regularly sacrificed himself for others so given the
confusion it makes sense. It also explains his later fascination with
alternative fuel systems. Initially I was frustrated by the identity-blurring,
but eventually recognized what it really was—that he and I had become that
And eventually the confusion became bidirectional. Abba was more
than my father; he was my best friend. One of the harder parts of his recovery
was that he didn’t have the energy to meaningfully carry on our daily
conversations. And in his final minutes, when he was unable to speak, as we
approached death, I said the shema.
But there is an upside to that confusion as well. Isn’t that the
meaning of legacy? There won’t be a day when I don’t think about Abba—how to be
more like him, how he relates to the world, his ethics and morality.
I wasn’t able to run this by him before I shared it with you, but
I’m not concerned. Even before he died he took permanent residence on my
shoulder whispering in my ear.
The service continued with the congregation singing together and
then we were asked to rise. Cherie read the English translation of El Malei
Rachamim (Psalm 23):
Compassionate God, source of life:
Grant perfect peace in Your sheltering presence among the holy and
pure, to the soul of Jerry Benjamin who has entered eternity. We, his family
and friends, are beneficiaries and witnesses to the many worthy and righteous deeds
that he performed during his lifetime. May his soul be bound up in the never-ending
bond of life that stretches from one generation to the other. May his memory be
a blessing and a source of strength to all those who knew him. Adonai is his
inheritance now. May he rest in peace. Let us all say, Amen.
And then Cantor Braun came forward again and sang El Malei Rachamim
in Hebrew in a way only he could.
My cousin Mike Maistelman, Malka, Rafi, Rafi’s wife Leah, Leslie,
Nadav’s wife Lindsey, Nadav’s father-in-law Pat, and Jimmy surrounded the
coffin which was on a rolling cart. They acted as pallbearers. We followed them
out as they loaded his coffin into the Arnold-vehicle and we filled a sea of
cars. In a snake-like train we all drove across town with a police escort (on a
three-wheel motorcycle) to the cemetery. At the final turn into the Canton
Hebrew Cemetery our escort stopped, dismounted, and stood at attention and saluted
Abba as we entered.
The grave was perfectly prepared; each corner appeared as though
made by scalpel not shovel. The pallbearers gathered at the back of the vehicle
and unloaded the coffin. This time the coffin was actually carried. Per Jewish tradition,
because we are so reticent to let Abba go, as the pallbearers took a step
toward the grave they stopped and after each stop Cherie recited the following:
perfect in every deed, who can say unto Him, ”What are you doing? You who
speak and do, deal kindly with us, Hearken and do.
You are just in
all your ways, O perfect Rock, slow to anger and full of compassion. Spare and
have pity upon parents and children, for Thine, Lord, is forgiveness and
The soul of
every living thing is in Your hand; Your might is full of righteousness. Have
mercy upon the remnant of the flock of Israel.
You are great
in counsel and mighty in deed; Your eyes are open to all the ways of your
children, to give unto every one according to his ways, and according to the
fruit of his doings.
He is my God,
my living Redeemer, A Rock when I am in pain In troubled times.
In God’s hands,
I place my spirit When I am sleeping and when I am awake. When my soul is in my
body and when it is not. (Be-yado Afkid Ruchi, be-et e-shan ve-lo-era)
The Lord is
with me, I have no reason to be afraid. (Ve-em ruchi, geviati, Adonai Li Ve-Lo
The coffin was then lowered into the ground and per Ohio law, a
heavy metal cover was lowered over the coffin. Cherie continued:
God will guard your soul,
your coming and going, now and forever.
Al Mekomo Ta-vo B’shalom.
Blessed is the one who comes to his final resting place in peace
The dust returns to the earth as it was; the spirit returns to God who
God, help us to understand that grief and love go hand in hand,
that the pain
which loss inflicts is the measure of a love stronger than death.
My mother, brother, uncle and I then stepped forward and with the
back of the shovel dropped the first bits of displaced dirt atop the coffin. All
those in attendance came forward and each took their turn. When they finished
the hole was filled in completely.
Cantor Braun came forward again and as we stood looking at the grave
sang el malei rachamim again.
Then for the first time in my entire life I prepare to say Kaddish.
I began and could not finish. Tears again and uncontrolled sobbing.
Everett came forward and recited a translation he wrote. It is as
May it be magnified
and may it be sanctified
God’s great name,
in the world whose creation God willed.
May God’s kingdom be fulfilled
in your life
and in your days
and in the life of the whole House of Israel
soon, and near in time,
and say, Amen!
May God’s great name be praised
forever, and ever and ever!
May it be praised
and may it be blessed
and may it be glorified
and may it be upraised
and may it be elevated,
may it be honored
and may it be exalted
and may it be extolled,
the name of the Holy One – praised be God!
beyond all words-of-praise, words-of-song,
words-of-blessing, and words-of-comfort
that are uttered in this world,
and say, Amen!
May there he abundant peace from Heaven
for us and for all Israel,
and say, Amen!
Maker of peace in the abode-on-high,
may God make peace
for us and for all Israel,
and say, Amen!
All those gathered there then formed a line and Savta, uncle Sheldon,
my mother, brother and I walked through the line and those gathered offered us traditional
wishes of greetings:
MAY God who is always with us, comfort all who knew and love Jerry,
together with all who mourn today in Zion and Jerusalem and may he rest in
Nadav and I stood at the grave one last time to say goodbye. We both
began to cry and stood hugging each other as we wept. Before leaving the cemetery,
we visited my Sabba and my Grandpa Leo who are now Abba’s neighbors and then we
left the ceremony and will not return for a year (when we place a headstone.
We returned to Shaaray Torah for a meal, then did afternoon and
evening services (Mincha and Maariv) where I was able to say kaddish without
disruption and then had our first night of shiva visitation at the synagogue.
This evening we reconvened at Savta’s assisted living facility and local
friends and family joined us. There were bags of Heggy’s, various other snacks,
and then the group of residents who gather each week for Shabbat services
joined us and we had a small service at which we were able to say kaddish.
For the remainder of shiva we will be back in Boston at Uncle Sheldon
and Aunt Miriam’s house. Shiva in Boston will be from 8pm until 10pm motzei
shabbat (Saturday evening), and then Sunday through Tuesday from 7pm until 9pm
with services each evening.
In case you are wondering, all meals have already been provided for the entire period of shiva. That said, as I mentioned before, it would be wonderful if you wanted to give tzedakah (charity). Anywhere you’d like to give would have made Abba happy, but if you were looking for some place he recently had some devotion you could either give to MIAD’s scholarship fund (https://payments.miad.edu/donate) or the Milwaukee Jewish Federation Coalition for Jewish Learning (http://www.milwaukeejewish.org/departments/jewisheducation/cjl/ways-to-give/). Also, feel free to share this and to share the link to the website (https://abbaupdates.newphaseinnovations.com/).
Wherever you are, I wish you a Shabbat Shalom. From Canton, Ohio.
As promised I have some details to share about Abba’s
funeral, shiva and memorial.
First, I’ve received several questions about who is
immediate family. I should have thought about that before hitting send on that
last update. In Eama and Abba’s family “immediate” really refers to everyone who
is a familial relation. For example, I didn’t have first cousins, and second
cousins and cousins removed, I just had cousins. I also didn’t have great
uncles and great aunts, just uncles and aunts. So I suppose where other
families might describe immediate as mother, father, sister, brother, son,
daughter, spouses and children, in our family, all family is immediate.
If you are family, in Eama and Abba’s way of defining, and
are wondering if you would be welcomed, the answer is emphatically yes. Should
you feel any obligation? Emphatically no. Canton is not the easiest place to
visit casually and quickly. Milwaukee is much easier and there will be a larger
memorial with far more time to prepare. While we haven’t settled on a date,
there has been some very preliminary discussion about later this summer. We
will be in touch about that as quickly as we can.
For those of you who will be joining us in Canton, funeral
services will be held at Savta’s synagogue, (also where Abba, Eama, and Uncle
Sheldon grew up) Shaaray Torah Synagogue (432 30th St. NW, Canton,
OH 44709) on Thursday May 16th at 1pm with burial to follow. The family will
sit shiva at the synagogue from 5:30-7:30PM Thursday (services at 5:30), and at
Savta’s residence (The Colonies at Windsor 1454 E. Maple St. North Canton, OH
44720) on Friday from 1-3PM (with a brief service at 3PM).
Eama, Uncle Sheldon, Nadav, and I will return to Boston and
sit shiva at the Uncle Sheldon and Aunt Miriam’s home (141 Waban Hill Road
North, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467) on Saturday from 8-10pm (services at 8:45pm)
and Sunday through Tuesday nights from 7-9PM (services at 7:30PM). All are
welcome to visit during shiva. Dietary laws of Kashrut will be observed.
A memorial gathering will be held in Milwaukee at a later
Now, many of you have inquired about ways you could help. Abba
would have loved that. Giving tzedakah was very important to him but inspiring
others to give was something he loved even more. While he would be happy to
have known that he had motivated you to give, if you are wondering where his
attention has been recently there have been two in Milwaukee. The first is The
Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD) where a donation into the
scholarship fund in Abba’s name would be wonderful. The other would be that the
Milwaukee Jewish Federation has a Coalition for Jewish Learning. In recent
years he has been especially impressed with their approach to Jewish learning
in Milwaukee. At their annual event they not only recognize teachers and
administrators, they recognize all who are involved; even the custodial staff
at the Jewish day schools are recognized. You can reach these two organizations
One last little bit. While there are many things I could
share about Jewish practices around death and mourning, I thought I would share
two. I won’t say much about either and I will let you google amongst yourself
(coffee talk reference?). The first is the phrase Baruch dayan ha’emet—ברוך דיין האמת—Blessed
is the arbiter of the truth. This phrase is used to express surprise at
concerning news. The second is Hamakom yinachem etchem b’toch sha’ar avalei tzion v’yerushalayim—המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים—May you be comforted among the mourners of
Zion and Jerusalem. This phrase is used to express condolence to a Jewish
As we all struggle
with our new loss, I wish you moments of reflection, recollection, and humor.
When a star is born it is formed in a cloud of gas and dust.
Abba was born in into the nebulous Columbus, Ohio on July 9, 1951. A nuclear
reaction at his core provided enough energy to cause him to shine brightly for
many years. He was close enough to provide us warmth, to stimulate growth, and
to impact time itself. As his energy waned his light increased for a time and
then began to decrease until it was extinguished. Abba left us on May 11, 2019
with the explosion of a giant. There was a brief pulsar followed by the
inevitable black hole. He is mourned in this vacuum by Eama, Cindy Benjamin,
Savta, Edie Benjamin, Uncle Sheldon, his brother, Nadav, my brother, and by me.
Arrangements are being made for the transport of his body to Canton, Ohio,
where it will join the bodies of his father, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and
other relatives. A small funeral for immediate family only will be held in
Canton later this week. A memorial service open to all will be held in
Milwaukee. Details regarding shiva visitation and the date, time, and location
of the memorial service will be forthcoming. ברוך דיין האמת—baruch dayan ha’emet—blessed
is the arbiter of truth. May Abba’s name be remembered for a blessing.
The rollercoaster that has been my Abba’s condition has been
especially unpleasant of late. When last I wrote things were looking relatively
positive. They seemed to have found the right method of slow dialysis and they
were getting things under control. The last couple of days, however, have been
treacherous and the prognosis is bleak. We may be reaching the end of potential
(new) interventions, which means we have no other choice but to let nature take
its course with the current regiment of drugs and dialysis when possible. The
road ahead is far more difficult and the chances of recovery far more slim.
I arrived yesterday morning as a Mother’s Day surprise and
Abba had a pretty good day yesterday. He was only on one blood pressure med and
remained stable. They were doing dialysis, but being even more gentle than they
had, because the night before I arrived he had a very bad night. Eama and I
left the hospital last night (something she didn’t feel comfortable doing the
night before) feeling ok about things. At 3am this morning we received a call
that Abba had a series of blood pressure related events and was being taken for
a cat scan to see if there was a new or worsening issue somewhere. They saw no changed issues in his head or
chest but they did see that the abdominal bleed had grown slightly from the
scan they did a couple of days earlier; one doctor described it as smaller than
a ziplock bag filled with blood, but still concerning for a guy on blood
thinners who is having BP issues and blood chemistry issues.
We returned to the hospital within the hour and have been
here ever since. He has had a rough day. He has needed several medications to
stabilize his blood pressure and there was a concern, as noted above, that the
growth in that abdominal bleed could be related. To determine how bad the bleed
might be he had another cat scan, but this time with contrast. The result of
this latest CT is that the bleed hasn’t grown since this morning and the bleed
does not appear to be arterial (both good news). That means we are back to
hoping and praying that the treatment he is currently receiving brings him
stability sufficient to allow him to begin to recover.
Of course, even if he recovers from this, the road ahead will be arduous. His kidneys are currently in a state of failure and have been for some time. While there is a possibility that after recovering from everything else his kidneys could begin to recover, there is also a possibility that they will not even if the rest of him does. That would leave him needing ongoing dialysis and potentially a kidney transplant. Neither would be good. He also remains extremely weak and so he would require substantial therapy to get him back to a point where he could move on his own. Clearly if he can survive this he can get himself through whatever comes next, but it isn’t fun to think about.
So, here we sit. Watching the machines, studying the faces
of the doctors and nurses for some clue of his condition beyond what the tests
and scans reveal, and trying to focus on how he remains one of the strongest—in
will, spirit, and fortitude—we have ever known. If there is a way to survive
this, he will survive this. However, in fairness I wanted you to know there may
not be a way even for him.
As for what you can do—here is the list:
Do not call or stop by.
This is very important. At this moment communication is challenging. Trying to
communicate with Abba or Eama directly serves as more of an unwanted
distraction than something helpful.
Pray and/or send good vibes
and/or think good thoughts of recovery (depending on what suits you). For those
looking to pray for him, in case you use the Jewish mode of such prayers, his
Hebrew name is יצחק
בן אידיס —Yitzchak ben Eydis—Jerry son of Edie.
In the past hearing notes
of concern and care have been appreciated, but I have something a little bit
different in mind this time around. I would like you to dig deep into your
memories to tell me stories. Specifically I want you to tell me about the most
important or impactful or impressive things you experienced with or as a result
of Abba. It is nice to hear that he is
strong, or smart, or loving or any other number of things you have expressed in
past messages (all lovely). For this request
I’m looking for specific moments in time. Perhaps it was a letter he wrote or a
conversation you had or advice he gave or a protest he led.
While it could be, as we Jews say, באבע
myse (Yiddish. Literally, grandmother tale—an old wive’s tale), I once read
speculation that your life flashing before your eyes in a moment when you face
death because it can help you survive the ordeal; those memories are so strong
they bring you strength. Who knows if that’s true (and frankly, I don’t care
and don’t want to know that it isn’t), but in case it is I figure, why wait
until right before death to find strength in stories; let’s start pulling
strength from those stories now.
Finally, speak to friends
and family about what’s been going on with Abba. While we have tried to ensure
that everyone who would want to know, knows, we continue to discover we have
inadvertently left people out. Please help us by pointing them to the updates
From there they should be able to read all of the past updates and add
themselves to the update list so they don’t miss any future updates. If they
have any trouble accessing either, please have them contact me directly as I
can provide past updates collected into a single PDF and I can ensure they are
on the list for future updates.
That’s all from Boston. I’ll do my best to bring you updates
as soon as possible. From here things may move at an unpredictable pace—at
times fast and at times slow—so please be patient.