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August 1, 2003 - September 31, 2005

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October 21, 2004

Dear Yitz and Blu:

My main challenge in writing this letter is trying to find words of comfort when I need comfort myself. I hope you can forgive me for not writing until now, but I have not known what to say. This is my third attempt. I cry as I write this.

The concert at the Y in honor of JJ's Yartzheit, like the concert in Seton Park, was beautiful. JJ would have loved it and he would have been very happy to see so many people enjoying themselves. I do not think JJ would have wanted people to mourn his death, but rather to learn from his life, which he lived so joyfully, meaningfully, purposefully, and to share with him that same sweetness in life of which he enjoyed. It has been over 2 years since JJ's death and only now can I begin to have some perspective on this tragic event. I have not been able to go near the subject because I have not been able to accept the fact of it. I still feel like JJ is alive. JJ was my friend and I was honored to have been his. Perhaps there is some comfort for you in knowing that we all share your loss and you are not alone.

The thing I remember most about JJ was his smile. It could light up a room. I saw it at my door so many times when he came by. Last night I re-explored JJ's website and was amazed at the number of life enhancing projects that have developed in JJ's memory. "Tzadikim af B'mittatam Nikraim Chaim" - "the Holy, even in their death, are called Living, because the deeds they performed while alive continue after their death." In this spirit, it is appropriate that the SAR high-school was named in his honor, so that he will always be connected to the school his own father envisioned and founded, so that he will be remembered for the values for which SAR stands, so that SAR will be grounded in the values for which JJ lived, so that when people who were not fortunate enough to have known JJ will ask "Who was JJ?" they will learn about someone they should emulate, someone who embodied Ahavas Chesed, Ahavas Am Yisroel, Eretz Yisroel, and ultimately, Tikkun Olam.

As teachers and leaders of the community, may you be comforted in knowing that JJ was also a teacher, and that his life will serve as a lesson for others forever. His name will come up in conversation, and through these conversations he will continue to teach others the values you instilled in him. Know that your son was and will continue to be a teacher of your people, directly and by example. JJ, like his parents, was married to his community, which included the entire Family of Man, and his children who are his students will continue forever.

JJ had a special love for Israel and the Jewish people. I once met him in a pizza store in Jerusalem, serendipitously, and I asked where he was coming from. He had just appeared out of nowhere, which was an experience I often had with him. He said that he had been in Europe and was going to go home but wanted to stop by Israel first so he got on a different plane. I was jealous of a person who had the ability to do this, whose love for Israel and others was so open and natural. He had many enviable qualities and I was jealous I did not possess them to the degree that he did. He had more friends than me. In fact, he had more friends than anyone I ever knew. People liked him because he deserved to be liked. I am not ashamed of my jealousy because our tradition encourages us to be jealous of the excellent qualities in another person and to try and grow those qualities in ourselves.

JJ was a joker, to his credit, more than we think. To paraphrase a story in the Talmud, a Rabbi's students asked the Rabbi "Who is deserving of Heaven?" The Rabbi pointed to a joker. The students asked how a joker could merit Heaven. The Rabbi said because the joker makes people laugh, he makes them happy, he eases their pain, and so he merits Heaven. For this quality alone, JJ merited Heaven.

Unlike many of us, JJ's love was not exclusive, it was inclusive. The intensity and focus of his love did not diminish its breadth. This is unusual. For most of us, our love includes a few people, usually our family and a few friends. But JJ's love extended to all mankind, to all life, to fish, to flowers, and even to inanimate objects like paper. His vegetarianism was an expression of this love. His love of beauty was an expression of his love. His love of music was an expression of his love. His smile was an expression of his love.

I don't think JJ "liked" anything. He lived life too passionately for that. Either he loved it, or he hated it. JJ hated prejudice. JJ hated waste. JJ hated slander. JJ hated injustice. He became angry when he saw these things. I remember times when I thought "what are you getting so upset about? It's just ..." But, to JJ it was never "just" anything. Life was always about something. It was always personal.

His love for the Jewish people did not exclude a broader love for mankind. JJ did not distinguish between Jew and non-Jew. JJ boldly and generously gave his organs so that others could live, Jew or Arab, so that even his death bred life. He literally lives on in the bodies of other human beings. I have been wrestling with this issue, but since I heard JJ did this, I am more motivated to do the same.

In his life, and even in his death, he treated everyone with the same dignity and respect. I saw this with my own eyes. Black, White, Rich, Poor, JJ didn't care. It was irrelevant. JJ would help the unknown lady across the street. He would give up his seat for a stranger. The acts of basic civility that we are taught as children and then forget as adults JJ did all the time. Unlike so many of us who think we are smart, JJ knew that all he really needed to know he learned in kindergarten. Share. Be friends. Be kind. Love your family. Love your neighbor. It was his modus operandi. It was his nature. It was the way he moved through this world.
It was a rare and beautiful thing to see, and in all these ways he was a role model for me.

JJ died on Holy soil, in Israel, on Holy Land. There is Holiness and pride just in that. JJ died like a soldier in the Israeli army. The difference is, he defended Israel through life, not death. Life was always his way. His bike was his weapon of choice. He lived for Israel, for G-d, for the Jewish people, and for all of human kind, and he died while he was doing all this in Israel, his home.

I remember playing ping-pong with JJ on Shabbos. Hours and hours we played. We played intensely. I enjoyed it immensely. We were extremely competitive, but we played as friends. I remember all of JJ's Kippahs stacked on the head of a monkey in his room. With all his joking, JJ wasn't kidding when he put on his tzitzis and kippah. He was very, very proud to be a Jew. I remember learning with Rabbi Greenberg and JJ on Shabbos and JJ being promised that for every page of Gemara he learned he got another mile toward Israel. Geez, I thought, JJ must really love Israel if that is how one tempts him. I will miss those days.

I remember Gloucester and loving it and wishing I could be part of the family. I remember playing badminton with JJ in the backyard. I remember boating with JJ and going down with Moshe in the boat in the icy waters off Gloucester. I remember playing tennis with David and Moshe and JJ. I remember all the guests in Gloucester, the openness of the house, all the brothers, all the brotherhood, all the tzitzis, all the milk, all the cereal. It was a scene. It was great. I loved it. I loved JJ, I admired him and his family, and still do.

On a very personal note, you both know something about the struggles and travails I have been going through. When I was at the Y in honor of JJ, I saw people fighting off the stench of death with singing and clapping. At first, I thought it was dishonorable to JJ to be so happy on a day that commemorates his death. People were laughing and smiling. Then I started laughing and smiling and singing and clapping. I really had a great time. I realized that the only answer to death, sorrow, and loneliness is connection with other people. This is what JJ was trying to tell us, and I heard him speak to me that night. He was so connected to other people. Lately, and particularly since that night, I have been trying to connect with other people, with meaningful and purposeful goals in my life, not to be judgmental, and to accept people for who they are. I believe connecting with others is one of the essential elements in attaining happiness, not just for me but for anyone. I credit JJ and that evening for contributing to my healing, and I thank you both for raising a son who taught me so much.


Love,
Jonathan Bellin

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October 29, 2004

The memorial concert last night inspired me to write down my memories of JJ as a colleague-ever professional, but always friendly and caring beyond mere professional-which are as fresh with me today as in the years that I knew him. At the time he was taken from us, it was too painful to write about him, and besides, I thought, there are so many people who knew him much better, who needs to hear from me? I write these recollections now to acknowledge that JJ will continue to be a great source of inspiration to myself and other people who were touched by him, and hopefully our memories will help preserve the powerful light of his life for generations.

My first brush with JJ occurred right before I was offered the job at Makor. I had flown in for an interview with Rabbis Greenberg and Gedzelman, and on a Friday afternoon a few weeks later I received the call I had been waiting for, that they were offering me the position of director of education. Before the offer was formal, however, I would receive a call from someone else first. About a half hour before Shabbat started, JJ called me. I had no idea who he was, only that he shared a last name with Yitz and that he was somehow involved with Makor. He asked me a few questions, whose intent was, I guess, for him just to get a good sense of me and to feel whether I would be an appropriate choice for the job. Although I didn't understand this at the time, this phone call was a part of the deep care that JJ took in all aspects of Makor, his phenomenal attention to details in his quest to reach out to young people.

Once I was on board, I saw JJ largely as a cheerleader here to help support our programs in whatever way he could. He would show up every chance he had, popping in to lectures and other programs to see how they were doing, who was coming to them, enjoying the content and then moving on to another program, or to chat with our patrons. Almost every conversation started out, after a "how are you?", with a "You're doing a great job"-something that we especially needed to hear those first years, when the pressures were the most intense. His ability to cheer people up is legendary, but it may be less well known how far he went to boost the spirits of his colleagues. Just looking around my office now I see many objects that were tokens of JJ's care: a JLN (Jewish Life Network) mug, glass, clock and athletic T-shirt (with 01 on the back-indeed, everyone should feel they are no. 1, in JJ's eyes); a JLN Certificate of Achievement, "For taking Makor's mission to heart," given at a ceremony that reminded me of the end of the "Wizard of Oz"; and two toy motorcycles that I recall he gave to us, for what reason I haven't the foggiest recollection-in all likelihood, just to enjoy them.

I never fully understood his role here, all that he undoubtedly really did to create Makor and make it happen. I still don't-I look forward to reading more about his role in founding Makor. He would never talk about himself. To say that it was it not in his nature to be boastful or to talk about himself is a great understatement. He was willing to try your patience only over important things, when he needed to push you to work harder and better, never to boost himself. One important lesson from JJ's life: the fact that "it was never about him" is why so many people cherish his memory.

I worked with JJ most over the beginning Hebrew classes he taught at Makor. In all my time teaching and administering classes, I have never seen a teacher so dedicated, so much on a sacred mission. Teaching Hebrew was JJ's opportunity to fulfill Makor's function, to share the treasures of Judaism with people who did not have the good fortune to grow up with them, and JJ approached that opportunity with an awe-inspiring arsenal of tools. He insisted on teaching this 6-week class as often as possible, never taking a break except during holidays. Needless to say, he never wanted to be paid. At times when we did send him a contract, like all the other teachers, he never returned it. He didn't say anything about it, but I'm afraid we may have insulted him by offering him money for work that he considered holy.

Before the class started, he would ask me to fax him the list of students-first a week in advance, then every couple of days so he could see who the new ones were. He would memorize their names; he didn't want to miss a single one. I would get calls from JJ or his assistant at JLN to remind me to do this-they never forgot. Indeed, JJ never seemed to forget any of the myriad details he devised to make these classes as rewarding, vibrant, meaningful as possible. I wonder if he had a checklist for all of his tasks, or if he just squirreled them away in his astonishingly organized mind. He always made sure that I had ordered the course booklets well in advance, had checked that room was set up properly, had bowls set up for cookies and pretzels that he bought for each class, and water pitchers and enough cups for the students. Was there ever a week when he didn't call to make sure of the bowls and the water? I don't think there was. Usually he would call me from the road, the sound of traffic in the background. He would tell me a dozen little things about his class, and I was always worried that he wouldn't be able to concentrate on driving, but to him this work seemed to come so effortlessly.

Unfailingly, each week he would appear at my office before his class, with suit and briefcase, and rattle off a list of items that needed attention. This student would be absent and needed to be sent something; that student might be interested in taking David's introduction to Judaism-can you get her information? If there were concerns about other classes or teachers, he always heard them before I did and expressed them to me. He would come early to tutor people who needed extra help, then stayed late with the students, bringing them down to the caf? both to give the caf? extra business and to get to know the students better. The worst thing that could happen was for a student to drop out; if someone didn't show up for a class he would contact them to see what happened, and meet with them before the next session. He wanted everyone to love Hebrew, to love Judaism, to finish the class and move on to higher levels. He stayed in touch with his students long after they took the class, by email and also by meeting with them personally (how did he have time? is a question I often asked). I regret that I did not attend more of his classes, to learn from him.

Perhaps his classes were most famous for his graduation ceremony, which would take place after the last session. He wrote up a program, with a list of speakers including the mayor and other dignitaries-all of whom, JJ would announce, unfortunately could not attend. JJ brought a tape recorder with a very tinny recording of "Pomp and Circumstance," which probably sounded tinnier each time he played it. He would address some words to the graduates, conveying, in his own amusing way, a sense of pride that everyone finished the class, overcoming the students' fear over the difficulty of learning Hebrew. He would then introduce the "featured speaker" who was usually David Gedzelman, though one time I had the honor. Then he would give each student a diploma with their name on it, and a coupon worth a discount to move on to the next level of Hebrew. What wouldn't he do for his students? At times, it was hard for me not to get exasperated at his persistence. He was disappointed when we had to raise the costs for his class and cut the discount for the next level, though he fully understood the financial pressures we faced. But he also taught us the most important lesson, to keep our focus on the mission of Makor. In his gentle and lovable way, JJ fought for that mission every day.

Lo alekha ha-melachah ligmor, ve-lo atah ben khorin lehibatel mimenah- You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it. JJ, may you remain in our hearts as an inspiration to continue, in our own poor way, your magnificent work.

Elliott Rabin

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June 18, 2004

When I went to visit with Blu at JJ's apartment I shared the following thought with her:

I try to think of JJ in the following way: I know that he cold not stand it when anyone he cared about was upset or unhappy and he would do what he could to rectify the situation. So when I think of him sadly I try to have his memory be a source of happiness, a blessing, because I know that he only wanted to do what he could to personally increase happiness in the world.

Leah Strigler

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May 16, 2004

I met J.J. on the phone when I was working for the Mayanot branch of Birthright Israel in 2001. He was always so nice and friendly. Then we met in Israel months later while I was on the birthright trip. I remember how excited I was to introduce myself to him in person. We had such a great time hanging out for the few short days we were together. J.J was so cool. We kept in touch a bit via email, (hmm..i gotta see if i can find them) Anyway, after that first trip in Israel, I returned a bunch of times and every time I was visiting Israel I ran into J.J. We always stopped for a chat and he always made me feel like even though we really hardly new eacthother, that how I was doing, was important to him.

At this one birthright event in NYC, he was raffling off all this stuff including this huge israeli flag. I was like "oh man JJ i really want that flag, i dont have one..." I wasnt even included in the raffle and when he pulled out the paper he said and the winner is... "Shevy!" We were all cracking up and I was really touched. 4 years later, the huge flag is still hanging on my wall with more meaning to me than it ever had.

To his close family and friends, you should know that I am representing many out there who met J.J in passing and who were touched by his special soul.

Shevy Oliver (nee Muchnik)

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April 30, 2004

I check this website periodically to see if any new memories have been posted. I think of JJ every day on many occasions. Reading other people's memories of JJ is one of my favorite things to do. They never fail to bring a smile to my face.

I'm always inspired by the way JJ connected with every human being that he met. I visited him in Gloucester for a weekend and he invited me to ask my best friend in Boston (whom he had never met) to come spend a day with us. JJ gave us the royal tour of Gloucester and Rockport and we had a really beautiful time. For dinner, we made what I have now come to call a JJ salad. My best friend and I were slicing the pears and avocados. When JJ noticed the methodless way we were cutting into the avocados, he introduced us to the most effective and efficient way to get the fruit of an avocado out of the shell.

Every time I cut an avocado, I think of JJ. It warmed my heart to learn that my best friend also thinks of JJ when she's cutting her avocados. She met JJ for only a day, I knew him for a few years, and the way we prepare our avocados is forever changed because of J.

Rachael Petru

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November 5, 2003

Since JJ's passing last year, I have wanted to write about what he has done for me over the years, but I have waited, waited until the latest push from JJ (beyond the grave) finally came thru. As I listened to the hespadim about JJ's life at his funeral here in Jerusalem, I couldn't believe how much of an impact someone as young as JJ was able to make on the world. I met JJ about 15 years ago at a Central East shabbaton and became very friendly with both him and David Winter. I would see JJ and Dave at shabbatons and the impact they had on my life back then is something that I cant even describe. I became closer with Dave once he became the Advisor in Detroit and still saw JJ at shabbatons and whenever he would visit Dave. After graduating in 1992, I saw very little of JJ since I came to Israel for my year in Yeshivat Hakotel and ended up staying; joining the army and eventually doing college here too. I actually bumped into JJ a few times over chagim in Katamon and he would always say hi and remember who I was.

At his funeral, I recalled all the fun things JJ had done at shabbatons and was amazed to hear about the chesed level he had strived for, reached and even surpassed in his short lifetime. That night, I had a very difficult time sleeping, I couldn't help but wonder "how will people remember me if I end up dying young?" I felt that whatever I had accomplished in life, it was absolutely nothing compared to what JJ had accomplished. I made a vow to myself that I would find some way to have more of an impact on the lives around me and set off trying to find what that would be.

A month later, I had finally figured it out; I had been volunteering as a policeman in Jerusalem and decided that this was the path my life should lead. I began the lengthy process of joining the police force. Over the course of the next 6 months I trained both my body and my mind to overcome the obstacles I would encounter and by the end of May, I was finally ready. I had lost over 60 pounds, felt better about myself and my abilities and was confident that I would be able to serve my community to the best of my ability as a law enforcement officer. I picked up the phone nearly four months ago and told the induction office that I was ready to do the final test, a 3 day excursion to a police base near Netanya where they would test both the minds and bodies of potential candidates. Unfortunately, there was a hiring freeze and I wasn't able to go to do the test, known as a gibushon. I continued training and finally on a Sunday of mid-July they had an opening for me. I found out at the end of that week that I had passed the test except for one minor part of it (due to the fact that I had sprained my ankle on the first day). This past Monday, after physiotherapy and retraining on my badly sprained ankle, I was able to pass the 2k run on my first try. This coming Sunday (November 9), I will be inducted into the Israeli Police.

Because of the example JJ was to me in life, I will now begin working for the Israeli police serving and protecting klal yisrael.

Robert Arnold
Jerusalem, Israel (formerly Detroit, Michigan)

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October 27, 2003

JJ was the embodiment of the Pasuk: Hevei Mikabel et kol ha'adam b'sever panim yafot. There is a feeling among the gedolim that we are in the pains of the coming of mashiach. The story of Rachel emanu reveals that those who are up with hakadosh baruch hoo can be defenders of the people, begging G-d for mercy on behalf of those who remain on earth and who are undeserving.

JJ is among the righteous men and women who are being called up to G-d to beg mercy for klal yisrael.

In his z'chut, and in the z'chut of the other tzaddikim and nashim tzidkaniot, may we be zocheh to see moshiach come bimhayrah b'yamanu and to be reunited with our loved ones in Yerushalayim Habenuyah.

As Yishayahu stated: K'ish asher imo tinachamenu, like a man whose mother comforts him, ken anochi anachemchem, so too will I (G-d) comfort you, u'viyirushalayim tinuchamu, and in Jerusalem will you be comforted.

This is JJ's continued work in Olam Habah, our work is to have continued bitachon.

He is missed here on earth, but we know he is working hard in olam habah.

Love,
Suri Davis-Stern

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October 24, 2003

Happy birthday to my old friend.

Though I didn't see J often, I miss him. I expect to see him just around the corner as somehow he always seemed to appear. JJ was the beginning of my life as I know it now. He opened my eyes and heart to the notion of an ideal world. I have carried this with me since we met almost 20 years ago. He planted a seed in my heart which has continued to blossom year after year. My husband Brian and I, together, continue to instill these ideals in our children. My pursuit for bringing harmony into this world is relentless. This all began with J. He always walked on the street side to keep me
"safe". I have come to understand this was just another way JJ brought a comfort to this often chaotic world. He saw the beauty in everything. He had a true love for life, any way it would play out. JJ always found that silver lining. I thank him for giving me that blessing.

Through this web site and the many calls I received one year ago - from strangers who wanted to speak with someone who was close to him, I have learned so many new things about my old friend. He was a truly extraordinary man. I always remembered him as "unique" guy with a boyish charm all his own. The legend he was then has flourished way beyond the outreach of JPSY and the personal time and focus he gave to everyone he encountered. JJ has evolved into a world renowned and appreciated humanitarian. In His life and after, he has brought people together. For me he remains the CONNECTION and will forever remain connected to all of us.

Debby Glick

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September 30, 2003

It has been 2 years now since my wife had been diagnosed with cancer. I was at that time much more of a wreck emotionally than my wife. (JJ to the rescue #1.) It was my many long and intense conversations with JJ that I account for the strength to deal with my situation. My wife who is never one to give in to western medical opinions, which by the way were not so favorable, decided to persue alternate therapies under the guidance of a Chinese herbalist. Of course our insurance wasn't about to cover this and the cost was a bit more then we could afford..(JJ to the rescue #2). Shortly after, my wife and I received a check from a group of concerned associates with JJ listed as a contributor. He kept her name written on a piece of paper in his wallet and kept her in his prayers.

Now two years later she is still free of cancer..and I could still hear JJ "Don't worry everything will work out fine"

Thank you JJ.

Wayne Lopes

Prod.Mngr / SoundEngineer
MAKOR / 92nd St. Y
35 W 67st NYC 10023

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September 12, 2003

It has been almost one year since JJ was taken away and I never knew what to say on this remarkable website. JJ and I had alot of things in common but the one that drew us closest was the fact that we were Rabbis sons.When we had occasion to see each other through our high school and college years our first line to each other was..."Are you going???"...(rabbinical school)..

While I never stayed in the "family business" it was nice to see JJ spend his life devoted to the Jewish people.

This shabbos is going to be one year since JJs death. i think that my davening in shul will take on a different meaning and I urge everyone who reads this to have a little extra kavana this shabbos.

Well JJ,I never "went"...but because of you I will try to find my role in the Jewish world.I hope you will be as proud of me as I am of you.

Simeon Wohlberg

 
 

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