Monday, April 6, 2015

To a Student who died too young

I write this as a form of catharsis. I need to write this. So I want to apologize right off the bat if you don't like it. It isn't meant for you.

That having been said, I'll start with all the expected and right stuff:

I just got back for a funeral of a former student. She was in my 12th grade AP class only 4 years ago (she earned a 96 or so) and now she's gone. I'll tell you about her. You know all those good things you say perfunctorily whenever someone passes? Yeah, that, only sincerely. Brilliant, motivated, caring, sincere, selfless and like that. She had a smile that could, and often did, light up an entire building, and an attitude which buoyed a community. She put her family, friends and strangers ahead of herself as a matter of her personal code. She studied her world because she could not imagine doing otherwise. She shared with others and was fearless in her pursuit of all things new and different. She came back, even after she fell ill, and visited my class. I even put her on the spot more than once and asked her to speak to my class off the cuff. And she did, transfixing the students with her literary insight and her personal anecdotes. As a scientist, she could tell you exactly what was wrong with her and what the medicines were that were being tried to treat her. She even pronounced them right. As a fervent Jew she never lost that spiritual side which drove her to see God's hand even in her darkest days. Like I said, all those things we wish we could say honestly about others, we complain are not evocative enough when it came to her.

So now, I'd like to write a goodbye letter to her, so that she (I hope would be nice to think that the hereafter has wifi and she has my blog bookmarked) knows the impact that she had. But please understand, and here's where the apology kicks in, I will be writing this in a very personal way -- full of the affect which she and I shared, and the sensibility which she would truly appreciate. So if you find it inappropriate, I am sorry, but I assure you, she would think it entertaining.


Dear Rachel,

I was at the funeral. Your funeral. Heckuva time but I won't (I can't, really) get into how emotionally draining it was. Suffice to say it had what you might expect -- crying, speeches, a few laughs, but I thought you should know something else that went on so that you can see that no where is immune from the kind of frustration that we often spoke of. The parking situation was inexcusable.

As I'm sure you know by now, you were not the first person to be buried in that cemetery. And though you really packed them in (it was a very well attended event) I can't imagine that you were the top box office draw that that venue has ever hosted. But they still haven't figured out what to do with cars that come in for the funeral. The line extends out into the intersection, and then, once you come in, there is no one telling you where you should park, no signs directing you anywhere. I drove around, and after circling the facility, I found a little out of the way spot about three miles from the main building where everyone was assembled. I got my hiking gear on, packed rations and made my way towards the throngs. When I arrived, I heard someone from the funeral home announce that everyone should now get back into cars so that we could drive to the area of the cemetery near the grave site. So I turned around, found my sherpa and started back. When I looked at the map, I realized that where I was parked was only a short train ride to the site so I figured I should just keep walking. So I did, and got to the grave well before most anyone else. People kept filing in, having dutifully gotten into their cars, assembled in a line, driven 5 feet only to park again for lack of space. There must be a better way.

Then we waited. People just kept coming. And just when we thought that there was no room for anyone else, the same guy from the funeral home announced that anyone who walked over and left a car parked back by the central building had to go move it because there were other funerals and the volume of cars had effectively shut down the entire cemetery. It was like Woodstock all over again, except with more funerals and less Wavy Gravy. Not none, mind you, just less. There is nothing to get a funeral off to a rollicking start like a threat from a big guy telling you to move your car. So I ignored him. I assumed he wasn't in the kind of shape necessary to make it all the way to my car and ticket me.

As much as the parking situation was complete chaos, the funeral itself was too. Were certain people supposed to stand in a particular place? Who needed to get access to what and where is it proper or improper to step? There are no signs or directions. But it was a nice day and I do believe that I noticed the planes flying overhead dip their wings out of respect.

There were Sea Scouts and Venture Scouts and probably other scouts also. If I ever had a need to tie a knot, this was the time to do it. There were grown men and women in uniform. There were black hats and wigs, and bald heads and baseball hats. There were children and adults, students and teachers. There was an ambulance with reps from your Volunteer Ambulance Corps (good thing, also, as during the funeral someone felt faint and the guys had to run to the rig to get the stretcher and help the person out), there were college friends, high school friends and others. There was, and I say this as a testimony to you, an air of class and dignity. There was a hope that you brought to any situation. There was inspiration and a sense that we can all do better because you showed us that we always must try to do better. So thank you for that.

Your skipper had the bosun ring 8 bells and secure from the watch. All is well on your ship. Sail well, Rachel.

Rabbi R


  1. For all those who didn't get to hear the speech which I refer to at the end of this post, here it is:

    As most of you know, Rachel recently ran a “Knock Knock Give a Sock” collection drive. What you may not know is that the drive was part of a larger undertaking by Rachel to earn the Summit award, the recently created and highest award in the Venture Scout program. One of the requirements of the Summit Award called on Rachel to create a personal code of conduct.

    While it is the custom not to eulogize during the Passover holiday, I would like to share with you Rachel’s personal code of conduct as I believe, with one exception I will address at the end, it adequately captures how Rachel lived her life.

    1 – keep your friends and family close

    2 – think of others before yourself; the only time myself comes before others is when the words are listed alphabetically

    3 – always give and take warm hugs; they solve many problems

    4 – never underestimate the power of a stuffed animal

    5 – naps are good

    6 – in the face of overwhelming odds, strive to succeed; work to overcome the obstacles in the path towards your goals. Don’t just give up on the goal.

    7 – there are very few things that can’t be helped by a good friend or a good night’s sleep

    8 - when the going gets tough, the tough pick a new award and work on it

    9 - If you are wrong, apologize; don’t let pride get in the way of repairing a friendship

    10 – Never stop learning

    11 – you never know who or what could end up changing your life so be sure to meet new people and try new things all the time.

    12 – Friends are the keys to most of life’s locked doors

    13 – Stand by your beliefs even when they are the minority opinion

    While this code of conduct captures much of who Rachel was, there is one facet of Rachel that is missing, I think possibly because to Rachel it really was not part of her code of conduct but rather who she was. In living by each of the above rules, Rachel carried her faith and tradition with her. I’d like to share just one story which I think exemplifies this aspect of Rachel.

    In 2009, Rachel, Eli and I went on a 10 day backpacking trip in the Philmont Scout Reservation in New Mexico. While on the trail, our group crossed paths with a group traveling on horseback. Rachel immediately decided that she wanted to go back the next summer and do the horseback trip.

    For most the thought of navigating the logistics of a trip to New Mexico and 10 days on trail without others providing for kashrut and other needs would have been overwhelming but not for Rachel. She immediately e-mailed the Philmont staff to get a list of co-ed and female groups doing cavalcade, the horseback trip, the next summer. She then e-mailed each group organizer to ask if they had room and if they could accommodate her need not to travel from sundown on Friday through Saturday night. After finding a group that would accommodate, Rachel then set out to prepare her separate kosher food rations and learn the laws of caring for her horse on Shabbat so she would be prepared to deal with the issues that might arise on trail.

    While Rachel's cancer slowly robbed her of her physical strength and health, it never robbed her of her spirit, desire to live, learn and help others. Her battle inspired and we hope will continue to inspire her friends, shipmates and community to work together, study and help others so that we can all a beacons of righteousness to the nations.

    As her Skipper, I have one final honor to bestow upon her,

    Boatswain, sound the watch eight bells. Secure the helm.


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