Guest post from Josh Sussman in memory of someone who was really influential in his life and just passed away.
I write today in tears…a bit of background. In the Fall of my senior year in college I picked up the book ‘The Haj’ by Leon Uris and it forever changed my life. I’ve had many angels who entered my life to help guide me along my path; the first was Leon Uris whose book changed my life’s course almost immediately. The descriptions of the Land and People of Israel that were so beautifully woven into the story made an immediate impression on me. Upon finishing this long novel over Thanksgiving break I immediately declared to my parents, ‘I want to go to Israel’ (having no previous connection to the country). The answer was a quick ‘sure, you have winter break coming up and we can certainly figure something out’. But I didn’t want a vacation, my soul yearned to experience Israel and its people. I wanted to come for an extended period. I researched and found what I was sure was the perfect option, Project Otzma, a 10 month social service program in Israel. One problem, you had to be sponsored by a local Jewish Federation that was associated with the program and, not surprisingly, Columbia, SC didn’t cut it. My application was first rejected and after some brainstorming my parents realized that their life long friends were very active in the Federation in Boston. A couple of quick calls later and I was planning to fly to Boston to be interviewed for the program and this is where my second angel entered…Cheryl Aronson, who suddenly and tragically passed away yesterday. Cheryl was a young staffer at the Federation at that time and was willing to put her neck out a little bit (and, wink, wink…maybe slightly bend the rules a little) to get me into the program. Her decision forever changed my life. I came on the program, had a completely life altering experience, fell in love with the country, made amazing friends and met Romi. This is where many of you pick up the story of the last 26 or 27 years of our lives together. The grad school(s), the time in Boston, then the Washington area, kids and Israel. Throughout that time, Cheryl would occasionally bounce into my life again…first at my first job in Boston after returning to the US from Otzma; later chance meetings on the street in Jerusalem; a nice chat at a conference here and there; working a bit together at my first job in Israel and the occasional chance encounters throughout the years. Gil’s words below capture the essence of this special person better than I can. But every time I ever had the pleasure of seeing Cheryl it was always the same…positive, energetic, big smiles and sincere caring about where we were in life and what we were doing.
Cheryl, thank you for being my angel and having faith in me so many years ago. I hope I’ve lived up to that faith.
Baruch Dayan HaEmet
Words from Professor Gil Troy:
Sadden by the sudden death of Cherly Aronson z”l, whom I was privileged to work with and befriend over the years in many capacities. She was a stalwart of the Taglit-Birthright Israel Education Committee – which I have the honor to chair, making this my official tribute to her:
Last Monday, January 24, just moments after a two-hour Taglit-Birthright-Israel Education Committee, Cheryl Aronson did what Cheryl loved to do. As chair of the committee, I had, quite casually, mentioned a task force she had led a few years back about the “Eleventh Day,” imagining how Birthright could help participants better integrate their 10-day Birthright trips to Israel with the “Eleventh Day” back home – meaning the rest of their lives. Her email had the subject “Thank you for the Hakarat HaTov [recognition of good works] earlier.” And, she added, “I do indeed spend my time thinking about what young Jews need to experience before, during, and after trips!”
Indeed she did. She signed off, as usual, humbly and generously, writing: “Thank you for the opportunity to serve on this Committee. It’s such a privilege!”
In the characteristic back and forth that ensued, she articulated a most worthy goal, writing: “I want to be a voice of veering on the side of bringing in the joy and inspiration with inclusivity to belonging to the Jewish people…. A colleague from the field said my goal would be for my students to smile when they hear the word ‘Israel.’ What a telling comment. Could also be applied to the words, ‘Jewish people’ Let’s give young adults the chance and proactive exposure to figure out why any of this matters to them instead of being hijacked by identity politics in the name of bringing authentic education that brings complexity. It seems the true complexity today is creating a space to celebrate being a Jew.”
We are devastated by the loss of our friend, our colleague, our teacher, our comrade-in-arms, Cheryl Aronson z”l. Cheryl who died suddenly yesterday, was a real people person. Many of us don’t remember when we met Cheryl, because she was the kind who befriended you so instantly, made such fast friends, you felt like you had known her all your life. It wasn’t just her ready smile in person; it was her constant love-o-grams via email and her like-a-grams on Facebook. Cheryl seemed to be always around – with that encouraging follow-up email after a meeting, with that short, punchy, but o-so-on-target comment on Facebook.
But her generosity of spirit didn’t mean she was a pushover. This people-person was also a peoplehood person, a fierce, loving defender of Israel and the Jewish people — who could be peppery when necessary! Her passion for our people – and her concern for the next generation – characterized her career and made her an invaluable voice around our table, at the Taglit-Birthright Israel Education Committee, as in so many other venues throughout the Jewish world.
Just last week, Cheryl was her usual active and peppy presence at the Education Committee, not only during the meeting but in the lively e-mail exchanges following-up. Those emails were classic Cheryl, pointed and insightful, vigorous and visionary, big-hearted toward the rest of us – yet protective of our past, present and future. And yes, she was exactly what she wanted to be – “a voice of veering on the side of bringing in the joy and inspiration with inclusivity to belonging to the Jewish people.”
At this moment of loss, it’s only natural to focus on what we will miss – and how much we will fail to learn from her in the future. But we should also appreciate just how much we learned from her in the recent past – about our rich past – and how lucky so many of us were to call her our friend, our colleague, our teacher, our comrade-in-arms.
And that is why we will vow to continue the work, to smile when we hear the words “Israel” and “the Jewish people” – and –through our tears – keep smiling when we hear the name “Cheryl Aronson” – may her name and memory be for a blessing.