Deep thoughts, random insights, and musings by Susan Jacobs

Friday, February 04, 2005

A time to remember

Life in the last month has been a blur of activity. Nothing out of the ordinary -- just work, regularly scheduled activities, a couple of brief weekend trips, and coping with the ongoing mess due to my kitchen renovation, which is almost complete and is quite nice.

Unfortunately, last week was tinged with sadness for a couple of reasons.

Karen Shapira, who was one of the most influential and important Jewish community leaders in Pittsburgh, passed away after a long battle with breast cancer. She was 60, and had every hope of continuing to serve the community for many years to come. A lovely obituary can be found here.

I only met Karen a couple of times, but she was a person who made a deep impression, even upon a brief encounter. She was warm, wise, compassionate and driven. She cared deeply about Jews in need throughout the world, and was willing to do whatever she could to help them, and she did so gracefully and whole-heartedly. When I heard the news of her death, all I could do was sit still for a few moments in sadness and shock. I had heard months ago that she was very ill, but more recently I had the impression that she had improved, and might be fine in the end.

Several people echoed my thoughts in saying that it is hard to imagine our Jewish community without her. She was ever-present at every major communal event, she belonged to countless organizations and she and her husband were financial supporters of countless others. She was so energetic and involved that it is inconceivable that any force could have stopped her. In fact, even while she was being treated for cancer, she continued to attend meetings, to work with other leaders on ongoing projects, and even to visit Israel one last time. She was, as one person told me, a once in a generation leader.

Because of the timing of her death on a Tuesday, the night before The Jewish Chronicle goes to press, we had very little time to put together an obituary. The executive editor wrote the obit, but I helped quite a bit with research and gathering quotes. And, I covered her funeral the following day for this week's paper. Both articles are available here. It was difficult writing about her death, but I was glad to have a small part in honoring her memory.

Ironically, Karen was buried a year to the day (in the secular calendar) that my friend Mikey Butler was buried. While I thought of Mikey quite a bit at the time of his Hebrew yahrzeit a few weeks ago, the timing of Karen's funeral made me think even more about him and drove home the point that he is truly gone.

Although it was published a few weeks ago, I thought readers might appreciate a column I wrote about Mikey for the Jan. 6 edition of The Jewish Chronicle. Here it is:

Remembering a friend whose spirit lives on

By Susan Jacobs

It has been nearly a year since Mikey Butler died. In Pittsburgh, he was known to many as the son of Dan and Nina Butler of Squirrel Hill, a super skinny kid with a big smile who had the misfortune to be born with cystic fibrosis, a debilitating disease that affects both the lungs and the digestive tract.

Outside of Pittsburgh, his name became internationally recognized in the Jewish community, as many thousands of people prayed for him as he endured a lung transplant and its side effects.

Throughout his life, Mikey was an inspirational figure to many, never losing hope of getting better, and always reminding others that life is lived "day by glorious day." I had the good fortune to be among his friends.

In describing his symptoms, Mikey once told me that the mucus that filled his lungs was the consistency of peanut butter. Despite his sometimes frightening symptoms, including a cough which shook his whole body, he managed to be an otherwise normal kid, and as a teenager and a young adult, he grew to be immensely popular.

I first got to know Mikey, who was three years younger than I, through the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the youth group of the Orthodox Union. In NCSY, teenagers are encouraged to keep kosher, observe Shabbat and generally remain Jewishly active and involved, despite circumstances which may make religious observance difficult.

As a teen-ager from a small Jewish community, I savored the opportunity to be among Jewish peers my age, who shared my enthusiasm for Jewish practice. Mikey also loved NCSY, perhaps because at Shabbatonim he could escape the isolation of his hospital room, and be among friends who saw past the oxygen tank he sometimes carried with him, when breathing became especially difficult.

In addition to the wonderful friendships we found in NCSY, I think Mikey and I both loved NCSY for its pervasive optimism and conviction that, whatever hardships we might endure, nothing in life is arbitrary, and that God is watching out for us.

In NCSY, Mikey was a trusted confidante to many teenagers, and a fount of inspiration and wisdom to people of all ages. Perhaps because he had spent so much time by himself in the hospital, he was a wonderful listener, and he noticed things about people, and made them feel important. He also had a wonderful, sarcastic sense of humor and a magnetism about him which drew people in, giving anyone who met him the desire to know him better.

I visited him for the first time in the hospital shortly after I moved to Pittsburgh a few years ago. I was nervous about going, because I wasn't sure how he would look or how sick he would be. When I arrived with a friend, he was sitting on the edge of his bed, fully clothed, intently searching the Internet on his laptop computer. He also had his ever-present cell phone in
hand, and it seemed that he could run the world, or organize a concert for several hundred people (which he did), from his hospital bed.

When he needed a lung transplant, I spent some time with him at his home. His lungs were in such poor shape by that point that climbing a single flight of stairs could wear him out for hours. But his spirit was as strong as ever, and despite his pain, he managed to find ways to make others smile.

In a world full of cynics, it was nice to know someone who was so unabashedly optimistic. Because of this, he inspired countless people to try a little bit harder, and to do things they wouldn't normally do.

If Mikey, who suffered from frequent pneumonias and intestinal blockages, and always struggled to breathe, could do so much and be so optimistic, then perhaps the rest of us with our much smaller daily struggles can reach our goals.

The world is a better place for having had the benefit of Mikey's presence for 24 years. Although he has been gone for nearly a year, his life continues to bring inspiration to many. For the thousands who knew him personally, or simply knew of him, he will never be forgotten.