MEMORIAL: Bruce, Irene, Zachary, William, & Matthew Steinberg Z”L
JANUARY 7, 2017 – 2:00 PM – WRT
We who were strangers to one another when we entered this synagogue have become as one family in our sanctuary. We are united in the terrible kinship of our sorrow, the shared human horror at what was, until Sunday, the “unthinkable,” the common thread of our bewilderment, and the collective need to place all of our bruised and battered feelings upon the altar of a God whom the Bible calls “a Healer of Broken hearts, the One who binds up their wounds.”
Twelve vibrant lives, two cherished families, one guide and two crew, all snuffed out in a blinding instant, and the hopes and dreams that die with them—we are mourning them all: all the unfulfilled potential, all the graduations and first loves and weddings, all the potential for another generation of children and grandchildren, all the healing work that yet could have been brought to bear on a hurting world, all the laughter and love and hope—all gone.
The Book of Leviticus tells the story of two sons of the high priest Aaron who die instantaneously, in blaze of alien fire. When their father learns the news the Bible records just two words, Vayidom Aharon in Hebrew, “Aaron fell silent.” There are no words, no eloquent eulogy, no tribute, no matter how heartfelt, adequate to respond to this kind of brutal and tragic bereavement. Every song of the heart falls silent in the face of such a loss.
The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote, “Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind; … I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.”
We are not resigned to this. I have no spiritual medicine that can soothe the hurt. And there is some wisdom in recognizing that anesthetizing our souls to feeling pain also numbs us to feeling love.
And if you remember nothing else from this ritual of remembrance, remember this: grief is always reflected love. Our sorrow is monumental because our love for Bruce and Irene, Zachary, William, and Matthew is surpassingly great and is undiminished in death. And the love we come to express today will provide boundless support for Bruce’s family, for his parents Irwin and Dianne, his sister Tamara (Tammy) and brother-in-law Alan and their children, for Irene’s parents Margery and Allen, for her brother Robert, sister-in-law Rebecca, and their children. And of course we are here to embrace Olga who was family in every meaningful sense of the word. We are here for all of you.
The Jewish tradition speaks of a chatzi-nechama, a “half-measure of comfort,” that comes from knowing that no one must grieve alone. I would add: not even the rabbi. I am blessed by the partnership of spiritual leaders who join in the common embrace of sympathy today. I bring our community the condolences of Rabbi Jacob Luski of St. Petersburg, Florida, who, in the coming days, will memorialize the Weiss family who perished along with the Steinbergs. Our hearts are linked to his community even as the memories of the Steinbergs and the Weisses are now forever linked. I bring the condolences of several of our elected officials, including New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and hundreds of rabbinic and cantorial colleagues.
And I am grateful to share the bimah this afternoon with my WRT clergy colleagues, Cantor Jill Abramson, Rabbi David Levy, Cantor Amanda Kleinman, and Rabbi Daniel Reiser. Each of them enjoyed a special connection with the Steinbergs, tutoring the boys for Bar Mitzvah, celebrating with them at Confirmation, and seeing Bruce and especially Irene here for pretty much any community program available to the Jewish People.
I am most of all grateful to Randi Musnitsky, Senior Rabbi of Temple Har Shalom in Warren, New Jersey, who joins us for today’s service.
Rabbi Musnitsky speaks:
Standing here due to my relationship with Tamara, Alan, Laura, Lexi and Ella, and our entire extended Temple Har Shalom family, I fully understand that I actually speak for all of us present today when I note how surreal and unfathomable it seems that Bruce, Irene, Zachary, William and Matthew are no longer living. For as a family and individuals they embodied the very definition of life: they were vibrant, vivacious, brilliant, adventurous, compassionate, funny, generous, giving, humble and loving. They were far too young and had so many more milestones and joyous occasions to share with beloved family and their extended network of worldwide friends. Professionally, personally and as stalwart volunteers there were projects to complete; awards to win; degrees to be awarded; new discoveries to make; more places to journey; people to meet and touch and humanitarian causes to support.
In truth, there is neither a dry eye nor an acceptance that their deaths are real. Our hearts are broken and our minds reel with so many unanswerable questions: How did this happen? Why did this occur? Will our spirits ever recover? The “how’s”, “whys” and ifs” can only taunt and torture us because there are no answers that will satisfy nor comfort. Therefore, it is far more worthwhile that today we ourselves ask: “Now What?”. What do we do without their presence, their love, their support, and their guttena neshamas? For guidance we need only look to the lessons and legacies that they leave behind. For while Bruce, Irene, Zachary, William and Matthew’s years with us were tragically cut short, their impact on every person with which they interacted was infinite.
It is truly heartbreaking that today we mourn their deaths. Yet Jewish tradition teaches us that we are not to concentrate on how they died, but rather we are to focus on how they lived. We are here today to bring them back to life through personal story and anecdote to better inspire and influence our own daily acts.
We pray that their bright, effervescent spirits will forever light our way through the bereft darkness of our loss.
RABBI BLAKE’S EULOGY
Every heart in this room is carrying an overwhelming burden of grief. Emotional resources have been battered and drained. We come into this sanctuary with but one question on our lips: Why? Why should a family—why should this family, this brilliant, dynamic, philanthropic, fun-loving, close-knit, fundamentally good, caring family—be taken from among the living in the prime of life?
Intellectually we may understand the monumental indifference of Nature; that accidents, terrible accidents, disasters even, can, and do, happen; can, and do, afflict even the gems of humankind—intellectually we may be able to comprehend all of this, but, emotionally, we also understand that the sun should not set before it has risen; that leaves should not fall from the tree in the brightness of summer; that parents should never have to bury their children or their grandchildren.
And so we are left with Why, a question that echoes back a silence as profound and awful as the grave itself.
The only response to the Why of death is to go on living as magnificently and magnanimously as our time on earth allows. We have been summoned to this place and this moment by a tragedy beyond our control. We did not choose this.
But we always have a choice in how we respond, even to the unthinkable. And in this case, we can, and must, still affirm life. Some losses can be met only with an uncomfortable mixture of inconsolable anguish, courage, and affirmation.
And that is what Bruce, Irene, Zachary, William, and Matthew would have wanted. They would not want their beautiful and big-hearted lives memorialized in endless pain or bitterness. We are devastated by their deaths. But in the weeks and months and years to come, we will use our grief to make sure that the message of their lives, the joy the members of this family brought to one another and to so many others, the good deeds and acts of charity they had already begun to perform on behalf of so many others, the beautiful and heartwarming and funny and sacred memories they placed in our hearts and minds, the stories of their lives—cut short though they are—will not die with them.
Many have asked: “What can I do to help?” The outpouring of support from the WRT and Westchester communities, from the Bridgewater and UJA-Federation and AJC and Seeds of Peace communities, from the Hopkins and Penn and Fieldston communities, from the Jewish community here and in Israel, from friends of this family of every age and stage of life, from elected officials and even total strangers all over the world—has been extraordinary and, on behalf of the surviving family members, allow me to express how grateful we all are.
Let it be known in this sacred circle that actions speak louder than words; but most of all, know this: your simple and loving presence here speaks loudest of all. Thank you for your steadfastness. Thank you for the acts of caring that will continue to sustain the parents, siblings, nephews and nieces of the Steinberg family in days to come. Thank you for the generosity of spirit that will allow our community to love the living whom the Steinbergs loved in life, and continue to champion the causes they cherished. Let our good deeds be the way in which we give honor to our friends.
The heart of this afternoon’s remembrance will come from some of the people who knew Bruce, Irene, Zach, Will, and Matt as their own.
We will hear from:
Irene’s brother, Rob
Bruce’s mother, Dianne
Bruce’s lifelong friend Peter Silkowitz
Irene’s college roommate and friend Allison Kramer-Stearns
Zach’s friend, roommate and fraternity brother Will Stiltner with his high school friend Naomi Haber
Will’s high school friends Jonah Gray & Eliot Stein
and Vanessa and Victor Ridder who shared Matt’s love of music at School of Rock in Mamaroneck.
How poignant that this family so intertwined, so deeply connected in life, would meet their deaths in the same instant. Death has severed our friends from us, but not from one another. They die as they lived: united, as one.
And what a family this was. This was a family that cast a wide net. They were the kind of friends you wanted in your corner. The kind of friends with whom you could always be yourself. You could show up to their house in pajamas, and sometimes, you did.
If you had a need, the support they provided was boundless and unconditional. Irene was always the go-to person, the organizer, the fortress and shield, the social worker not only by career but by demeanor. She could always be counted on to show up for you, whether remembering a birthday at canasta on Tuesdays, or putting together a Bridge group for friends just so she could have something to talk about with her Dad on her biweekly visits down to Maryland, or driving her dear friend Valerie to her medical treatments.
Irene seemed to have an innate ability to make you feel like you were the center of her world, to understand the needs and feelings of others: from her own children, each of whom she cherished for his uniqueness, making sure that their school environment and activities were tailored to their passions and interests. Nurturing Zach’s love of science and technology and his involvement at Johns Hopkins Hillel; fostering Will’s passion for international relations and conflict resolution through Seeds of Peace; Sending Matty to Fieldston and enrolling him in School of Rock—these all attest to how intuitive and supportive this family was of each member’s unique path through life.
And of course Bruce was really Irene’s fourth boy, and no one understood Bruce quite like Irene. In public he might have looked and acted the part of the high-powered, brilliant executive, but running around the house yelling, “RENE, where are my keys?!” you might get an idea of what Irene had to manage just to keep things in the Steinberg home from grinding to a halt. At his 50th birthday party just a few weeks ago, Irene first praised him by saying that, in contrast to all the “men behaving badly” taking up the headlines these days, “My husband is such a good man.” And then she proposed an explanation for why Bruce is always losing things, which is that Bruce “really, really doesn’t care about stuff.” “There’s nothing that makes Bruce happier,” she noted, “than walking downstairs on a Saturday night before going out, wearing an old concert T-shirt, saying, ‘I can wear this?’” to which Irene would answer, “No,” and he’d go upstairs and change. The other reason, she suggested, is that Bruce is far too concerned with other things. His worrying about far more important matters, like global warming, or North Korea, or Anti-Semitism on college campuses, or the placement of the trees at Sunningdale, eclipsed his ability to worry much about where he had put his wallet, cell phone, or glasses.
Bruce’s own combination of passion and logic drove him to success and into the perfect work environment at Bridgewater. Among his colleagues’ many remembrances, a comment from Phil Salinger captures so much: “Bruce was my favorite Jet and Yankee fan in the whole world. Just like his sports teams, he exemplified how to fight honorably, even if you’re going to lose sometimes.”
Bruce could, and would, debate any matter great or small zealously, yet rationally. Last year, at a temple cocktail party following a Bar Mitzvah, Bruce came up to me, clinked my glass of scotch, and immediately started arguing with me about the merits and risks of resettling refugees.
This was a family of mutual devotion. As much as Irene and Bruce cared for their children, so too did they look out for their parents; so too did they take in Olga as one of their own; so too did they treat their friends as cherished companions for life.
This was a family that lived out loud. Indeed, most communication among family members and with others was achieved by yelling over each other, whether sharing recollections of a recent trip, or giving restaurant advice, or shouting at the boys to put sunscreen on for God’s sake before walking out of the Hamptons house.
This was a family of passion, a family with a rare capacity for giving to others and a rare joie-de-vivre. They loved to celebrate and have fun, whether at an elaborately planned party, or at a rock concert, or an impromptu round of golf that Bruce would pull together at 7AM or on his way home from work, or a tennis game, or a ping-pong match. Bruce led the way in fun and adventure. A vacation was no time to sleep in or chill—it was always one activity after another. Exploring the world and exposing their sons to the beauty, power, complexity and diversity of our world figured high in their list of life priorities.
This was a family that invested in experiences above things, mission above materialism. Now their mission becomes ours.
To all the friends of Zach and Will and Matt, especially, I want to add here a word composed by Rabbi Les Gutterman who mentored me many years ago. Five years after I became a rabbi, a small aircraft crashed in in Pennsylvania, killing all six on board including two families in my congregation. Among the mourners were hundreds of teenagers and college students. Like them, you are young to have to confront grief up-close, to have to have so much taken from you at a time in your lives that ought to be full of open promise.
“You are learning one of life’s unyielding and harshest realities,” my rabbi said, twelve years ago. “We cannot protect ourselves from loss. We can, however, protect ourselves from the death of love by giving ourselves in love to others…. We are a people who have been taught that there is no answer to death but to live as vigorously and beautifully as we can.”
So there it is. We will continue to live vigorously and beautifully for the sake of Bruce and Irene, Zachary, William and Matthew. Our good thoughts, good words, and above all good deeds, will be our way of honoring their lives. May the memory of the Steinberg Family inspire us to encounter this big and bewildering world with all the compassion, understanding, and love we can muster.
Let our love dispel bitterness. With our love, we can work to build a world in which every person reaches fulfillment, every life attains its purpose, and God’s own love is felt by all whom we touch.
Interment will be held privately with the family at a later date.
The Steinbergs’ surviving family members will receive guests following this service of memorial. Those who wish to pay their respects in person may do so in the Sifriyah, or Temple Library, immediately following services. Greeters are on hand to direct you. Please note that this space on the WRT campus is extremely “cozy” and its maximum capacity is no more than 30 guests at a time. There are over 1,000 of you in our sanctuary today. We would ask you to exercise your best judgment in deciding whether or not to stop by, mindful that there may be a very long wait to see them. So as not to burden yourself or overwhelm the family members, you may wish simply to greet one another here in our sanctuary and then return to your cars or the shuttle buses in our parking lot. We warmly encourage letters of condolence, which can be sent to the Steinberg, Ginsberg, and Jacobson Families, c/o Mrs. Lauren Haller:
I know that in days to come our extended community will be developing many ways to keep the memory of our friends perpetually alive in our midst. The surviving family members have noted that donations to
The Steinberg Family Charitable Fund, c/o Morgan Stanley
is one such meaningful way of perpetuating the Steinberg Family legacy. Specific information is on the sheets outside in our lobby.
At this time will the congregation please rise as we offer the memorial prayer.