A few weeks ago, the Jerusalem Post published its list of the “World’s 50 Most Influential Jews.” This list comes on the heels of the Forward’s list of the top 50 American Jews. Newsweek puts out an annual ranking of the top 50 Rabbis in America. The Forward, too, publishes a list of America’s most inspiring Rabbis.
It has always troubled me: how exactly do they calculate these lists? Can a person’s influence, impact, or inspiration truly be measured? While the lists purport to represent the level of impact, in truth, they are much more reflective of the level of profile, prominence, and notoriety of those who make it onto them.
I was reminded this week multiple times that our true heroes and stars are not necessarily those that have the highest public ranking or profile, or have the most followers on Twitter or friends on Facebook. There are individuals all around us who live extraordinary lives that shape not only their destiny, but also that of so many around them, and yet, they will never appear on a list or be included in a ranking.
On Sunday, I had the privilege of officiating at the funeral of one of the pioneers of our community, Paula Rath. Paula grew up in Sighet, Hungary, one of eleven children, and part of a successful, happy family. Her wonderful life, like those of so many others at the time, was unimaginably interrupted by the plans of evil men carrying out the greatest atrocity in human history. Paula was taken to a ghetto, from there to Auschwitz, and from there to multiple forced labor camps.
Paula survived and went back to her hometown where she was reunited with Yosef, whom she had known before the war. They married, and in an effort to fulfill Yosef’s dream, they boarded an illegal ship named “Geulah” and set sail to Israel. The ship was captured by the British and taken to Cyprus, where Paula and Yosef were forced to remain for a number of years.
After the State of Israel was declared, the gates of immigration were opened. Paula was pregnant at the time so she and Yosef had priority and they finally made it to Israel. They got a room in an abandoned Arab house in Haifa that they shared with two other families. Almost immediately after arriving, Yosef, a survivor himself, was drafted into the newly formed IDF to fight in the War of Independence. Later, Paula and Yosef would have two sons, Yehudah and Amir, who would serve in Israel’s army and risk their lives in multiple wars.
Paula will likely never appear on a list of prominent Jews, but can anybody on the list really compare their lives with hers? She lost her family, yet had the courage to survive and display remarkable faith as she and her husband contributed to the founding and protection of our beloved State of Israel.
Later in the week, unfortunately, I found myself officiating at another funeral. Our beloved member, Lian Sae Bloom, was scheduled to come home on Tuesday. Indeed, all she really wanted was to come back home. Nobody anticipated that she would go back to her true home, returning to her source and to her Creator that very same day.
Lian, like Paula, will likely never appear on a list or in a ranking. But, her life journey was remarkable and the number of people she touched positively along the way was incredible. Lian was all about bringing positive energy into the world, and making a positive impact on those around her.
When Lian saw something that she thought could positively influence her life, she pursued it relentlessly. The story of how she joined our community is just one incredible example. She was close with someone whose husband had passed away and came to BRS for the funeral. When she arrived on a weekday morning and saw the Shul packed with people who had come together as one community to mourn and grieve together, she decided that she needed to be here. She went directly from the funeral to see a house and moved a short time later.
There is a third individual who passed away recently, whose life touched me deeply, though I never met him or knew him. In 2009, Zach Sobiech was diagnosed with osteosarcoma at 14 years old. Since then, during his treatment, he underwent 10 surgeries and 20 rounds of chemotherapy. In May of 2012, Zach’s doctors informed him that he had only up to a year to live. When he realized that he had exhausted treatment options, he decided to just live every single day to it’s fullest. An amazing twenty-minute video called “My Last Days” was done following Zach and his family in his last few weeks of his life. Don’t watch it without a box of tissues handy.
In December, Zach released what would become a viral hit, “Clouds,” a song he wrote about confronting death. In the video he explains, “I only have a few months to live, but I have a lot of work to do. I want everyone to know, you don’t have to find out you’re dying to start living… Death is just another thing on the agenda. Yeah, it’s scary, but the only reason it’s scary is because you don’t know what’s next, or if there is a next. So, it’s kinda like sitting in the dark. And so, you can either choose to be freaking out in the dark… or you can just relax and fall asleep, and just be happy and content with everything.”
There was one thing in particular that Zach said on the video that moved me deeply. Though only a teenager, when asked about his outlook in life, he said something amazingly profound – “It’s just try and make people happy. Maybe you have to learn it over time, maybe you have to learn it the hard way, but as long as you learn it, you’re going to make the world a better place.”
Zach passed away on May 20 of complications from osteosarcoma. He was 17 years old, wasn’t famous, wealthy, or prominent. Yet, the remarkable way he lived his life, coupled with the extraordinary manner with which he confronted his death has impacted millions of people who have now seen the video – “My Last Days.”
Paula, Lian and Zach never lived their lives to make it onto a list or a ranking. But as far as I am concerned they are among the top people who have inspired me to live a more meaningful life. As Zach said, we don’t have to find out we are dying to start living. Let’s live our lives in a way that places us on the lists of those who matter most, our family, friends and community.