While some knew him as Jonah and others as Mac, we all loved and respected him. And we miss him dearly.

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Commencement Gifts, No. 3

On May 13, 2012, Jonah would have graduated from the State University of New York’s University at Buffalo. To mark this occasion in a meaningful way, I have invited friends from his freshman year (who knew him as “Mac”) to share memories about him. These young people have opened for me a small window into the life Jonah had begun away from home. I hope this collection of stories opens that window for you.

Andrea Zlotowitz goes way back with Jonah, long before UB. Andrea and Jonah pretty much grew up together in Ardsley, NY. I watched them wrestle and laugh their way through adolescence, having a blast in each other’s company (even if at times, like brother and sister, they pushed apart). They went to summer camp together, school together, and temple together. And as you’ll read in Andrea’s story below, when they went off to college, they really enjoyed each other’s company there as well. While they’d made plenty of new friends, there was comfort in knowing the other was close by.

Jonah and Andrea, Confirmation @ WCT June 2006

Jonah and Andrea, Confirmation @ WCT
June 2006

Andrea is graduating from UB on May 13 with a B.F.A. in Printmaking and a B.A. in Art History. Soon after, she’ll be moving to New Orleans, LA, where she’ll be working for the Degas Foundation.

Here are some memories that Andrea shared with me.

It was a Wednesday. I was quickly walking through the student union to avoid the crowds, when I stumbled into Jonah who immediately hugged me and invited me to join him as he noshed on his lunch. I gladly accepted. Our conversation was flowing, as it always did, and the laughter was unending, as that also always was. In fact, we were so excited about this funny encounter that two incredible things happened. First, we decided that the following week would consist of us hanging out daily (it being Spring Break and each of us planning on being back at the good ol’ homefront in Ardsley, NY). And second, we agreed that we needed to make plans for that very evening following my class. Around 6 pm, we met at the dining hall in Richmond and had dinner with some good friends. Afterwards, Jonah made us participate in something he was very excited for — a Purim carnival. We followed him there and played arcade games and dressed up in goofy, dollar-store costumes. Our laughter only grew louder and our cheeks began to ache from the smiles that never left our faces. Jonah had always been able to generate this exciting gust of energy that never diminished or fluttered away; it just grew stronger and stronger. This had been a night full of goofy performances and endless laughter between the best of friends.

I knew the Jonah who had gone off to college. In the six months he was at UB, he undoubtedly changed in those small ways that every kid does. But from all of these stories, it was definitely still him. The moment that Andrea recalls in her writing above, this could have happened during any of the years that she and he shared while growing up. This was the Jonah who had emerged from his brooding childhood, blossoming into a funny, caring and fearless young man, and taking his new community by storm. A very brief six months at UB, but with an impact that, for his new friends, might possibly last a lifetime.

For Andrea, those six months were built atop a decade of close friendship. No one could have known that this half a year would be the icing on the cake. It’s especially gratifying to know they created such great memories together.

The fall semester after Jonah died, Andrea wrote these thoughts to me:

I remember moving day last year when I was a freshman. I was walking to the UB bookstore with some friends when Jonah and Ellen were walking toward me in the parking lot outside the store. It was the first time I’d seen them in a while and without any sort of enthusiasm or crazy energy, we said our hellos and quickly shared our excitement for college and went on our way. Every time I saw Jonah (or Mac) after that, I was ALWAYS really excited and happy. We were always very glad to see each other.

It’s weird to start off this semester without the one friend I always had growing up with me. Every time I see his friends in the hallway, we share a remembering moment and then continue on our way. That’s the one thing I learned from Jonah; losing him was, and still is, beyond tragic. But being able to walk through the same halls he used to strut makes being here a little bit more comfortable. Jonah’s spirit is all over this place. The interactions everyone here seems to have with his spirit are incredible!

So what did I learn? I learned how to keep going and to bring parts of Jonah with me. He was a very inspiring person and I think he has a lot to do with the person I’m becoming.

A few months after that, Andrea wrote me again:

Billy, your son was so incredible and full of life. He taught me how to take every moment and to live it to its fullest, that we shouldn’t take things for granted and we should realize that we are given one life. Making that life count is our goal and our hope forever. Even though Jonah can’t be here, I think it’s important to keep his outlook on life in mind and to take every bit of Jonah with us as we grow. I plan on swaggering down hallways and streets for the rest of my life. And no, I will never be able to do that as well as Jonah but it’s worth the try.

I told Andrea that I won’t even try to imitate his swagger. It was his signature. He and I may have shared a whole lot of DNA, but there’s no way he got that walk from me. There was a while where I think the strut may have served to help him feel bigger than others around him. But by the time his spirit had grown to its epic proportions, the swagger had become a genuine symbol and expression of Jonah’s huge personality. I’ll never forget the way he entered a room, and I too will try and remember Jonah’s great lesson to us (which Andrea very accurately relates) — that life is time to be present, to be alive, to be authentic, and (most important of all) to be kind.

Not a bad legacy for that boy to leave us. As May 13, 2012, approaches, these are some of his commencement gifts to us.


P.S. “Commencement Gifts” is The Jonah Maccabee Foundation’s very first fundraiser. Thinking of what might have been Jonah’s graduation on May 13, 2012, we “commence” the work of what I hope will be a worthwhile participant in the not-for-profit community. Please consider making a tax-deductible gift at https://www.jonahmac.org by Sunday, May 13 (okay, or any other time). Thank you.

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