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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A Leap of Faith

Dear Jonah,

Faith is a commodity I’ve spent most of my life peddling. It’s kind of what rabbis do. On this your 8th yahrzeit, I’m thinking about faith. Not mine (although losing you has certainly put that to the test).

I mean yours.

Because the Buffalo medical examiner was unable to prove the cause of your death, the police wanted to label it a suicide. But in canvassing your friends on campus, they found what I’d felt all along. You were not a candidate for suicide. You had far too much faith – in you, in others, and in life.

You weren’t always that way. Learning to believe in yourself was a formidable challenge. And frankly, I’m in awe of the distance you traveled from middle school to college. I remember one time (you were in the fifth grade) lying beside you on your bed and talking quietly together before you went to sleep. You were having such difficulty making friends, and I pleaded with you to share with others the Jonah that we got to see at home: funny, bold, kind.

At the time, you gave me no indication that I had made any sense. But it was so wonderful, I imagine for both of us, when you tested those waters and discovered that being funny, bold and kind were much more valued in friendship than being cool and aloof, or whatever you had seen out there in a fifth grader’s world to cause you such social consternation. Throughout your high school years, you got better and better at it. To this day, I remain astonished and grateful that so many who knew you then tell me how friendly and welcoming you were, frequently helping them through their own social awkwardness, easing them into new situations that became comfortable for them because you had taken them by the hand and led the way.

Faith is a difficult product to sell, Jonah, and while it’s my responsibility as a rabbi to bring it to our synagogue community, my far greater responsibility has been to instill it in your sister Katie, your brother Aiden, and in you. After all, what does a parent have to give to a child if not faith? I’m not speaking only of religion and God. It’s been my and Mom’s job to teach you to have faith in yourself, to trust that things will go well or, having suffered setback or defeat, that they will get better. How many scraped knees and tear-stained cheeks have we turned to smiles? How many moments when others have disappointed, or the three of you have disappointed yourselves, have we stood with you and helped you get back on your feet? That’s been our job. The best job ever.

You kids were never pushovers on this faith stuff. The world can be pretty harsh, what with arts-and-crafts projects to complete and school exams to be passed and relationships to be managed. It has been our task to get you over the little humps that have loomed as tall as Everest where you were concerned.

Whatever paths you took, Jonah, they weren’t going to be conventional ones. You didn’t excel in academics, nor in sports. You were going to have to find other ways to achieve that were right for you. En route to becoming the giant presence your body and spirit eventually occupied, you compiled an eclectic collection of hopeful paths.

It began, I think, with Cub Scouts. You did fine with most of the activities. But when your cubmaster took you hiking, I looked at you from a distance and thought, “Well, that’s a surprising direction to see him going.” You didn’t much care for it, but you had set something profound in motion. Your quest had begun.

For a while, you checked out the Civil Air Corps. I remember going with you and, once again, observing from a distance, thinking, “Okay, don’t let him see that you don’t much care for this. Let him decide for himself.” You did. And the quest continued.

In the seventh grade, you joined a community basketball team. You were really awful at it. Your coach was kind and encouraging, and you went back again and again. As always, I watched from a distance, kept my mouth shut except to encourage you to go after whatever you want, and sighed with relief when you finally decided basketball wasn’t the answer either.

With curling, which is kind of like shuffleboard on ice, you got a little closer. It was easier for you to pick up, but the experience still didn’t satisfy. You were looking for something where scoring a goal wasn’t necessarily the goal.

Then, at the end of 8th grade, you bumped into the Play Group Theatre. In your first show, Lucky Stiff (May 2004 … you were 14 years old), you sang a song while sporting a French accent. You looked terrified and moved like a bamboo stick. Once again, I kept my mouth shut and waited.

Then a couple of things happened. It turned out that while Play Group Theatre produced plays, their first objective was to help young people grow in spirit and character (not just for pretend onstage, but the real stuff … offstage). You saw that long before I did and you knew this was something good that you had found: a community where acceptance and inclusion was the rule, never the exception. You stayed. And you learned. And you grew.

You also loosened up your body. By the time you appeared in Hair (June 2008), your final 12th grade show, your director would reflect back and comment how far you had come from that young kid in Lucky Stiff who couldn’t walk in tempo and yet, five years later, had become “a dancing, hippie superstar.” Talk about getting comfortable in your own skin!

In the video below, look for Jonah in the green army shirt over an orange undershirt. He’s in the rear, just to the right of center.

Which meant you were ready for college. Ready to leave home and go figure out what life was going to become for you. You had been listening when we’d talked that night during 5th grade. You’d found the courage to share what was authentically you, to allow those pieces to grow, and to step into your future with confidence, optimism and that amazing smile. Mom and I would miss you, but we were so excited for the adventure ahead.

Faith is a commodity I’ve spent most of my life peddling. That I have had three children who excel in their belief that they have something to offer the world around them, that they matter to the unfolding story of humankind, no achievement gives me greater pride or satisfaction.

Jonah, although I lost you eight years ago, I am forever grateful that you were able to believe there was something you were going to do well. It took a while but, in time, you achieved so much and became someone whom others loved and whom you loved. You were so fortunate to have been able to ascend to such panoramic heights. And while I wish you were still here, and still climbing, I’m thankful to have watched you journey so bravely and relentlessly – and successfully – throughout your nineteen years.

Love you forever,

7 Responses to “A Leap of Faith”

  • Laurel Fisher:

    Thank you Billy for sharing this small piece of your boy’s story. Although I didn’t know him, I know that my Tracy did, and that connects us. Like G-d, we parents create space for our children, moving back and allowing them to expand and soar. Thank you for teaching us.

    • Billy:

      Dear Laurel, sorry I missed this. Thank you for your kind note. It IS rather amazing how much life and spirit remain. Best always! Billy

  • Judith Tischler:

    Billy, this is the first time I discovered your tragedy. We certainly did not keep in touch after those days you worked with me at TMP. I am grateful that you posted. I must confess that I cried. As you probably do not know I have been living in Israel since 2000 and have been out of touch. I will check out your foundation on the internet.

    • Billy:

      Hi, Judith. Yeah, back when you and I were working together children were way off in a distant future. Now I’ve raised three. Jonah you’ve met. Also on the roster are Katie, who’s 29 and married; she’s an art teacher and the sweetest kid you’ll ever meet. Aiden is 22, a recent NYU Tisch grad and now an aspiring writer/director in the NY theatre scene. Be well. Thanks for checking in. Billy

  • Leyna Whitcomb:

    Sending love and good vibes your way <3 Mac will never be forgotten <3 His constant climbing still continues to encourage me and give me strength every day! I wish so badly he could have known my son, but my son knows all about him <3

  • Phyllis O:

    Ths piece about Jonah is also a lesson on how to grow parents.

    I am so happy we continue to celebrate Jonah with concerts and fundraising in his memory.

    Xoxoxo Phyllis O

  • Susan:

    Beautiful! Thank you for sharing your thoughts with all of us so we can feel and grow with you. Much love always!

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