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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Dear Jonah,

You haunt my life. But in a good way. Wherever I go, if you were there, I feel it.

I feel you.

I can be driving down the road and, if I see something that was part of my experience with you, your presence comes pouring into me. I can be reading a book and, if I encounter a turn of a phrase that once came from you, the book recedes as your story moves into my foreground.

I love those moments. They contain the requisite pang of remembering you’re no longer in this universe. But they also remind me how sweet it was to have had you here in the first place.

Recently, I finished a Shabbat service at temple and was putting my things together to head home when I noticed a discarded piece of paper on the sanctuary floor. It was filled with the drawings of a child whose parent had (wisely) provided pen and paper to keep the child quietly busy throughout the service.

17-year-old Jonah

All of a sudden, it was May 25, 2007. You were seventeen, in eleventh grade, and had come to a Friday night service because friends of yours were graduating from our high school Academy. Services were never easy for you, Jonah. Sitting still was not your forte. Having to remain quiet and still while the 12th graders did their thing was probably tough for you.

On the bimah (where I didn’t have much to do because the graduates were running most of the service), I had a clear line of sight to where you were sitting. As I watched you, I was surprised (okay, amazed) to notice you were thoroughly immersed in … well, you were immersed in something. Your attention was focused downward so it was not outside the realm of possibility that you might actually have been following along with the service.

Actually, it was completely outside that realm.

But if you weren’t praying, what were you doing? You weren’t texting or immersed in a videogame. There didn’t seem to be enough movement for that. Something more subtle was going on. But I couldn’t figure out what it was.

When the service had ended and I was putting my things together to head home, I noticed that you left your service handout on your chair. I went over and, when I picked it up, I saw something I’d never seen before. Hands. You’d been drawing hands. Throughout the evening, you’d been selecting different ways to hold the service booklet and then you drew pictures of your hands as they held it.

Now as a rabbi (and as your father), I could have been upset that (yet again) you paid little attention to the service. Or as your father (and as a rabbi), I could have noticed (for the first time) that you were really good at drawing hands! I chose the latter. I brought the service booklet home and told you how wonderful your drawings were.

I didn’t say boo about the service.

You were always a march-to-your-own-beat kind of kid, Jonah. And while that could be maddening, it could also be endearing. Not only did I love your one-of-a-kind personality, I always felt you were a person of limitless possibilities. You could accomplish anything you put your mind to and I really would have liked to have seen what that would have been.

You taught me an important lesson, though. One that I try to keep close by when other teens are marching to their own drummer and it’s driving me quite crazy. You were filled with so much goodness and wonder, Jonah, and I felt privileged to watch you navigate the pathways of your life. I try to remember that goodness and wonder when teens aren’t paying attention in class, busily texting or blabbing to the person next to them. As you were full of stuff that I loved and that transcended the parts of you that frustrated me, they probably are as well. I honor your life and your memory each time I take a deep breath and open myself to what is not just maddening but is endearing about each of my students.

There’s an old Yiddish proverb that reads, “If you ever need a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of your arm.” Jonah, you may not have relished sitting quietly and motionless through an entire Shabbat service. But you figured out a way to pass the time that fascinated you and didn’t bother others. How many of us can solve our own problems so effectively and appropriately?

Again and again, JoJo, you’ve been one of my best teachers. I hope I continue to meet you along life’s roads and that I remain a student of the beauty and ideals by which you lived.

Love you forever,

4 Responses to “Freehand”

  • Stacey Silverman:

    Thank you, Billy. Yet again you provide an insight that there is always more than one way to look at the world. Though some times are more challenging than others, there is always a positive way to learn and grow with each moment

  • Really beautiful, Billy. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Jennifer Allen:

    Without knowing Jonah, I know him through you. Billy, your writing could change the world! Any interest in running the free world???

  • Jennie Kramer Rawson:

    So very heartwarming and moving. I regret that I never had the opportunity to meet dear Jonah. Thank you for presenting him in this way. ❤️

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