by Nechemia Schusterman
It is Sunday afternoon, we are returning from our nearly hour ride from Los Angeles to Long Beach. There is a crowd in front of the house. A hubbub of activity. Something is out of place. Rabbi G., who lives around the block is standing on the sidewalk with Rabbi N. Both familiar faces, friends of our family, leaders within the community, but not regular visitors at our home on a Sunday.
Why are there so many people at my home? I had just finished what must have been an abbreviated day of study at Cheder in Los Angeles. Something is not right, why are there cars and people around? I want to go inside and see what is happening? I want to know. Is there a special visitor? What is the occasion for all this unusual activity?
We get out of the car and head inside, and yet more people. The tone is more hushed, loud and soft whispers. I hear sentences like, “what will be with the children,” or “how could this have happened,” and tens of other such comments. All creating a confusion in my newly 10-year-old head.
I don’t recall how long it took, or when the fog ended, or should I say, rather, actually began in earnest, but my next memory is of our father sitting on the couch with all of us around him as he uttered those fateful words. “Mommy passed away.”
Just like that, with no warning, my life was changed forever. My memory fast forwards like a broken CD to a track sometime later. In my room, wondering if this was an elaborate trick our parents were playing on us to get us to behave better, or is this actually real. Am I in a dream, or is this happening?
Fast forward again to the Shul, where the Aron Kodesh is in front and people are bawling and crying so loud my ears hurt. Some speeches, some Psalms being said.
Now we are at the airport.
Now we are on the plane. Rabbi E is there again, looking at us, crying softly. He still looks at me that way 30 years later. I love Rabbi E, he is so kind and caring and sensitive. He loved my mother as much as we did. In a different kind of way of course, but he was really hurting too.
We are now at the cemetery in Queens, NY, and there is a huge crowd. (The CD skips again, and many tracks have been skipped over, they show up at other random times. Not today.) People are shoving and pushing. I want to see what they are looking at. I had seen the box, the coffin, earlier, but I wanted to see it lowered into the ground. To see if this was real or a bad dream. They didn’t let me.
I can’t remember who “they” were. A bunch of people that seemed very tall to me. I asked softly, “please can I see?” But no one heard, or perhaps they pretended not to hear. Too painful for them I guess. Later I was told that they thought it would be too traumatic for a ten-year-old to see that. I wish they had let me see. Perhaps it would have given closure of sorts.
Skip. We are now back in Long Beach and we are my home for shiva. There are so many people, there isn’t even time to think about the magnitude of what we had lost. Toys, prizes, treats were being shoved at us faster than we could keep up with. I was busy with that for now.
The only break from the prize fest was during prayers, when many of the eleven of us went to say Kaddish. It was an awkward experience. A weird feeling that I can’t describe but I recall it immediately when I am forced to perform in a public setting I am uncomfortable with. That “Kaddish feeling” continues during school where I slip away from my class and join the older boys who have a minyan so I can say Kaddish with their class. Our class of ten-year-olds has no minyan.
All of them are looking at me. Is it pity? Curiosity? What are they thinking? (Now I wonder why I cared, but at 10, I think wondering is normal.)
Many years have now passed, many tears have been shed. So many friends and relatives have shared their stories with me. I find it incredible how at the young age of 36, so many people had been impacted by my mother. I was 36 four years ago, and I don’t know if I even met so many people much less impacted their lives.
I don’t want to ascribe “sainthood” on my mother but I certainly can bestow the title “impact” on her.
I would be in New York and a former student would stop me and introduce their child. “This is my Rochel Leah,” they’d say, named after your mother. I remember being shocked at that. You’d name YOUR CHILD after MY mother? Really? I can’t think of any teacher I cared so deeply about that I’d name a child after them? Apparently my mother was different.
I bumped into an elderly woman in Marina del Rey, many years later, where I worked after I got married, who had met my parents years earlier and wanted to know how they were doing. I told her, that my mother had passed many years prior and my father remarried and everyone is settled, thank Gd. She burst out crying. I asked, “clearly you are not in touch with my family, since you didn’t even know she had passed?” She answered, that she had only had a couple of meetings with my parents but it had left enough of an impact that she felt so saddened by the news. I later found out that those meetings were for marriage counselling. And the young couple advising them was only in their twenties.
Later, as I got a bit older, colleagues and contemporaries of my mother shared how she welcomed them to the new community, away from the epicenter in NY. How scared they were, making new moves in their lives and how warm and inviting my mother was to them. They related how they very well may not have made it in that new environment without her guidance, advice and love.
I wonder often, is this a case of acharei mos, kedoshim emor (saying how great a person is only after they’ve passed, essentially forgetting the bad and only remembering the good)? How could a 36 year old have touched so many lives?
And then I will bump into a young family, just a few years older than mine, and the woman will relate how that had she not bumped into Rochel Leah, she’d have never become religious. They tell me how they were on their own spiritual journey and she guided them, spiritually, and often, very materially, setting them up to live by one of her siblings in NY or other such arrangements to guide their footsteps in Jewish life.
So intense. So powerful. So impactful.
On her 28th yahrtzeit, I wrote a personal journey piece about my experiences and dealing with her death. I shared it on facebook. Within a few days there were over 500 “likes”, but more impressive was the over 100 comments, of people from around the world, from South Africa to Australia and beyond who were commenting about their experiences with my mother. How she had impacted them, and how she had brought joy, happiness and coffee to their lives. High school students shared how they had a place to run away to, to talk about life, family and meaning.
Could it be? Could someone so young, have made such an impact? Indeed it appears to be so.
Our second cousin, who currently runs the most successful Chabad Center and Educational Institute in Jerusalem, Mayaanot, posted a picture of her five year old daughter named Rochel Leah. She shared that she barely knew her first cousin once removed, my mother, but recalled her laughter and verve still, so many years later. She said that she was moved to go on Shlichus seeing the energy and excitement that my mother had for her holy work. She told me today, as we were messaging on facebook, that when Rochel Leah would come around, everyone wanted to talk with her. She was the life of the party. The same words her high school classmates had shared with me over the years.
She shared with me that until today, she has a picture of my mother in her wallet. She doesn’t recall who gave it to her, only that it was given shortly after my mother’s passing. She felt some need to keep it with her. She shared that she cannot believe that it is right there with her other personal family pictures. She barely knew her.
I started a Facebook page, curious to see if she was still on people’s minds so many years later. The page had no info, only asking that people who knew my mother and had thoughts or pictures of her, to like and share and invite others to like the page. Within a day we had over 200 likes and it is climbing.
I think the word is impact. If I had to describe her in one word it would have to be impact. What other one word could describe someone who has been so effective in 36 short years and so lovingly remembered so many years later?
We must, and we will keep that impact alive. It seems, however, that it is happening anyway, She was just that kind of woman.
* * *
This year, Daled Nissan (April 12th), marks the 30th yahrtzeit of Rochel Leah (Deitsch) Schusterman whose short 36 years impacted thousands of people through her kind and caring ways, her strong chassidishe example, and her gentle wisdom.
The Schusterman family has arranged numerous activities to commemorate this milestone yahrtzeit. There will be a community webinar taking place on Sunday, Apr 10, 2016 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM EDT. Speakers: Rabbi Peretz Greenwald of Long Beach, former students, her her children and renowned speaker Rabbi YY Jacobson. Registration is required, you can click here to register.
A Facebook group where friends and family share pictures, memories and updates about upcoming events has attracted hundreds of followers. Facebook.com/RochelLeahSchustermanTorah.
The family is inviting her friends, community, students and any interested parties to be a part of writen a Sefer Torah in her memory at www.RLSTORAH.org.
The Torah will be used for new Shluchim or Rabbis needing a Torah during their first year or for other circumstances where a Sefer Torah is needed for temporary use.
If you have been touched by our mother please consider joining this project to complete a new Torah in her memory. Gifts of any size are greatly appreciated and will bring us closer to our goal of $45,000, over $15,000 has already been raised!
To participate please go online to www.RLSTORAH.org. Checks should be made payable to the RLS Torah Fund c/o Chabad Intown and mailed to 990 St. Charles Avenue, Atlanta GA 30306. Donations are tax deductible.