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A lesson in mourning

Two weeks ago, an early-morning text heralded the tragic news that my dear friend Stan Jacobs had finally lost his long battle with cancer. He was 70 years old.

The memorial service drew a capacity crowd. Everyone who knew Stan adored him. And I doubt there was anyone Stan knew he didn’t love as well. That’s the kind of person he was: he saw the best in everyone.

I met Stan nine years ago when he wandered into our congregation one day to recite the kaddish prayer for his recently departed mother.

He reminded me of the group of 7th grade boys I taught in Atlanta’s Jewish high school. Through some strange alignment of stars, all five of these pre-adolescents had appeared together fresh from public school. They were the perfect age and temperament -- bright but not yet cynical, knowing nothing about Judaism. They soaked up every drop of ancient wisdom, and their eyes sparkled with every new Torah insight.

Stan was no different. He embodied King David’s painfully beautiful words, My soul thirsts for the Almighty, for the living G-d; when will I come and behold the presence of the Almighty? Stan savored every word he read, sighed with pleasure at every idea he heard, reveled as his cup overflowed with spiritual illumination. He studied with a yellow highlighter, but always ended up highlighting every word. When it came to Torah study, Stan couldn’t bring himself to leave anything out.

From the moment Stan joined our community it was love at first sight, not just with me but with every one of us. We knew nothing at the time about Stan Jacobs’s background, about his distinguished career working as an engineer for AT&T and Bell Labs, about his impressive credentials and technical leadership in Asia, or about his devotion to his mother in the later years of his life.

But Stan’s impressive personal and professional resume was merely a footnote to those of us who came to revere his fellowship and friendship.

It’s customary to edit and embroider the stories we tell in eulogies and obituaries. That’s as it should be. But it makes us lose appreciation for those whose lives need no embellishment. And it makes it harder still for us to properly honor the memories of those about whom we can’t say enough.

Stan loved his synagogue, loved the prayers, loved the sermons, loved his fellow parishioners; he contributed to every cause in town, and made himself a partner with every institution.

The last time I saw Stan was on Tisha b’av, the Jewish day of national mourning over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. As we talked for the next hour, I was in awe. Lying in hospice, on oxygen, unable to sit up by himself, on the saddest day of the year, Stan was more filled with joy than most of us are on our best days.

Expressions of gratitude for his wife, his children and grandchildren, and for everything in his life flowed out of his mouth like a river, and his eyes shined as he counted off his blessings and pondered how he might still contribute to helping the community grow.

Like the talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva looking down at the ruins of the Temple and seeing redemption, Stan spread the light of consolation to dispel the darkness of suffering. I felt humbled in his presence, and I still do.

I couldn’t help thinking of Stan this week, as news reports described the funerals of John McCain and Aretha Franklin, two exceptionally talented, admired, and influential individuals. How tragically predictable that their memorials must be tarnished by political bickering and crass incivility.

If we can’t come together to honor and mourn the giants who have walked among us, if we can’t set aside our agendas and rise above our insensitivity for even a few hours, it darkens the horizon of where we as a society are headed.

But whenever I remember Stan, the world seems a little brighter. In death, as in life, he inspires me to want to be more like him, to greet every person with a smile, to see the best in everyone and everything, to look for ways to come together rather than cutting ourselves off from one another, to expect less from others and more from ourselves.

Stan leaves behind his beloved wife, Rivka, his children and grandchildren. May his memory bring merit to his soul and inspiration to all who knew him.

Adapted from the eulogy given on 17 August 2018/ 7 Elul 5778

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