‘A One-Two Punch’
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‘A One-Two Punch’

Congregation ‘heartbroken’ after two ‘exceptional young people’ die in freak accidents.

Last week, for the second time in a month, sudden death struck a young member of one of New York City’s most prominent Modern Orthodox congregations.

Three weeks after an overflowing crowd mourned the death of 21-year-old Daniella Moffson, who was killed in a bus accident in Honduras while volunteering on a medical mission, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun was the site on Sunday of the funeral of David Wichs, who was killed in last week’s crane collapse in Lower Manhattan.

Mr. Wichs, 38, a native of Czechoslovakia who lived on the Upper West Side, was on his way to his job at a Wall Street-area trading firm on Friday, Feb. 5, when a crane crashed down onto Worth Street, killing him and injuring three others. An investigation into the cause of the accident is underway.

“It seems completely unreal … a one-two punch to the gut … two people who aren’t supposed to die this way,” said Rabbi Elie Weinstock, spiritual leader at the Upper East Side shul. Members of the congregation, he said, “are starting to process it.”

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, who became senior spiritual leader at the Orthodox synagogue a month ago, said in an email: “Our kehilla [community] is heartbroken for the families, and grieve the tragic loss of Daniella and David. These tragedies have affected so many, because these were two exceptional young people who had already made a profound impact on their friends, their community and the world.”

But, he added, “At the same time, the response from our community has been exemplary,” with people working on “multiple memorial projects” and offering help and comfort.

“People have done so much in support of the families … . Even at this time, which is the worst of times, we saw the best of our community,” he said.

Ms. Moffson was in Honduras with the Global Brigades, a health and international development organization. She and two others were killed on the last day of the mission on the way to the airport when their bus veered off a road and fell into a ravine. Twelve other Americans were injured in the accident.

Shortly after her death, Rabbi Weinstock
remembered the Columbia University senior as “a very special person, sweet — she wanted to help.”

“She had a very spiritual refinement that stood out,” he added.

Mr. Wichs was remembered by friends and clergy for his uninhibited enthusiasm about the friendships he cultivated and the observant Jewish lifestyle he embraced while at Yeshivah of Flatbush, where he studied after his family moved to New York City when he was a teenager, knowing little English.

The opportunity, after growing up in a communist society, to be able to openly live and identify as a Jew “was a miracle” for Mr. Wichs and his family, said Dr. Ari Vanderwalde, who met Mr. Wichs in Israel some 20 years ago, where both were spending a year before college studying at yeshivas.

Dr. Ari Vanderwalde, now an oncologist in Memphis, was visiting a friend in Efrat in the West Bank one day when he noticed an unusual sight: Approaching him, riding slowly on a bike, was a large student, a stranger, who was attending an Efrat yeshiva.

The stranger was Mr. Wichs. “In a heavy Czech accent,” said Dr. Vanderwalde, Mr. Wichs declared, “We are going to Harvard.”

Mr. Wichs had heard that Vanderwalde and he would be classmates the following year at the Ivy League school, and he wanted to introduce himself. “He was just so exuberant — he was excited about everything in his life.

“Back then he was a bear of a man — his personality spilled out,” said Dr. Vanderwalde, who flew to New York on short notice to attend his old friend’s funeral. “I remember the wobbly bike and huge smile.”

David Wolkenfeld, spiritual leader of Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago, posted a similar story on Facebook this week.

Mr. Wichs, Rabbi Wolkenfeld wrote, “was one of the first people I met as a pre-frosh at Harvard. He heard that I was intending to study the following year at Yeshivat Hamivtar [in Israel] and he grabbed my hands and exclaimed to all assembled how happy he was that I was going to study at the ‘greatest yeshiva’ and that there would be two of us as alumni on campus when I returned.

“That sort of unrestrained enthusiasm,” the rabbi wrote, “was, to put it mildly, somewhat uncommon at Harvard and that brief encounter helped me feel good about my decision to study in yeshiva between high school and college and reassured me about Harvard too.”

“He was a great guy,” said Rabbi Weinstock, who knew Mr. Wichs for three years and read a chapter of Psalms at the funeral.

At Mr. Wichs’ funeral, a loudspeaker broadcast the ceremony to people gathered outside on the sidewalk.

Speakers at the funeral included Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, emeritus spiritual leader at the synagogue; Rebecca Guttman, Mr. Wichs’ widow; and Daniel Wichs, his brother. Mr. Wichs is also survived by his parents, Adela and Tomas Wichs.

After Mr. Wichs graduated Harvard with a degree in mathematics, he joined Tower Research Capital, where he worked for the last 15 years.

Dr. Vanderwalde called Mr. Wichs “an exceptional observer of people. He liked being around people. He made you feel so important.”

As an example of his friend’s sense of humor and insight, Dr. Vanderwalde recalled a conversation he had with Mr. Wichs about 15 years ago. They were debating what was the most important invention or scientific development of the past decade.

Dr. Vanderwalde suggested the Internet.

“E-Z Pass,” said Mr. Wichs.

Dr. Vanderwalde weighed the pros and cons of the Internet.

Mr. Wichs remained steadfast. “Yes,” he said, “but what’s the downside to E-Z Pass?”

steve@jewishweek.org

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