The first days of the New Year are the Days of Awe but, to a dying man, aren’t they all?
Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited, bound for cities along Lakes Michigan, Erie and Ontario, rumbles north like rolling thunder along the Hudson River, blowing its whistle as it speeds through the Riverdale station of the Metro North at West 254th Street. Ducks swim downstream, just yards from the tracks, and the river licks the rocks. At dusk, a maroon-shouldered hawk is sometimes seen high above the river. Lights come on in windows on the far side of the river, and up the plateau on the Riverdale side there are lights now in the home of Rabbi Barry Dov Katz.
Like the most beloved pulpit rabbis, he is part sage, part “Stage Manager” from “Our Town.” He pays attention to the comings and goings, performs funerals and weddings, anticipates the rhythm and cadence of his congregation, and thinks “always, always,” during the seasonal meditation on the sealing of our fate, that not all the people of the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale who were in the pews last year are in the pews this year, or will be next year; some will not be in this world at all.
Rabbi Katz, 48, remembers back to his previous post at Congregation Etz Chaim in Monroe, N.Y., when a young man named Matt Fenster came for the Days of Awe in 1995, a guest of Jennifer Witrock. The rabbi thought Matt had a certain “chayn,” a sweetness and decency about him.
Matt and Jennifer met as freshmen in the kosher dining hall at Cornell University, spending many Friday nights in the same Jewish circle, before friendship turned into a crush during senior year.
Matt blogged that he liked the way Jennifer “knew how to channel her Jewish soul through Jewish law and tradition to make it that much more robust. In fact, the Friday night when I decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her, she gave a stunning d’var Torah at the kosher dining hall … If I could sit back and watch even her shadow for a whole day, I would grow immeasurably as a person and as a Jew.”
“As soon as that switch was flipped, we just knew,” says Jennifer.
Rabbi Katz performed their wedding and the married couple moved to Manhattan. Matt, now a lawyer; Jennifer, now a pediatrician, moved to Riverdale at the urging of Rabbi Katz, who by 1998 had become spiritual leader of CSAIR. The rabbi remembers telling Matt and Jenn, “We’re building something that I hope will be special,” a serious, warm and studious Conservative congregation with a strong participating core of observant, walk-to-shul young couples, like Matt and Jenn. The rabbi remembers telling Matt and Jenn, that they “could have a beautiful life here.” The Fensters in the next decade had four children, enrolled them in the nearby Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy (SAR), and bought a house three doors from the Yonkers line, a good mile-and-a-half walk to shul, but the Fensters were young and the walk was leafy and serene.
They enjoyed hosting friends on Shabbat. On wintry Friday nights, says Jennifer, “We loved sitting side by side on the couch; he’d be reading Time magazine and I’d be reading The Jewish Week, and at some point we’d switch. It was the Shabbat peace that we loved to share together.”
In early 2010, Matt was diagnosed with leukemia.
Jennifer imagined, “I was walking to shul with our kids, without him.”
The college sweethearts sat together in the lounge at Cornell; the Manhattan medical center this time, not quite the same, they joked, as Willard Straight Hall or the kosher dining room.
Aug. 15, 2010: Two days prior to his first bone marrow transplant, Matt blogs, yes, he has faith, but “for every 100 cancer patients with faith that they will conquer their disease, some percentage of them will no doubt succumb to it. But that is a false criticism, because the utility of faith is not its ability to promise end results but rather its ability to get us through the tough times.”
Even better than faith, he found grace.
What does anyone know? After the tragedies in the Book of Job, when God is challenged, God replies, in essence, Where were you on that very first Rosh HaShanah? Where were you when I created the hawk and the Adirondacks? “Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place? … Have the gates of death been shown to you?” Where were you on that first Rosh HaShanah, or that Rosh Hashanah just last year when Matt was too weak to get to shul and friends blew shofar in his home? What does anyone know?
In December, with Matt feeling somewhat mobile, the Fensters took a family trip to Israel. At SAR, their son’s kindergarten class made cards that said, “Dear Chayalim [soldiers], Todah Rabbah [thank you], Love, (the child’s name), and the Fensters distributed the cards to soldiers everywhere from Tel Aviv to Rachel’s Tomb. At a bus station, a soldier said he had a gift for the Fensters. He took off the Israel Defense Forces pin in his beret that signified Chel HaRefuah, the army’s medical unit; “refuah” means “healing.”
Jennifer blogged, “Did this soldier realize how meaningful this would be to us? Probably not. Was he just a nice guy? Probably. Was he a messenger from God? Maybe.”
When a leathery knot of Matt’s tefillin became accidentally unraveled, he found an online video that taught him how to properly reconfigure the knot. There, he thought to himself, I was in a mess and not only could I fix it but I learned a holy skill, as well. Perhaps that bodes well for the coping skills he was learning for his increasingly unraveling body. He told Rabbi Katz that he now wanted to learn how be a mohel (for circumcisions). At a brit milah, said Matt, the congregation says a line from Ezekiel, “In you blood you shall live.” Matt , 36, thought of that when he got his transfusions.
April 1, 2011: “We learned that the second transplant failed and that I still have plenty of leukemia in my bones. There are no other treatment options under consideration.”
June 21, 2011: “I am tired,” he writes. “I think it’s fair to say that I am entering the decline that we have been expecting…’
Aug. 10, 2011: “We are enrolling in hospice,” writes Jennifer. “We’re stopping all transfusions. Matt is tired. He’s really weak. It’s time.” And, joked Matt, think of all the money we’ll save on the astronomical parking expenses at the hospital.
After a final Shabbat, with death near, Rabbi Katz came by to help his friend say the Viduy (final confession) and Shema. “For much of it, he could only listen,” said the rabbi later. “He gathered his strength when we said Shema and carefully pronounced each word. And at the end, when Jennifer and I sang Adon Olam, when we got to the line, ‘God is mine, I shall not fear,’ Matt rallied, his voice got stronger, and he sang ‘Adonai li v’lo era’ with strength,” repeating it several times even after the rabbi finished.
When the end came, Matt’s breathing changed, then it was very peaceful, and then he stopped. “There was something very natural and beautiful about it,” said Jennifer.
Reb Simcha Bunim of Pishishka would give each chasid the New Year greeting, that he or she be inscribed for a good year. Then, the rebbe would add, “I can’t imagine this world without you.”
And if this world is without you, we’ll imagine you still.
What does anyone know?