Three Long Island college students who drowned tragically while trying to save a friend from a turbulent upstate river accomplished something in death rarely seen in the Five Towns: the entire Jewish community coming together to share their grief.
"The whole community is torn emotionally," said Dr. Lee Weitzman of Woodsburgh, a close friend of two of the teens’ families. "We’re all sitting around and crying, lending support to each other. It’s really devastating."
For the Five Towns, which has seen its share of denominational strife with the increasing number of Orthodox moving into the once predominantly Conservative and Reform area, the events of the last two weeks have been remarkable.
The three teens, all from Woodmere and entering their sophomore year in college, were members of Conservative synagogues, yet several Orthodox synagogues placed condolence ads in local newspapers. Also, members of an Orthodox yeshiva offered whatever help the families needed.
Rabbi Bruce Ginsberg, the spiritual leader of Congregation Sons of Israel in Woodmere who officiated at two of the funerals, said that in his "24 years in the rabbinate, I have never experienced anything like this."
"The whole community is grieving. It was like a wave of sobs," he said. "Everybody: from the oldest to the youngest, men and women, were convulsed in grief."
Rabbi Sholom Stern of Temple Beth El in Cedarhurst, who officiated at the third funeral, echoed those thoughts.
"Never as a community have we experienced anything like this. The [funeral] chapel was filled to capacity and there were people standing outside," he said. "There were more people here than there are on Yom Kippur and Rosh HaShanah. People related to this tragedy; it really struck a chord in the community.
"All three lived up to the highest ethical Jewish principle of trying to save a life. People are mindful that each of the kids died a hero. They displayed what parents try to instill in their children" a concern for others."
The three teens: Adam Cohen and Jordan Satin, both 19, and Jonah Richman, 18, plunged into the raging waters of Split Rock Falls on the Boquet River near Elizabethtown on Aug. 12 after their friend, David Altschuler, 18, of Philadelphia slipped on the wet rocks and fell 50 feet into the water.
"The real tragedy is that they were excellent swimmers," said Rabbi Stern. "They were trained not to fear the water and to attack it. They assumed that when someone was having difficulty in the water, they were there to assist and had the skills to do it. But there was no buoyancy to the water. It was foam water that doesn’t permit you to rise; it just drags you down."
The four teens were among a group of about 20 counselors from nearby Camp Baco and its sister camp, Che-Na-Wah, who had gone to the falls on their day off.
Anita Richman said her son and Cohen had rescued swimmers in distress before and thought they could again. Both were named to the All-County swim squad in their senior year at Hewlett High School, and Richman said Jonah was an accredited ocean lifeguard who used to work in that capacity at Atlantic Beach when camp ended.
"All of the families have known each other since the boys were very young," she said, adding that Satin’s mother, Barbara Minkoff, grew up near her in the community and that their mothers knew each other through the synagogue. They all live within 10 blocks of one another.
All four boys attended Camp Baco since they were in elementary school. Minkoff said they referred to themselves as the "Baco Boys."
"Camp was their life," she said. "If they had to choose a place to die, it would be camp."
In fact, "Baco" was inscribed into the side of her son’s mahogany coffin, Minkoff said, along with the initials of his girlfriend, Lexie Ellman, 19, and those of the four drowning victims and their date of death, surrounded by a heart.
Minkoff noted that Ellman sat shiva with her family and that Ellman’s parents, who had not belonged to a synagogue, have now joined Congregation Sons of Israel and enrolled one of their children in its Hebrew school.
"They were so impressed with his warmth," Minkoff said of Rabbi Ginsberg. "They went to temple with us Friday night, and we’ve been to temple every day, twice a day. I can’t believe it myself. … [Jordan] is making everybody Jewish."
Minkoff said her two older daughters have started a fund in memory of the four teens that will provide a scholarship to a child unable to afford summer camp. Another scholarship fund is being organized in memory of Jonah and Adam at Hewlett High to be presented to an outstanding varsity swimmer.
She said her son’s funeral was scheduled for a Sunday afternoon and Richman’s for Sunday morning so that those who wished could attend both. The funeral for Cohen, whose body was found earlier, was held the previous Friday.
Minkoff, who eulogized her son at his funeral, said she attended the funerals for Cohen and Richman. And the Richmans’ returned from burying their son just in time to stop at the funeral chapel to express their condolences before the services for Satin began.
"I did everything my son would want," Minkoff said. "It was like I was representing Jordan. Like he would say, ‘Ma, itís Adam,’ [you have to go to his funeral]. I wanted to make sure he sees it and to be proud."