BY ARLENE APPLEROUTH/AJT //
The email was from Michael Robinowitz, M.D., a name I didn’t recognize, but the name Max Lipschitz was the subject of the message, so I immediately opened it: “I am the nephew of Rabbi Max Lipschitz about whom you recently wrote such kind words. When I read the article I called Max’s widow, Rhoda, who was thrilled about what you said and also told me that her daughter Cathy Stein was in the car at the time of the accident.”
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I read the email several times. Dr. Robinowitz was referring to a column I had written naming the first rabbi I had a meaningful relationship with. (Atlanta Jewish Times, July, 2013). The accident, which caused my 17-year old brother’s death, was a tragedy that changed my life.
I was in my junior year of college at the University of Florida. It was a common practice for high school seniors to participate in homecoming weekend, and I invited my brother Barry for the event. He got a ride from North Miami to Gainesville with Sherry, another high school student, who was the sister of one of my roommates.
The accident happened on their drive home on the Florida Sunshine State Parkway.
It was a single car accident. I never had the opportunity to ask what happened. My brother was the only one who died.
I knew there was another passenger in the car in addition to my brother, but I never knew who that was. I wasn’t aware of the extent of the injuries to the driver or the other passenger.
Grief can be emotionally devastating.
I went numb. My parents were heartbroken and unable to talk about what happened. Instead of mourning together and perhaps finding comfort by sharing the pain, I was sent back to college a few days after burying my brother.
The roommate whose sister drove the car moved out. I was alone in my grief, learning the painful truth that sometimes even close friends don’t know what to say. Death is not an easy subject to talk about – especially when a young person dies unexpectedly.
People tell each other that time heals all wounds. Although there’s a kernel of truth in that pithy saying, my experience is we learn to live with our wounds. The pain of loss might lessen in time, but it never fully disappears.
When I read Michael Robinowitz’s email again, I was shocked to learn the relationship between Rabbi Lipschitz and the other passenger in the car.
It was his step daughter. Why didn’t he say so?
A few weeks later, I received a letter from Rhoda Lipschitz, the rabbi’s widow, which answered that question. She had married the rabbi 10 years after the accident. Her letter filled in many of the blanks I had had about the accident.
But I wanted to know more, so I called her on the phone.
Mrs. Lipschitz was eager to talk. She told me how much she appreciated what I wrote about her husband and that she had told her daughter and her rabbi about it
“When I told my rabbi about your column, he said he lost a good friend in a car accident when he was in high school,” Mrs. Lipschitz said.
The good friend was my brother. I wondered if her daughter and her rabbi would be willing to talk with me.
Even though 46 years had passed since my brother’s death, I still wondered why the driver lost control of the car, causing it to flip over and propel my brother through the windshield.
There was so much I didn’t know about my brother. At the time of the accident I had been away from home for three years. Even though we talked a lot during his last weekend of life, there were questions I wished I could ask someone who knew him well.
Unfortunately, my parents were never able to talk about these things. When I did ask questions, my mother said it was too painful to discuss. I stopped asking.
A week after my conversation with the rabbi’s widow, I received an email from her daughter.
She gave a detailed account of what happened. It didn’t surprise me to learn of the flashback images she still experiences of the accident and the feelings she still has. Trauma lingers. After I got her email, we talked for some time on the phone.
I sent an email to my brother’s high school friend, now Rabbi Edwin Farber. He replied in an email that he would be glad to share memories with me. He suggested I get in touch with him on my next trip to South Florida.
Last week I sat in his office at Congregation Beth Torah Adath Yeshurin in North Miami Beach.
I recognized photographs of his Atlanta grandchildren in his office. I’ve been to his son’s house in Toco Hills many times to take women’s Talmud classes. We talked about his son and his family.
Then I asked about my brother.
He told me that he and Barry knew each other well. They had gotten close during Bar Mitzvah classes and shared many honors classes at Miami Norland High School.
“I remember what a great smile he had,” he reminisced. “And his wavy light brown hair. Everyone liked your brother. He was very smart and very popular.”
After all that time, it was good to hear.
Arlene Appelrouth earned a degree in news-editorial journalism from the University of Florida and her career as a writer and journalist spans a 50-year period; she currently studies memoir writing while working on her first book.