Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam,
shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higianu laz’man hazeh.
Our praise to You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of all:
for giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this season.
As my time working for NFTY Chicago comes to a close this weekend, I can’t help but think of the people and places that brought me here. While we say the Shehecheyanu to praise God in moments of joy, I wish there was a prayer to praise the people that sustained me and helped to give me this life, and this NFTY community.
At Senior Circle, our graduating class often talks about their “NFTY Giants” – those people who invited them to their first event or served as role models for the kind of person and leader they want to be. My NFTY Giant will forever be Heather Rose Kornick.
Heather found me sitting alone at breakfast on Sunday morning of NFTY Convention 2005. My synagogue sent me, despite not really knowing anyone and not really being interested in NFTY in high school. I was looking forward to reading my book and not speaking to anyone when Heather sat down. It became clear to me quickly that Heather was determined to be my friend whether I liked it or not, so I grudgingly put my book down and started a friendship that would change the course of my life.
We discovered that we would both be Machons, or counselors in training, at OSRUI the following summer. Heather had spent her whole life at OSRUI, but missed the summer before our senior year, which had been my first summer at camp. She was ecstatic to return; I was a little skeptical because a group of girls had gone out of their way to make it clear that they didn’t need any new friends, and were more interested in cementing their old camp friendships than starting new ones. Only a few of my friends were returning.
That summer, Heather demonstrated how everyone should treat the new kid. She welcomed me with open arms and introduced me to lifelong friends, who I couldn’t imagine weathering this world without. She is my mentor and model for how everyone should be welcomed and treated when coming into a new community.
When Heather was diagnosed with Stage IV Adrenal Cancer at the end of our junior year in college, she casually posted about it in the OSRUI staff Facebook group. Something to the tune of, “Hey guys, I won’t be able to be on staff like I thought; I have cancer.” Like any other challenge thrown her way (homesick campers, tripling recruitment at her sorority), she was just going to handle it.
I knew from experience that when you say you or a family member has cancer, many people care, but don’t know what to do or how to be supportive. Not wanting to make a mistake or say the wrong thing, they say nothing, and quietly step out of your life. Thinking about how Heather gave me no choice in the onset of our friendship, I stepped further in.
Ultimately it brought us closer. There were some really rough moments, like the time I found her puking in the Sports Center the Shabbat she visited camp (a side effect of her chemo), or when we saw 50/50 and I realized that I needed to be a better support system to my friend with cancer so I wouldn’t be the Seth Rogen of our relationship. There were some really ridiculous moments, like traveling to New Orleans on a whim and feeding alligators marshmallows, or the time we bought hundreds of vuvzelas for the Temple Chai Purim Carnival for all of the children because we were mad at our boss. We ate a lot of sushi. We ran a lot of youth group events.
Heather passed away five years ago today, but she is alive in every one of our campers who reached out to me today in love. She is alive in the NFTY Chicago Lifetime Membership Award that hangs in my office, that teens felt compelled to give her because of her generosity with her time and passion for NFTY. She is alive whenever we are kind to the new kid, and when we invite them in, saying, “Our community is better because you are here.”
So the last thing I’ll ask of you as your NFTY Chicago Regional Director is this: the next time you see someone new, or alone, or unsure…be their Heather.
I’m finding lots of ways to honor Heather today. I’m listening to songs by Steven Chaitman written in her honor: “When I Die” will make you cry, and “Die, Cancer, Die” will make you laugh. I’m donating to four organizations that I’m thankful for: NFTY for bringing us together, OSRUI for making us family, the University of Michigan Cancer Center for giving us a few more years (not enough) with Heather after her diagnosis, and the American Cancer Society Relay For Life for giving us a way to fight back.