Last Monday, January 24, just moments after a two-hour Taglit-Birthright-Israel Education Committee, Cheryl Aronson did what Cheryl loved to do. As chair of the committee, I had, quite casually, mentioned a task force she had led a few years back about the “Eleventh Day,” imagining how Birthright could help participants better integrate their 10-day Birthright trips to Israel with the “Eleventh Day” back home – meaning the rest of their lives. Her email had the subject “Thank you for the Hakarat HaTov [recognition of good works] earlier.” And, she added, “I do indeed spend my time thinking about what young Jews need to experience before, during, and after trips!”
Indeed she did. She signed off, as usual, humbly and generously, writing: “Thank you for the opportunity to serve on this Committee. It’s such a privilege!”
In the characteristic back and forth that ensued, she articulated a most worthy goal, writing: “I want to be a voice of veering on the side of bringing in the joy and inspiration with inclusivity to belonging to the Jewish people…. A colleague from the field said my goal would be for my students to smile when they hear the word ‘Israel.’ What a telling comment. Could also be applied to the words, ‘Jewish people.’ Let’s give young adults the chance and proactive exposure to figure out why any of this matters to them instead of being hijacked by identity politics in the name of bringing authentic education that brings complexity. It seems the true complexity today is creating a space to celebrate being a Jew.”
We in the Birthright Israel family are devastated by the loss of our friend, our colleague, our teacher, our comrade-in-arms, Cheryl Aronson z”l. Cheryl who died suddenly yesterday, was a real people person. Many of us don’t remember when we met Cheryl, because she was the kind who befriended you so instantly, made such fast friends, you felt like you had known her all your life. It wasn’t just her ready smile in person; it was her constant love-o-grams via email and her like-a-grams on Facebook. Cheryl seemed to be always around – with that encouraging follow-up email after a meeting, with that short, punchy, but o-so-on-target comment on Facebook.
But her generosity of spirit didn’t mean she was a pushover. This people-person was also a peoplehood person, a fierce, loving defender of Israel and the Jewish people — who could be peppery when necessary! Her passion for our people – and her concern for the next generation – characterized her career and made her an invaluable voice around our table, at the Taglit-Birthright Israel Education Committee, as in so many other venues throughout the Jewish world.
Just last week, Cheryl was her usual active and peppy presence at the Education Committee, not only during the meeting but in the lively e-mail exchanges following-up. Those emails were classic Cheryl, pointed and insightful, vigorous and visionary, big-hearted toward the rest of us – yet protective of our past, present and future. And yes, she was exactly what she wanted to be – “a voice of veering on the side of bringing in the joy and inspiration with inclusivity to belonging to the Jewish people.”
At this moment of loss, it’s only natural to focus on what we will miss – and how much we will fail to learn from her in the future. But we should also appreciate just how much we learned from her in the recent past – about our rich past – and how lucky so many of us were to call her our friend, our colleague, our teacher, our comrade-in-arms.
And that is why we will vow to continue the work, to smile when we hear the words “Israel” and “the Jewish people” – and –through our tears – keep smiling when we hear the name “Cheryl Aronson” – may her name and memory be for a blessing.
Professor Gil Troy