Guest Essay: Dear Deborah

We will never forget you.

When the news of the building’s collapse started trickling in and I saw your name on a list of missing people, I froze. I sent you a quick WhatsApp. Could it really be you? Was this our Deborah Berezdivin? The one we only just met and who already felt part of our family?

It feels like a passing dream. You blew into our lives one day and just as abruptly, gone?

I met you during the depths of the COVID-19 crisis. The world we had known had turned upside down and we longed for human interaction and connection.

You transferred to GW from Tulane, where you were a member of Chabad. As soon as you arrived in D.C. you immediately reached out to us for community.

I’ve been creating community at GW for 14 years now. Every year hundreds of Jewish students begin their career at GW and many of them find friends and a home at Chabad. But this was no regular year and you were no regular student.

From the moment I met you there was a soul connection. I don’t know if it was your warm personality, your infectious smile or your passionate Jewish identity. We hit it off right away.

When you moved to D.C., the first thing you needed, and I mean needed, was a Mezuzah on your doorpost. It affirmed your identity, your history and your values and you wanted it ASAP.

But with the pandemic raging, my husband and I couldn’t enter your apartment and hang the Mezuzah. So you sent us the cutest video tour of your apartment with running commentary of how you intended to use the various rooms, helping us remotely instruct you on how to hang the Mezuzah yourself. I will cherish that video forever. It is a priceless memento of your commitment to your traditions.

Your favorite activity was baking Challah. You told us of how your grandmother bakes, your mother bakes and so you too want to bake. You looked forward to it every week that you were in town. My kids loved when you would come over. When Baking Challah, you would remove your rings, which you wore on almost every finger, and my children loved playing dress-up with them. It was such a wholesome activity – kneading the traditional dough of our ancestors, surrounded by adoring little kids giggling along with joy.

Then there were the magical Shabbat dinners we shared. We usually have between 80 to 100 guests on Shabbat, but this was the year of COVID-19, and the dinners were small and intimate. As we lit the Shabbat Candles and welcomed the day of rest into our house, you were home. The songs, the food, your Challa, the laughter, the peace.

These vivid scenes played again and again in my mind as we waited anxiously, desperately, for good news. When would you just read my WhatsApp message and tell me that you were all right? I envisioned seeing your face smiling again, laughing and crying. I would tell you what it was like worrying for you and listen to you recount your harrowing ordeal.

The news never came, the message is left unread and we will forever miss your precious soul. There was so much more we were meant to do together. The world is sorely missing you.

Jewish tradition teaches that the soul lives on after the body is no longer here.

Deborah, we will uphold your memory and continue your legacy here at GW. Generations of GW students will continue to bake Challah, proudly hang Mezuzahs on their doors and tell the story of a beautiful soul who shined so brightly for so short a time, yet taught us so much.

In your honor Deborah, I rededicate myself to forever cherish my relationships and the unwavering Jewish identity you showed us. May your memory be a blessing and may your family find comfort.

With much love,

Rivky

Rivky Steiner is the co-director of GW’s Rohr Chabad Center. 

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