|Michael and Liz, visiting during her Year-in-Israel, 2005|
It was the summer of 1999 at Goldman Union Camp Institute. I was still in high school and I was spending my summer working and studying in the Avodah program at camp. I met Phyllis Sklar, a rabbinical student who was working at GUCI for the summer, and she was very friendly to me.
I met her fiancé, Michael Sommer , when he came to visit her, but it wasn't until the following summer, when he was working at GUCI too, that we all really became friends.
You have to understand - I was a tall, overweight, unconfident, not-so-funny-yet teen. People who seemed to genuinely like me felt very rare, to me. Who were these two and where did they come from??
In the summer of 2001, Michael (still a rabbinical student) returned to GUCI and I spent my 2nd year on staff (a sophomore in college) and that's when our friendship really solidified. Even though he was much older than me, we really connected. He could see in me all the things I couldn't really yet see in myself. He seemed to take such pride in the good work I was doing as a counselor and staff member. He used to tell me, "We don't always get to choose our family. But we always get to choose our friends who become our family." I learned so much from him, that summer, about life and love and hard work and fun and friendship.
As a college student at IU, I probably visited Michael and Phyllis at their home in Cincinnati once a month for the following few years. We all grew so remarkably close over those years, as we experienced so much together in each other's lives. I even spent part of a summer in their upstairs attic room when I was studying Hebrew at HUC-JIR to get into rabbinical school. When they left Cincinnati to head up to Chicago, I saw them slightly less frequently, but never with less intensity to our visits. Our bonds over the years only strengthened as our family and our own friends became intertwined in one another's lives.
I was there when each of their kids were born. I was there through their ordinations and they were there through my graduation, ordination, and even as my mother lay dying, last year. I'll never forget how grateful I was to Phyllis for driving me and my grandmother to my mother's dying bedside, or when she and Michael sang softly in her hospital room, rubbing my shoulders as I wept.
I weep now, for my dear friends and their tragic loss of Sammy.
Michael and Phyllis are amazing. Not just for what they've been through, but for who they are.
They were my friends when I felt as though I'd never understand what real friendship was.
They were my first "family" members outside of my own who would take me in and go on to be lifelong friends.
They were my mentors and now my colleagues - I always look to Phyllis when I have any "rabbinical" inspiration that I need. Every rabbi needs their own rabbi, too.
They create a life for themselves much like a kibbutz - everyone is a valued member (and everyone pitches in around their house), everyone gets to be with them and is included, everyone is a part of their family.
They taught me about warmth and friendship and creating relationships with people that are meaningful and significant and that weave throughout the fabric of our lives.
There are so many stories, memories, and inside jokes that we've shared, that it would take a lifetime to retell them all again.
Over the last few days, people have remarked to me about how lucky they are to have me in their life and to be their friend, but everyone has it all backwards. I am the lucky one.
I am lucky that I found friends who have, literally, changed the shape and scope and narrative of my life. In every stage and at nearly every age, they've been there. I am lucky that I have lifelong friends who have helped support me and love me in my terrible teens, tumultuous twenties, and slightly-more-stable thirties. But, I am not surprised. Because that is just who they are. They are SuperMichael and SuperPhyllis.
As Sam's "Auntie Liz" I will never stop weeping for the pain and suffering he had to endure these last many months and for the unfinished symphony of his life. As Michael and Phyllis's inner circle, I will always try to hold them up and support them and carry them, as best I can. Because that is exactly what you do for your family. And that is what Michael and Phyllis have always taught me - we go through this life but once, and it's about the people we meet and the relationships we sustain that count above everything, and anything, else.