A Legacy of Words

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On April 22, 2010, I defined myself primarily as a mother of four young children and a wife of a loving husband. Living in these roles brought me incredible satisfaction. My life felt perfect. Four hundred eighty-three days later, on August 18, 2011, my entire identity changed as my world came crashing down. Four hundred eighty-three days after my beloved husband, Matt, z”l, was diagnosed with leukemia, I became the solo parent of four young children and a widow who had been left behind.  

Upon Matt’s death, I knew that I would face obstacles ahead, both emotionally and practically, but I had no appreciation for the fact that one of the greatest challenges I would encounter would also become one of my most meaningful missions: learning what Matt’s legacy would be. I wanted to know how I would preserve that legacy for our children, for those who knew him, and even for those who never had the privilege to meet him. Legacy takes on different meanings: material items, moral values, and innate qualities. It became my responsibility to ensure those various facets of Matt’s legacy would continue to live on well beyond his years.

Matt and I were both realistic and honest about his impending death. Although he knew that he would not be alive to enjoy any of our children’s bnei mitzvah celebrations, he very much wanted to find ways to be a part of them. As Matt’s health precipitously deteriorated during the spring of 2011, he and I discussed ways that he could remain an integral presence in the children’s spiritual growth and in their milestones, despite his inevitable physical absence. Matt was deeply committed to daily prayer, something he learned and took on as an adult and a value he very much wanted to pass on to our children. To our nine-year-old daughter, he decided to give the siddur from which he davened each morning, the siddur from which he fervently whispered the words on the page — when he was well, when he was sick, and when he was dying. A mitzvah related to tefillah that Matt greatly cherished was that of putting on tefillin. We decided that his own set of tefillin would eventually be given to our oldest son, at the time only seven years old, when he came of age. The younger two boys would receive sets of tefillin, which Matt himself purchased that spring. As each boy becomes a bar mitzvah, he will begin to carry the words of the shema with him each day, holy words that are protected by his tefillin, an incredibly precious gift from his father. Our sons will literally wrap Matt’s legacy around their own skin as they recite their tefillot while our daughter holds those sacred tefillot in her two hands. A legacy of words.

During the course of Matt’s illness, there were pivotal times when he stared directly into death’s eyeseach time he had a post-chemo bone marrow biopsy and found that stubborn leukemic cells still inhabited his bones, when he physically and mentally prepared for his first stem cell transplant, when we learned the first transplant had failed and he prepared for the second one, when the second one proved a disastrous failure and we knew there were no other treatment options available. Despite death’s looming face, Matt felt fortunate; to him, his life was overflowing with goodness. “Kosee revaya, my cup overflows,” was something he uttered quietly to himself each Friday night before reciting kiddush. But his optimism and positivity were mixed with realism, and he had the incredible fortitude to write letters, handwritten notes, to each of our four children. A note for different times in their lives when their Abba would not be there by their sides. When Matt died, it became my obligation to give each child the respective letters at the appropriate times. A letter for each bat/bar mitzvah. A letter for each of their wedding days. There were letters intended for sometime after Matt’s death that were not tied to any special event, up to me to determine when each child would find it most meaningful. These letters are Matt’s intangible way of guiding our children to lives of Torah, chuppah, and maasim tovim with his words of love, advice, and memories. I safeguard these invaluable notes. They are part of Matt’s legacy. A legacy of words.

On a communal level, Matt dreamed of the day when every child could benefit from Jewish day school education regardless of affordability. So before Matt died, to help achieve that goal, we established the Matthew S. Fenster Jewish Education Fund. To share information about the fund with friends, family, and community, Matt requested that his own words about the initiative be read at his funeral: “Each and every child must be provided with a basic skill set, including the ability to read Hebrew, understand the commentators, and parse a Talmudic argument. Once equipped with these skills, the child is then free to go off in whatever direction he or she chooses, potentially becoming a future leader of Israel in his or her own right. I hope you will share in my dream of making a Jewish day school education available to each and every Jewish child.” Through friends’ generous donations over the past several years and through my kids’ successful bake sales to honor Matt’s yahrzeit almost every summer, we have allocated $106,000 to assist families with the burden of day school tuition costs. Matt would be smiling with pride, ecstatic that we have maintained this legacy, a legacy that provides an opportunity for children to acquire a formal Jewish education, just as he dreamed. A legacy of words.

Matt never imagined the impact he would have within and beyond the borders of our Riverdale world. While he fought against leukemia, he maintained a blog to keep people updated about his condition. People commented often to ask what they could do for him. In his response, he empowered others to take on a challenge during the last weeks and months of his life:

“I am going to try to focus on this sin [of lashon hara] and avoid lashon hara for the remainder of my life. I invite each of you to join me in this effort, using my life as the commitment period — so it won’t be all too long :-). Before committing, keep in mind that this is deceptively challenging. In fact, take one day just to notice how often you find yourself disparaging a person, whether an enemy (or even worse, a friend!), a colleague, or someone that you actually might not even know that well at all. I think you’ll notice that it’s remarkable how tempted we can be to fill a gap in a telephone conversation or at a meal with an unnecessary dig at some other person. I am really looking forward to living out my days in an environment free from this kind of haphazard negativity. This is what will provide me with the support that I need to get through this ordeal…”

(Click here to read his post in its entirety.)

Matt’s blog post inspired the teachers, administrators, and parents at our children’s school, SAR Academy, to join together to launch the first Power of Words Day in May 2011. Although the program came shortly before his death, Matt rallied and somehow found the strength to speak with the middle school students about the importance of words and kind speech. After Matt passed away that summer, the principal and I discussed the possibility of continuing this program in Matt’s memory. Every year since, on Ta’anit Esther, SAR holds its annual Power of Words Day. After eight years, the program has truly become part of the fabric of SAR and has traveled to other schools as well. It is hard to describe the energy as the day approaches and on the day itself: hundreds of children learning the laws of shmirat halashon, the school abuzz with creative art projects and thoughtful discussion about the power of words. Younger and older students paired together to reflect on how Megillat Esther relates to shmirat halashon. Watching students, teachers, and parents take a “Power of Words Pledge” to be mindful of their words. Perhaps most meaningful is hearing the students remind each other throughout the school year about the lessons they learned from Matt on Power of Words Day.

Year after year, Matt continues to teach us to think before we speak and to pause before we post. He reminds us to speak nicely, to avoid lashon hara, to defend those who are targets of negative speech, to encourage others with positive words of hope, and to give people the benefit of the doubt. As he has said, “Together, we can make the world a better and kinder place through our choices of words.” This is the essence of Matt’s legacy, and I am humbled to stand before nine hundred students and teachers each year on Power of Words Day to share his incredible message.

There is no doubt that my roles as solo parent and widow now define a big part of my life. Honoring Matt’s legacy motivates me, gives me purpose, and even has the power to lift me up during some of the most trying times. Preserving Matt’s legacy is a sacred mission, a mission that allows all of us to benefit from the indelible mark that Matt left in this world. His legacy of words.

Jennifer Fenster is a pediatrician turned Director of Communications and middle school science teacher at SAR Academy. She lives in Riverdale, New York with her four children. When not working or taking care of her family, Jennifer can be found power walking half marathons or blogging at https://stilllearningtodanceintherain.wordpress.com/