The High Holidays changed forever, for me, a few years ago when i prayed the neilah service with a friend and mentor who was fighting cancer. Stefan had taken me on to work at the ACLU while I was in high school and helped me think more systematically about the fight for justice.
When Stefan would learn that something awful and unjust had happened, rather than saying something snarky and cynical, he’d go to work. For instance:
Seth Kreimer got the call around 8 p.m. on a Friday night.
It was Stefan Presser, longtime legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
Federal air marshals had just arrested and detained Bob Rajcoomar, a retired Army physician and naturalized U.S. citizen of ethnic Asian Indian descent, because they did not “like the way he looked” during a flight from Atlanta to Philadelphia. Rajcoomar was held in a police cell at the airport for several hours and then released without being charged.
“We’ve got to do something about this,” Presser told Kreimer, a Penn law professor and Mt. Airy resident.
The two worked through the weekend, eventually filing a lawsuit in federal court against the Transportation Security Administration that accused the agency of racial profiling. The case ended in a landmark settlement that required TSA to pay $50,000 in damages to Rajcoomar and reform its policies and training procedures, in addition to making its director issue a written apology.
Stefan was always full of energy and had a wonderful artful ability to frame issues with moral clarity. He didn’t have that energy anymore when we sat together for neilah. Still in the prime of life, he had a grim prognosis. His cancer was bad enough that he could no longer litigate and had recently stopped working for the ACLU. Even though he could no longer do those things, he was committed to his causes. He mentored and taught young lawyers and law students through the anti-death penalty clinic he had founded. A few months after Rosh Hashanah his physical limitations grew so many that he could no longer teach.
The neilah liturgy, like much of the High Holiday liturgy, talks about gates closing and we plead to be included in the book of life. This had always been a vague metaphor for me, but here I was, signing the plaintive melodies with a teacher whose gates were literally closing and for whom one more year of being inscribed in the book of life would be miraculous and unlikely. He was courageous; I was not. Seeing him ask for another year made me question whether I was worthy of one, what I had done the previous year, and what I would do if by some (natural or supernatural) fluke I was given another year to live. Every year as I move towards the High Holidays, I try to refocus and try to break myself down and do honest repentance. Every year I have trouble, and every year Stefan helps me figure it out. This year was no different. As I sat in Rosh Hashanah shacharit services, I thought about Stefan and how doing just work doesn’t get one another year. It just makes the the years we live ones imbued with meaning and fulfillment. This coming shabbat, I will return to the synagogue where Stefan and I used to pray and, along with others who he mentored, we will talk about his legacy. It couldn’t come at a more appropriate moment. This shabbat is his yartzeit. He nearly made it to the next neilah.
[some of this text comes from a similar piece I posted in 2007]