Friends and family mourn lightning storm’s victims
Friends of Steven Fagan of Woodcliff Lake and Lee Weisbrod of River Vale have spent the week attending memorials and remembering what life was like just a few days ago, before last weekend’s thunderstorms threw their world into turmoil. The funerals for the 18- and 19-year-old, killed Saturday night by lightning while playing soccer, were held on Tuesday, and their friends are planning to hold a memorial service tonight.
The accident that claimed the lives of both young men has affected much of the community, drawing an outpouring of support for their families. Both funerals were standing-room-only, each with more than 200 people, crying and hugging each other.
Rabbi Peter Berg of Temple Beth Or in Washington Township, who officiated at Steven’s funeral at Gutterman-Musicant in Hackensack, had been coming home from a wedding Saturday night when he received the call about the accident. That night he sat down with several of the young men’s friends to talk about Jewish customs regarding death and to share stories about the pair.
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“Part of the process of mourning is to make sure the memories of our loved ones are with us always,” he told The Jewish Standard before the service. “Friends are important ties to the family,” he continued. “The friends have been such a source of strength for the families. They’ve gone out of their way to visit with the families and share all their favorite stories.”
A few of Steven’s friends stood at the service to talk about him. Wearing white armbands with the initials “S.F.” and “L.W.” and the date 7-22, they recalled how, when they had gone off to college the year before, Steven had sent them each letters of encouragement and support. One friend, who had put off writing a reply, read from the letter he had never sent about how much hearing from Steven had meant to him.
Last month, Steven graduated from Pascack Hills High School in Montvale and was set to attend Drew University in Madison in the fall. Earlier that Saturday, he had been excited to start his first day of work at a local restaurant on Sunday.
“We will always remember the day our family changed forever,” said Steven’s friend Chris of that Saturday night.
Steven’s parents, Alice and Raymond, recalled at the funeral how they had traveled to Athens, Greece, to pick up their newly adopted infant, who had made the journey from Beirut, Lebanon. When Steven was very young, his mother would drop him off at daycare while she worked and would rush back in the afternoon, feeling guilty for leaving him. When she would show up early, he would always ask her why she was there. Later, interested in writing, he would create chapter books to entertain his grandfather suffering from Parkinson’s disease. As Steven got older, his mother said, he began entering his stories in contests without letting his mother read them because of her “academic ways.” His favorite activities though, his mother said, were playing soccer, going to movies, and “hanging out with his friends.”
More than 200 people gathered in the memorial room at Robert Schoem’s Menorah Chapel in Paramus for Lee Weisbrod’s memorial service later that day, while dozens more stood in the aisles and just outside. A group of Lee’s friends, each wearing the white armbands bearing the young men’s initials and the date of their deaths, helped move Lee’s coffin down the aisle past weeping friends and family.
“What I see here today is a testament that Lee was flying in the right direction,” said Eugene Weisbrod, looking at his son’s friends at the service.
“There are no words that can truly make a difference,” said Rabbi Andre Ungar, who officiated at Lee’s funeral. He sat down with the Standard before the memorial service to share his thoughts on how to cope with the loss of a loved one, especially one so young. “It’s the presence of people who care and love that make it a little more bearable.”
Lee’s mother Nancy recalled at the service how her son, who had just finished his first year at the University of Miami, had applied for early admission against the advice of his academic advisers, who told him he had a shot but should save early admission for another school.
“Nothing was going to stop him,” said his sister Vicki Licata in a telephone call on Wednesday. “He had a lot of willpower. Somebody saying ‘no’ wasn’t going to get in his way.”
Lee’s best friend Adam also spoke at the service. The two had met while playing soccer in fourth grade. “One of the best things that happened to me was meeting you,” he said, a group of friends standing behind him.
Licata called the show of support from the community and her brother’s friends “amazing.” “The kids have just given a lot of support to the family and they really appreciate it,” Licata said. “They’ve been over here every day and they’ve just been wonderful.”
Steven and Lee had been playing soccer Saturday evening with a group of friends at Kurt Flagg Memorial Field in Montvale when a sudden downpour changed their plans. While some of their friends were able to leave the field, a bolt of lightning struck the pair at about 6 p.m. On Sunday, a group of friends set up a cross on the field, with the boys’ names nailed into it, as a memorial. It was pictured on the front page of The Record on Monday, and some readers called the Standard to say that while they were sure the friends meant well, the cross was inappropriate.
“I know it was done with good intentions … but it should be brought to somebody’s attention that they’re two Jewish boys,” said Gerilyn Bader of Woodcliff Lake, whose two children Chad and Torie had been in BBYO with Lee. Chad had also graduated last month from Pascack Hills with Steven. “I’m sure the kids that put it up did it with their hearts and souls. But being that they are Jewish, it should have been a Jewish star.”
Tonight, Lee and Steven’s friends will gather again at the field in Montvale for a candlelight vigil at 8 p.m. and a final farewell.
For Lee’s father Eugene, his son’s friends offer him a window to what was. “I’d like to continue to see you,” he said, addressing the dozens wearing white armbands at Tuesday’s service. “You’re what keeps me young, just as Lee was what kept me young.”