‘Joyful, jubilant,’ and sorely missed

‘Joyful, jubilant,’ and sorely missed

A young woman's death shakes North Jersey communities

On April 29, 22-year-old Stephanie Prezant of Haworth lost her life in a rock-climbing accident in upstate New York. While the community, however, is mourning the loss of this beloved young woman – whose safety equipment failed while climbing the Trapps Cliff area of the Mohonk Preserve – they also are remembering the joy she brought to others.

“She was very funny, always trying to make people laugh,” said longtime friend Anna Kaminsky, from Englewood Cliffs. “I’m glad that at the funeral, people were able to capture that.”

Conducted by Rabbi Mordecai Shain, executive director of Lubavitch on the Palisades, the funeral was held on May 1 at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades.

Stephanie Prezant (right), with brother Jonathan and sister Jacqueline. “They were very important to her and she was very important to them,” said her friend David Myers. Courtesy Elana Prezant

“There were over 1,000 people there,” said Kaminsky, noting that she and Samantha Robins – another longtime friend of Stephanie’s – delivered eulogies, as did Stephanie’s boyfriend, Danny Gilbert, who reportedly held her hand from the time she fell and lapsed in and out of consciousness until the moment in the ambulance when she died.

Eulogies were also delivered by several friends from the University of Delaware – where Stephanie, a senior, was studying criminal justice and psychology. Some arrived on a special bus sent from the college.

Finally, mourners heard from Stephanie’s immediate family: her parents, Elana and Jeffrey; her brother, Jonathan; and her sister, Jacqueline. Stephanie is also survived by her grandparents, Teaneck residents Tania and Phillip Horn.

“It was heart-wrenching,” said Kaminsky. “Her parents were so strong going up there.”

Kaminsky, whose relationship with Stephanie began at the JCC on the Palisades preschool, said the girls’ families carpooled not only when the children were small but later, as well, when they attended the Solomon Schechter Day School (SSDS) of Bergen County. The Prezants moved from Englewood Cliffs to Haworth when Stephanie was in middle school.

“She loved to dance; it was a big passion of hers,” recalled Kaminsky. “She was joyful and jubilant, and she loved adventure and traveling. Even though we sometimes lost touch, I always knew we would come full circle and meet again. Now I feel that there’s a hole in my childhood.”

Shain said he has known the family for 18 years. “She was a member [of our synagogue] with her family,” he said. “As she got older, she became involved in children’s services on Shabbat, and helped run them with the rabbi. She also was very involved with the Teen Friendship Club. For four years, she came every Wednesday. It became like a family unit.”

Shain said he remembers Stephanie as “very determined.” In addition, “She was always patient and loving with children. She didn’t complain. And not only with children, but with adults, as well.”

“There are three things I noticed,” he said. In addition to her patience, he remembers her smile and her clear pride in being Jewish.

“Love, joy, and Jewish,” he said, describing the young lady mourned Tuesday in Tenafly.

Lubavitch on the Palisades recently received permission to add another eight classrooms as well as a multi-purpose room. One of the classrooms, Shain said, will be dedicated in Stephanie’s memory. “She loved children; they loved her,” he said. “We want her soul to connect.”

Stephanie was very much of product of local Jewish institutions. Not only did she attend the JCC and SSDS, but – a graduate of Northern Valley Demarest High School – she attended the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies as well.

In addition, said Robins, she “loved” Chabad’s Teen Friendship Club, which meets every week to do an outreach project.

“She brought me into it when we were in high school,” Robins said. “She so enjoyed reaching out to the elderly and at the special needs home. She was full of life, always dancing and singing, one of the most upbeat people ever, who you could always count on to lift you up, or give you a shoulder to cry on.”

Robins said her friend – just weeks from graduation – was hoping to take a year off after school ended and was considering going to law school afterwards. Stephanie, who spent 11 summers at Pinemere Camp in Stroudsburg, Pa., was also planning two trips this summer, one to Europe, the other to Israel.

Friend David Myers – who had been planning the upcoming summer trip with Stephanie for several years – said the canceled vacation is only part of the picture. He and Stephanie met some 18 years ago, in preschool, and have remained close friends over the years. Her loss will be deeply felt.

“I don’t keep up with a lot of people,” he said, “but Stephanie is a lot more social and outgoing.” In recent years, she made sure to see him every time she was home from school, even if only for dinner. “She kept me grounded,” he said.

A Teaneck resident and student at Columbia University, David noted that at the same time as he met Stephanie and Anna in preschool, “our moms met, too, and they have been friends ever since.” And since their mothers were friends, the families socialized on a regular basis.

The summer trip was to be a long-planned visit to Dublin, where Myers has family, and then a trip to Israel. “We were just texting about it,” he said, noting that Stephanie had wanted to make the trip for several years, but he was unable to go because of summer internships.

“I promised we’d go when we graduated,” he said.

Myers said he and Stephanie always talked about what they would do in the “real world.”

“She was always interested in criminal justice, maybe the FBI,” he said. “She didn’t know exactly.” They also discussed their families, and where they might want to live when they were older.

“It was never a question that we would remain friends,” he said, adding that the two had joked about having a joint law practice.

Her death, he said, “is a tragic situation. It’s not natural for someone so young. One thing about her was that she was the most honest person I knew, a straight-shooter who said what was on her mind. [She would say] this is unfair and tragic. She wasn’t into spinning things.”

Myers said that Stephanie’s siblings, Jonathan and Jacqueline, were a very important part of her life.

“She was Jonathan’s biggest fan,” he said, adding that when they got together, “Stephanie would always fill me in on Jackie and Jon,” usually before she would discuss anything else.

“She always began the conversation by talking about her brother and sister. They were very important to her and she was very important to them. [They’re’] going to feel her loss very keenly. In this case, it’s just as hard to lose a sister. Steph was always there for them, was their protector, a second mother to them. It’s hard to lose a child, but I think their loss really needs to be emphasized, too.”

The longtime friend said that he and Stephanie often talked about the future, “not just about money and jobs. I don’t have those conversations with most of my friends.”

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