When Asher Strobel of Englewood died suddenly in January 2011 at the age of 21, his friends went from shock to sorrow to the need, somehow, to honor his memory. Now, six years later, they continue to run the basketball tournament created as a tribute to their friend.
“I knew him since first grade, we grew up together,” said Ari Sarna, who grew up in Englewood and lived two houses away from Asher. His friend’s death was devastating not only to him but to all who knew him, he said.
“When someone passes, people always seem to say that he was a nice guy and the last person this should have happened to, but in Asher’s case, it was the truth,” Mr. Sarna continued. “He was so pure and good and nice and funny, warmhearted and well-intentioned. There wasn’t a mean bone in his body. He was also selfless and extremely considerate. He would walk into a room and people would gravitate towards him. He was inquisitive. He would engage people and genuinely care about what they said.”
“His passion and zest for life made him unique and affected all of those around him,” Mr. Sarna’s sister, Danielle Zaria Praport, added in an email. “He was funny, intelligent, charming, and very social — always able to lighten the mood with a funny joke or even just through his presence.”
His death was sudden, she said. Asher, who studied at the Moriah School, the Frisch School, and Binghamton University, died during a ski trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, “from a heart condition which neither Asher nor his family knew about.” Chabad of Wyoming was very helpful both to Asher’s travel companions and to his family, Mr. Sarna added. That is why the proceeds from the first year’s tournament were donated to that group.
Today, the tournament, scheduled for July 31, has grown from 36 men playing three-on-three basketball to many more men’s — and women’s — teams. There will also be a 5K run. Mr. Sarna said that he is both pleased and surprised by the increased number of participants and the large sum of money raised; through entry fees and donations it has been averaging about $13,000 each year. So far, the tournaments have raised about $60,000. This year, with the run added, the organizers hope to bring in even more.
Mr. Sarna said he is proud of his friends “and everyone involved who helps and volunteers.” Not only do parents offer their homes, donate money, and make food, “but even the little kids help,” he said. “I can’t express how touched I am personally that the whole community gets involved with such love and passion.”
He noted also that “if Asher were here, he would not only participate but be in it to win it. He was very competitive.” In addition, “this is a very social event, and Asher also loved just hanging out, barbecuing, and messing around.”
The tournament, and the events surrounding it, create an “amazingly fun day,” Asher’s mother, Diane Strobel, said. “People come for the enjoyment, not from a sense of obligation.” And the 5K run, organized by Isaac and Benjy Strulowitz, will give more people a chance to participate, she added.
The Strobels have established two programs at East Hill Synagogue in Asher’s memory. Proceeds from the tournament will benefit the Asher Strobel Leadership Program.
“My two older kids wanted to do something in his memory, but I said it wouldn’t be easy,” Ms. Strobel said. “After all, he just passed away — he had no disease,” and therefore no existing charity to link to. Asher had three siblings: Joshua, 30; Aryeh, 23; and Joey, 15; Joshua is married, and he and his wife, Sarah, have a daughter, Lily. Not knowing how to honor her son, “I spoke to Rabbi Reichman and [his wife] Chana,” Ms. Strobel said. “They saved us. The community saved us.” Rabbi Reichman told her to wait as long as it might take. Eventually, he said, the right idea would come to her.
The Strobels’ involvement in East Hill Synagogue is deep and longstanding, as is their continued connection to Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah. Dr. Ronald Strobel, Asher’s father, was a founder of East Hill, a past president, and a continued supporter. Asher’s brother Joshua was the first gabbai. Ronald Strobel also ensured, through a system of reciprocal membership, that the two synagogues, East Hill and Ahavath Torah, would remain close. The rabbis at both shuls, Rabbi Zev Reichman and Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, each devoted a Shabbat to speaking about Asher’s positive attributes, his mother said.
She recalled that some four years ago, then East Hill president Gabriel Bousbib asked if he and Rabbi Reichman could come to the Strobels’ house. The Strobels knew that Rabbi Reichman was deeply concerned about today’s Jewish high school students. “He wants to keep people in the fold, to ensure that they will remain Jewish and know about their heritage,” she said. “We knew that was his thing, he was very concerned about the youth in town. He wanted to come up with a leadership program.”
The four jointly decided to launch the Asher Strobel Leadership Program, which would be based at East Hill Synagogue and open to all Jewish teenagers in the Englewood community. A congregant who was born in a DP camp and wanted to ensure that the program would include a trip to Poland would provide seed money. To date, some 67 teens have participated in the program and the feedback has been extremely positive. The course includes 10 classes, ranging from public speaking to first-aid training to public advocacy, and includes a five-day trip to Poland.
“Asher was Jewish to the bone,” said his mother, pointing out that he once said he would be either a great businessman or a rabbi in Ranana. “The two worlds didn’t collide for him. We thought it would be appropriate to have a leadership program in his name.” He was also, she said, a “pied piper. Kids loved him.” So it was also appropriate to present an award to an outstanding youth group leader in Asher’s name every year.
Diane Strobel participates in the Poland trip each year. “Kids say it totally changes their life,” she said. “This program is a must. Kids must know who they are and where they came from.” The trip is special; it includes nightly sessions where participants can discuss the day’s events. “We have a little game going to get the kids to speak,” she said. “For example, on one trip participants were asked, ‘What’s the worst thing that happened to you as a Jew?’ Almost all of them said ‘nothing,’ though one boy said, ‘my bris.’” For this reason, she said, it’s good to have group leaders from Europe “who know what the world is about, what our kids never encountered.”
“On the last trip,” with a group leader from South Africa, “we got candles and everyone held one. We sat down and she said to discuss what this trip has done for you. We want the kids to feel comfortable and not intimidated by each other. They started in grade school with each other; there’s a synergy, even if they go to different high schools.” The very diverse group, she said, included 10 girls and 10 boys, one with payot (side locks), one socially awkward, and one from public school.
“One girl said it was the most menschlich group she ever met. She was amazed. She thought we wouldn’t be talking to each other. But now she’s proud to say, ‘You’re all my friends.’ One boy cried. He has a disabled sister and knew — when he saw the glassed-in area in Auschwitz containing discarded wheelchairs and crutches — that ‘my sister wouldn’t have made it.’”
The feeling of unity was what Asher would have wanted for the group, his mother said, adding that she cried when someone rose to acknowledge her and her family in the candlelit room.
“Asher was comfortable in his own skin, and he wanted others to be just as happy as he was,” she said. “He had so many best friends. He was perfect for the internet age. He utilized it to the maximum for socialization, to meet people. He always made friends.” So many, in fact, that more than 1,000 people attended his funeral. “Asher had such an impact,” she added, and many people have approached her to share their positive memories of her son.
Through those memories, and through the thriving programs now bearing his name, his legacy surely will live on.