Philyss Seidenfeld doesn’t regard the anniversary of her four childrens’ deaths as a tragic day. "I call this their shamayim birthdays," she said, using the Hebrew term for heaven. "We will celebrate."
More than ’00 men and women gathered at Cong. Beth Abraham in Bergenfield Monday night to help her celebrate the lives of Ari, 15, Noah, 6, Adira, 5, and Natan 4, who died when their Teaneck home filled with smoke on March ”, ‘005.
J.R. Rosenblatt displays the quilt he won in a raffle for a group home in Israel. The quilt was created by Philyss Seidenfeld as part of a memorial for her children. PHOTO’00;by jerry szubin
Since then, friends and strangers from Bergen County and beyond have joined together to share tears and wonder how to deal with the loss. They found the answer by observing Seidenfeld’s own conduct.
In the months following the deaths of her children, Seidenfeld, a nurse and single mother of three, launched a weekly womens’ learning group out of her home that has since completed the Book of Job and is now undertaking the study of the Book of Proverbs. She marked the first yahrzeit with a day of worldwide prayer, study, and acts of kindness. Last year, she commemorated the anniversary with a children’s event which included creating quilt squares and discussing the importance of performing good deeds. For this year’s event, she took many of those quilt squares and created four quilts, one in memory of each child, and raffled them off to raise money for an Emunah group home in Israel for at-risk children. "I chose that particular home because when I visited it, I was moved to see how those children are so well adjusted in the face of adversity, just like my children were always smiling," she said.
Seidenfeld has raised $’,000 for the home thus far. She also asked participants in Monday night’s yahrzeit event to reflect on their behavior in the coming year and bring about change in themselves as a way of honoring the memory of her children.
Teachers of the four children spoke about them. They recalled that Ari insisted life was too short for anger, that Natan was a cute and funny boy whom everyone loved, and that Adira loved the dramatics station at school and enjoyed trying out the teachers’ lunch, even if it was supposed to be only for adults. They recalled Noah’s unique ability to make everyone feel he was their best friend. His favorite holiday was Purim.
Students from Ari’s class, which split up into different schools when their school, the Mesivta of North Jersey in Newark, closed, studied together in his memory, in recent months. They learned all of Shas (the Talmud), collectively. "Mesivta is no longer around but we still got together for Ari. Fifty of us split it up and did it," said Dov Stokar, 17, of Teaneck.
"I was very close with Ari. I’ve been in his class since third grade. It means a lot to us to commemorate him this way. If something would have happened to one of us, he would have done the same thing for us. I miss hanging around with him, going to the pool together, playing together on weekends."
Rabbi Michael Taubes, principal of the now defunct Mesivta, said, "We’re here tonight to reflect. But reflection must also be accompanied by action. Philyss was doing this since day one. She got people from around the world united in learning. That is the best way to memorialize someone."
Rochi Lerner, who leads the women’s study group at Seidenfeld’s home, called her an extraordinary woman. "Philyss never allows people to call this a tragedy. It’s a sad situation that brought about a lot of worldly good," Lerner said. "She sees this as an opportunity to grow closer to God. She has transcended a moment without hope into a moment of finding the spiritual."
Seidenfeld said that people often ask her if the holiday of Purim makes her sad because it was around this time that her children died. "It doesn’t make me sad. The joy of celebrating gives me comfort. Knowing how many people who have accepted mitzvot and learning in their memory gives me comfort," she said, adding that strangers and friends often tell her they are thinking about her and her children.
"What special children they were," she said. "I was privileged to be their mother."