Simcha Esther: A legacy of joy
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Simcha Esther: A legacy of joy

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Shari Gershan

In every minute of our life we get to choose – to choose life or to choose death,” said Shari Gershan to an unseen audience in a film chronicling her final days. “When we choose anger and resentment, we’re choosing death; when we choose love and forgiveness, we’re choosing life.”

“I’m choosing life,” said Shari, Simcha Esther bas Chaya Pesha, who died on Yom Kippur at the age of 43.

According to her husband, Yoni, the Passaic woman – mother of four children ranging in age from 4 to 12 – lived her life with contagious enthusiasm.

“Shari brought her special spark and joie de vivre to being a mom, wife, member of the community, and to her projects. She was always herself,” he said.

Even after she was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in April 2008, she maintained that spirit, sharing her optimism with thousands of well-wishers around the world.

Throughout her illness, Shari kept an online journal hosted by CaringBridge.org, which offers free Websites for people dealing with cancer treatment.

“She was a writer,” said Yoni Gershan. “It was a natural thing for her to start a blog.”

The site ultimately drew thousands of visitors and expressions of concern. Chronicling her treatment, hopes, and expressions of gratitude, the journal was of great importance throughout Shari’s illness, said Gershan, adding that his wife fully “became” her Hebrew name, Simcha, after visiting a noted rabbi who told her that simcha, or joy, was what she needed to heal.

“Please read my story and join me on this amazing, awesome, and holy journey,” wrote Shari in her journal. That journey, an 18-month medical and spiritual adventure, is documented in a new film, “Time of My Life,” tracing what Shari called her “very personal story of hope, healing, and spirit in the face of life-threatening illness.”

Filmed by independent filmmaker Tsvika Tal, the movie will premiere on Oct. 22 at Symphony Space in New York City.

The title of the movie was carefully chosen, said Yoni.

“On one hand, it means now is the time; life is short, use every moment. But it also means to always live life as a joyous celebration, despite the challenges.”

The connection to others achieved through her journal and in the making of the documentary gave Shari immense satisfaction.

“I feel so lucky that I got to be connected to people before I’m gone,” she says in the film. “I think a lot of people never get to experience that, and it’s really sad.”

Gershan, a self-described computer geek, said that among other achievements, Shari co-founded and directed a Montessori-based yeshiva, “affecting hundreds of schools worldwide.”

“She had the ability to revolutionize,” he said, “to change and transform.” She also believed strongly in the importance of individuality and in bringing together different kinds of people.

While not raised in a religious home, Shari went to Israel to immerse herself in Jewish teachings and “stepped boldly into religious Judaism” a year before their marriage, said Gershan.

“For Shari, life was about transformation,” he said. “She got to the point where she said, ‘This is for me.’ [Faith] became very important, framing the context for her and empowering her tremendously.”

According to her husband, Shari – a gourmet cook who loved themed parties and had a lot of energy – “used all of that when she came into religious Judaism to raise it to a higher level. She truly sanctified Shabbat and yom tov with her cooking.”

He explained that Shari saw her illness as a “big challenge,” which demanded a big response.

“She said, ‘How do I deepen my emunah [faith] to grasp greater insights about life and God?’ She used the challenge to go deeper into her faith.”

Gershan called the making of the documentary a “life-giving project, a tremendous help in healing.” Not only did involvement in the project benefit Shari, he said, “but it inspired the thousands of people following her.”

He explained that while Shari shared her Website initially with only her friends, word spread quickly.

“It spread virally,” he said, noting that feedback on the journal was received from Jews and non-Jews all over the world. The trailer of Shari’s film, now on YouTube, has received hundreds of hits, sending people back to the blog.

“She didn’t do this just to write a blog or make a film,” said Gershan. “It was a form of self-expression, sharing herself in an authentic way. That’s what attracted people.”

In her blog, Shari urged people to undertake mitzvot and to reach out to others with love. Gershan said many readers clearly took that to heart.

“Some people who signed the guest book took on the doing of mitzvot in a serious way,” he said, adding that “at least 10,000 pounds of challah were baked for her, that we know about. People are still calling and saying they want to take on a mitzvah that she loved. They have a tremendous desire to improve themselves.”

Gershan himself has created a hachnasat kallah fund to provide weddings for poor and orphaned brides in Israel. (Contributions in Shari’s memory may be sent to F.J.C.-A Foundation of Donor Advised Funds, 86 Elmwood Ave., Passaic, NJ 07055.)

In addition, said Gershan, the entire Passaic religious community rallied to help the family, providing food, arranging carpools, and running errands.

“It was more chesed than I could possibly absorb,” he said, adding that, in his experience, “such outpourings of love and support are common in this and other Torah communities all over the world. My speech [at the funeral] was a long list of thank-yous to these incredible people.”

Shari’s legacy, he said, will be to show people “how to celebrate life in good times and in bad times.”

“Be yourself,” he said. “There’s a unique value in every individual. Shari was always herself. It amazes me how much people see her as a hero. She didn’t think of herself that way.”

For tickets for Shari Gershan’s documentary “Time of My Life,” call Symphony Space at (212) 864-5400 or visit www.symphonyspace.org. A portion of the proceeds will go to charities the Gershan family supports. For more information, visit www.timeofmylife.us.

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