TVT opens its door to the 2016-7 term and seniors climb the stairs for their final year. It is a year filled with much excitement and celebration while feeling a profound loss for one particular stolen youth. The shadow of their beloved classmate, Emily Neufeld z’l will follow the students everywhere.
As per tradition, a group of juniors gathered at the school a day after the Class of 2016 graduated. The 34 incoming seniors were on their way to LAX for the school trip that featured visiting Poland and then Israel. Emily Neufeld was one of those students, nervous and eager to make the trip that students before her had raved about. She said goodbye to her parents and walked away to join her closest friends for a long flight to Warsaw. Within three weeks this outgoing 17-year-old was dead.
Besides exploring the past, present and future of the Jewish people, the purpose of TVT’s Poland/Israel trip is to unite the students before they begin their senior year. Through three sweaty weeks of tears shed in concentration camps, long bus rides and endless nights of hushed voices in foreign hotels, the trip produces a strong sense of kinship.
After a week in Poland, the group flew to Israel. From the airport, they drove directly to The Western Wall, the only remaining piece of the Second Temple, and spent the day in Jerusalem. Throughout the day Emily’s back had been bothering her, but by nightfall, Emily’s pain had become too much to bear, and she was checked into a hospital. Doctors soon learned that Emily was suffering from a very aggressive case of lymphoma.
On June 11, Emily informed friends on the trip of the severity of her condition. What followed was predictable: the students joined together in tears for a long night of talking. After a moment of togetherness, the group was forced to re-enter reality — the trip had to continue. Kimberlee Allen, a close friend of Emily’s, remarked, “Every place we went we always thought of her.” Whether rafting through the Jordan River, touring Haifa or hiking Mount Masada, Emily’s friends always found a moment to stop reflect, and pray for their classmate.
When she was diagnosed, Emily’s family members scrambled to support their daughter. Adam and Izzi Neufeld flew across the globe to be by her side and attend meetings that no parents should ever have to imagine. They discussed the life of their daughter with a foreign doctor in a foreign land. Ally was able to fly to Israel to see her sister, thanks to a generous community member and the dedication of US Member of Congress, Mimi Walters, who helped Ally get an expedited passport. Izzi Neufeld said she never saw her daughter give up the fight, how doctors are still writing to tell the family that they never met anyone who fought as hard as she did.
Though Emily was new at TVT, she still attacked the trip with unrivaled enthusiasm. Shalom Shalev, TVT’s head of security and long-time standard-bearer of the Poland/Israel trip, said that Emily was “dedicated to getting to Israel. She knew she had to make that journey.” The day the group landed in Israel, Shalom watched as Emily and her friends spent time at the Kotel (The Western Wall). Shalom remarked that Emily constantly unified her peers and brought the group to new heights. At one point on the trip, Shalom said of Emily’s personality, “I felt like her neshama (soul) was talking directly to me.” Her unceasing positivity was envied by many on her trip.
Emily was a bright and vivacious girl everywhere she went. She mastered two sports, both varsity volleyball and soccer. Her teammates always had positive things to say about her, remembering her confident smile and playful aggression on the field. Despite her academic and athletic prowess, she was still a 17-year-old girl. Emily and her friends watched movies and went out late together, playing football with boys in the cool autumn air.
High school allows for a world of experiences, but it’s painful to think that Emily will never buy lottery tickets on her 18th birthday. She will never order a round of drinks for her friends when she turns twenty-one. Never will she call her mom excitedly to detail her first college interview. Never will she see the man of her dreams get down on one knee. Emily’s life plan was never set in stone. Despite her talents, Emily didn’t have a final plan set on what she wanted to do with her life. She often remarked to friends that she wanted a job working to keep people healthy.
Upon hearing the news, TVT’s staff began to fall into action. Avi Chelouche, head of Jewish life, Jill Quigley, high school principal, and Jeff Davis, TVT’s head of school, flew to Israel to talk with Emily’s family and classmates. Teachers sent out emails with information for Shiva, the Jewish mourning practice, and Jewish life administrators offered to meet with TVT’s stricken students to capture the short life of their friend.
A Facebook group was set up for members of the community to stay updated on Emily’s progress. The group now has over 1000 members, including friends, family and members of the Orange County Jewish community and many people who had heard about Emily’s short but courageous battle. A close friend of Emily’s, Gabrielle Mouritzen, described the scene of a new post: “everyone would just stop and hope for good news[…]”. Now it is a site for those wanting to keep in touch, to share words and mitzvot (good deeds) done to honor Emily’s memory.
The most excruciating part of Emily’s story was how quickly it all happened. Right as news of Emily’s lymphoma began to spread, the horrific announcement of her death briefly followed. On June 26, Emily’s battle ended. It was over as soon as it began.
Perhaps it’s better that way, without an extended battle, with no time to hope for the impossible. Often, those in mourning question what kind of G-d would put them through such hardship. Only harsh reflection can allow a soul to heal. There is a Jewish proverb often quoted in response to mourners: “G-d is closest to those with broken hearts.”
It is the human within all of us that longs to bring this girl back. When hearing the news of her death, friends wish they could undo whatever horrible mistake had caused this passing. We can’t imagine the pain her family feels, because the emotions are too strong. Instead we must allow the pain to run wild through each of us, consuming our thoughts as we imagine a life without our friend. We must remind ourselves that this pain is pulsing through the blood of each member of our community. That this is what binds us.
Emily will never know, but in the wake of her death, she has brought her entire community together. Emily, in life and in death, had the ability to bring out the strength in others. One of her closest friends, Claire Cohen, described Emily as a girl who, “made you feel like you mattered by expressing a true interest in anything you had to say.”
Emily’s funeral was held on Thursday, June 30. Per the family’s request, guests wore pink and bright colors. Temple Beth El was filled with more than 700 people paying their respects to Emily. Even alumni of TVT and parents who never had a chance to meet Emily showed up to support their community. In lieu of flowers, Emily’s family wished for donations to be sent to: The Shaare Zedek Medical Center, the Jerusalem Hospital where Emily received care and treatment, Temple Beth El of South Orange County, the Temple of the Neufeld’s and an important part of their world, TVT, Emily’s high school and home away from home, and Alexander Muss high School in Israel, TVT’s partner in the Poland/Israel trip and a great source of strength for the Neufelds.
Please visit www.weloveemily.net to find more ways to support the Neufelds on this journey.
Emily’s classmates will feel her shadow and hear her laughter at every turn. The volleyball and basketball teams will hear her advice and cheers from the stands. Emily Neufeld’s spirit and soul will walk the TVT halls, her memory a blessing and name never forgotten