This time of the year, with the long Saturday nights, is a good time to write my column. If Saturday night does not work, I write on Sunday morning. Before I write, I think of possible topics. This week, I was struggling to come up with something. Then I learned of Jan Fenster’s death, and it became clear to me. This week I was supposed to write about Jan Fenster.
Jan’s funeral was on Presidents’ Day. She was buried in New Montefiore Cemetery in West Babylon, not a short drive from Queens. When my wife Beth and I arrived, the line of cars was so long that it looked like it was going to stretch back to the front gate. There ended up being about 100 people at the gravesite. Jan never married and had only one sibling, who was there with his wife. It did not appear that any other relatives were present. That makes the number even more impressive.
The weather was extremely warm for mid-February. It was also sunny. How appropriate for Jan, whose personality exhibited warmth and sunshine. No matter what her situation was, she always exuded optimism. I also believe that the perfect weather was a reward for a life so engrossed in the needs of the Jewish community here in Queens and in Israel.
When people heard that I was going to write a column about Jan, many sent me stories and other information I could use to fill up many columns. Instead, I will write about my relationship with Jan.
Jan and I first met when I joined the board of the Queens Jewish Community Council around 35 to 40 years ago. Jan was already on the board. At that time, she was the head of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Teachers, which consisted of Orthodox teachers who taught in public schools. For years, schools were open on Jewish holidays such as Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. That was changed due to the efforts of organizations such as AOJT and the Jewish Teachers Association, both of which she was involved in.
Through the years, we may have not agreed on every issue. There was one time when there was a contested election in which she was on the opposing slate. Yet none of this affected our relationship.
The best indication that we worked closely together was when she was president of the Queens Jewish Community Council. By the time she was ready to leave the presidency after six years, I was the executive vice-president. I ended up succeeding her as president. That was a tall order in many ways. Jan was a people person. She enjoyed talking to everyone with a smile on her face. She participated in many organizations and the community board, and she enjoyed going to their events. Everyone knew Jan.
With some people, once they are no longer in charge, you never see them or hear from them again. Although Jan decided not to have a title next to her name once she was no longer president, she was still involved in QJCC. She would come to the QJCC dinners or the breakfasts, even when it became difficult for her to get around. She would come with a walker. Years earlier, she would take her mother to the QJCC events. Her mother had to use a walker.
When I was president, we would discuss various issues involving the organization. When necessary, she was an advocate for QJCC. A couple of years ago, she decided that she was ready to come back onto the board. Although we knew that she was sick, we reelected her for this year. How appropriate that at the time of her death she would be a board member of QJCC, since she spent so much time and effort helping the organization. What is disappointing is that she will not be around when the construction of the new QJCC office is completed. She had a crucial role in the organization’s purchasing the property and starting the project.
Jan was at my wedding and at my daughter Penina’s wedding, and she was looking forward to attending my daughter Yael Rebecca’s upcoming wedding. Within the last couple of years, Beth and Jan had begun communicating on WhatsApp and were in regular contact.
There is much to learn from Jan’s life. Many people say that they want to get involved in organizations or activities on behalf of the community but claim they don’t have the time or it wouldn’t make a difference. Jan showed that if you have the mindset to help the community, then nothing can stand in your way.
May Jan’s memory be a blessing for the community.