The plane crash in Costa Rica on New Year’s Eve that took the lives of 12 people, including 10 Americans shook me to my core.
While I didn’t know anyone personally on the flight, I do know many people who knew and loved the two American families, the Weiss and Steinberg families, that were killed in the crash. Two years before I did, Leslie Levin Weiss graduated from Abington High School in suburban Philadelphia. Growing up, Leslie was active in her synagogue where she taught friends of mine how to chant Torah. I learned that Leslie, who was a physician, was a mentor to one of my high school friends as she did her medical residency in Philadelphia. Leslie and her husband Mitchell were the parents of two children, Ari and Hannah, who attended Ramah Darom, a Jewish summer camp in Georgia where they developed strong relationships with many kids in our South Florida community.
The Steinberg family lived in Scarsdale in Westchester County, NY. After we got married, Cheryl and I lived in White Plains, right next to Scarsdale. My first congregation was in White Plains not far from the Steinbergs’ congregation, Westchester Reform Temple. The Steinbergs were very involved in the Westchester Jewish community. Bruce and Irene Steinberg had three children, Zachary, William and Matthew. Zachary was a classmate and friend of our own Emily Franco at Johns Hopkins. He was supposed to have left for Israel on Birthright this week – just like some of our own kids here at Ramat Shalom.
The connections that I and so many others that I know have to the Weiss and Steinberg families have reminded me that these two families were just like so many of our own families. They were leading successful lives. They were connected to their Judaism. They were celebrating the accomplishments of their children. And, like so many of us, they were taking a well-deserved family vacation.
Cheryl, the kids and I spent New Year’s in the Bahamas. We traveled to the Bahamas on a ferry and spent a few beautiful days together. While there, I learned about the crash in Costa Rica and began to discover the connections that linked me to the Weiss and Steinberg families. But, it wasn’t until I boarded the small sea plane that took us from the Bahamas back to Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday evening that the power of their tragic deaths hit me.
As 10 of us filled the small plane and the pilot went over safety information, he informed us that we were flying in a Cessna 208B Grand Caravan. Hearing this, I shuddered. I’d read so much about the crash in Costa Rica and knew that this was the same type plane that the Weiss and Steinberg families were flying. I always say a prayer when I take off on a plane. But, on Tuesday evening’s flight, I prayed the entire flight for the safety of all of us on board. I felt a tremendous sense of relief when we landed in Fort Lauderdale. But, as the wheels touched down on the runway, I knew that my prayers weren’t what made us arrive home safely. As I walked off the plane, I realized that there was just one thing that separated me and my family from the Weiss and Steinberg families. That one thing is what Judaism calls mazal.
Yes, we often shout mazal tov at joyous occasions. It’s how we say congratulations at simchas like b’nai mitzvah and weddings. But, mazal tov doesn’t really mean congratulations. Literally, it means “good stars.” In Hebrew mazalot are the stars that make up the constellations. In ancient Judaism (and for many still today), the constellations had the power to determine our luck in life. While contemporary Judaism does not embrace this belief, mazal tov is not just the Jewish way to congratulate people, it remains a way for us to express our deep desire that everything goes okay for those worthy of being congratulated. On a deeper level mazal tov reminds us that, while a lot of our good fortune is brought about by our hard work and dedication, “good stars” or luck play a big role in our lives. Each of us knows too well that bad things happen to good people because of circumstance totally beyond our control. We hope and pray that good luck surrounds us all as we go through life, but, as we all learn, there are times when we’re not lucky. The mazal that we need and desire is not always there – not because we did something wrong or deserve to be punished, but because of circumstances totally beyond our control that can wreak havoc on our lives.
Mazal allowed our plane to land safely at Fort Lauderdale airport on Tuesday evening. My family and I were lucky. We had a beautiful vacation and returned home to resume our lives in South Florida. Tragically, the Weiss and Steinberg families did not return home safely. Their deaths won’t stop me from praying when I take my next flight or keep me from believing that wonderful and beautiful things happen in this world every single day. But, their deaths have reminded me that every single morning we must hope that mazal tov surrounds us and when it does, when we make it home safely at the end of the day, we must give thanks that today, we were lucky.
May the memories of the Weiss and Steinberg families and the other individuals who lost their lives with them only serve as a blessing. And may we take the time every single day to count our own blessings and appreciate how lucky we are to have this time, to have our blessings and have our lives.