By David Bryfman
Do you have an email or two in your In-box that you’ve left unanswered? For whatever reason, you just never got around to responding to it?
I have one specific email to which I’ve owed a reply. And even if I were to finally write back, I’ll never get a response.
Shortly after I received this email, the author’s illness became more serious. And before long, I realized replying to an email relating to a future event seemed futile. And then, after a short but mighty bought with cancer, the email’s author died. On March 5, 2018, Naomi Friedman Rabkin left us, and with her, not just an unanswered email, but a lot of unfinished work.
Like so many have already done, I too could reflect on Naomi and the friendship that she and my wife, and later I enjoyed. But instead of focusing on just the personal, I wanted to take this opportunity, in commemorating the shloshim (the 30 day’s since Naomi’s passing) to also honor part of her professional legacy. As one will soon see, it’s pretty hard to separate Naomi the person from Naomi the Jewish communal professional. Because with Naomi, what you saw was pretty much what you got, and that’s why she was so loved by so many and so valued in the Jewish communal world.
I first met Naomi when I arrived in St. Louis almost 15 years ago. Then, along with her colleague, Maggi Gaines, Naomi introduced me to a new way of looking at Jewish belonging and education for Jewish teenagers. It might not seem new now, but back then, articulating Jewish social responsibility as a core way to understanding Jewish adolescent identity and behavior was not normative. Naomi was one of the first people to articulate a vision wherein the possibilities of engaging Jewish teens with social justice could be an entry point to Jewish life. Later on in her professional life these passions morphed into the arena of food sustainability and food justice, particularly in her role with the Leichtag Foundation. But at its core it was always the same clear message. Being Jewish was inextricably part of who Naomi was and a key to ensuring that the world we would leave for our children would be better than the one we currently inhabit.
Naomi and I, often with her husband Michael as well, found ourselves meeting in lobbies of various Jewish conferences around the country. At the last conference where we saw each other, we joked, as we often did, about a syndrome at these events: when people you’re speaking to are really looking over your shoulder to identify the next person of more value that they ought to be connecting with. With Naomi it was different. When you spoke to her, you knew that you were speaking to her and that in that moment no-one else mattered. The beauty of engaging in conversation with Naomi was in knowing that she was always genuinely interested in you, your work, and importantly ways in which we could always find connections and potential synergies.
And now back to that unanswered email…
Naomi attended December’s Jewish Futures Conference. We invited her to attend because we wanted to learn from people outside of New York about what a conference like this could look like in another community. Two days after attending the conference she shared a really fascinating idea for a conference to be held in San Diego. She concluded the email with:
“Of course, this is not even a 1/4 baked idea, but if you have initial thoughts would love to hear ‘em!
Thank you again for reaching out and including me and San Diego in your thinking on national replication. I think we have the infrastructure to make it happen and would love to continue the conversation.
Of course, it was also delightful to see you and share soft boiled eggs and avocado toast with your better half.”
For those of us who have been privileged to have thought, dreamed, and worked with Naomi, this email is illustrative of her professional life. Great ideas, always thinking big about impact, understanding that new ways of thinking are always needed, and an unbridled optimism and belief that anything was possible. Always mixed with a sense of humility – and always the personal.
When the tributes began to flow for Naomi, people captured the essence of her personality, her zest for life and the many personal encounters that they experienced. People felt such joy with her.
As this 30-day mourning period concludes, it’s incumbent upon us also to remember what she brought to the Jewish world and the legacy she leaves behind – so we may all continue her work. And may we be able to do so with just some of the traits – optimism, energy, humility and passion – that will always be honored as we recall the name Naomi Friedman Rabkin.
The Naomi Friedman Rabkin Memorial Fund has been set up at the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego to honor Naomi’s life and her passion for making a difference in the community and the world. The Fund will be advised by Naomi’s family and will provide support to organizations working to find a cure for inflammatory breast cancer, initiatives promoting more vibrant Jewish life in San Diego’s North Coastal community and to other programs in which Naomi was involved or would find meaningful.
If you would like to join us in contributing, you may do so here. Select Naomi Friedman Rabkin Memorial Fund under “Designation.”
Or through a check payable to Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego/memo Naomi Friedman Rabkin Memorial Fund and mailed to: Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego, 4950 Murphy Canyon Road, San Diego, CA 92123
David Bryfman is the chief innovation officer at The Jewish Education Project.