Shalom Life | September 13, 2014

How a Jewish Leader with 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

Gordon Zacks decided to make his bedroom a school in which he and those he loved would study together about how to live at the end of life

By: Rabbi Jack Riemer

Published: September 12th, 2014 in Health » World

How a Jewish Leader with 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

Photo Caption: The cover of “Redefining Moments: End of Life Stories for Better Living,” by Gordon B. Zack

Photo Credit: Beaufort Books.


What would you do if you found out that you had only three more months to live?

Gordon Zacks was a successful businessman, a leader of Jewish life, and a confidante and adviser to President George H.W. Bush. He knew that he had prostate cancer, but doctors advised him that it was very slow-growing and nothing to worry about. Then came the day when the doctors told him his cancer metastasized to his liver, and that he had only three months to live.

Zacks—who would die in February 2014—decided to make his bedroom a school in which he and those he loved would study together about how to live at the end of life. What a school it was, and what a faculty gathered at his bedside! The details are chronicled in Zacks’s posthumously published book, “Redefining Moments: End of Life Stories for Better Living.”

Natan Sharansky—the refusenik Zacks helped rescue from the former Soviet Union, and now head of the Jewish Agency for Israel—showed up at the door one day just to say “thank you,” but ended up staying longer to discuss the meaning of life. Leslie Wexler and Jay Schottenstein, both renowned figures in Jewish education, showed up to thank the man who had given them their start on careers in Jewish philanthropy. Perhaps the most important of all the visitors was Zacks’s 7-year-old granddaughter, who crossed the country just so that she could give her grandfather a hug and a kiss before it was too late. Zacks taught those who convened for this informal seminar that each person must find his passion—whatever it is—and follow it to the very end. Whoever does that will have done his part in making this world a better place.

One of Zacks’s daughters recalled that when she was in Israel during her gap year between high school and college, a teacher in the seminary she was attending quoted something from the Talmud that she thought was morally offensive. She called her father back in Columbus, Ohio, and told him about how much the teacher offended her. The next morning, she opened the door, and there was her father! He had flown all the way from Columbus to Jerusalem to be with her, and to help her resolve this moral issue. He took her to Rabbi David Hartman, the open-minded Jewish philosopher who was known for taking on Jewish tradition with both love and honesty, and they spent the whole day studying together. Hartman showed them that the offensive passage did exist in Jewish tradition, but that it had to be understood in its historical context, and that it needed to be matched against the many moral passages in the Talmud that teach the opposite.

Zacks’s daughter thanked her father during the “seminar” for what he did that day in Israel, and rightfully so. How many fathers can you think of who would fly halfway across the world, on a day’s notice, simply to help a daughter understand tradition as it should be understood? I imagine that there were probably lots of plaques on the wall of Zacks’s home that bore testimony to his generous donations to worthy causes over the years, but I must say that this gesture he performed for his daughter told was probably worth more than all of them put together.

At several points, Zacks—ever the organized executive—offered some sets of questions that he felt every person should ask himself as his end draws near. These questions, in my estimation, should be posted on the mirror of every hospice room. One set reads: “Do I still have an overarching purpose and a task to attend to—even now? Am I trying to complete the tasks I still have to do? Do I ask for help from others now that I realize that I can no longer do what I once could by myself? Have I conveyed my goals and entrusted my unfinished tasks to others who will take them up after I am gone? Have I come to terms with the disappointments in my life, and am I now focused on the doable, instead of dwelling on the things that I did wrong but can’t undo? And even if the end of my life is not close, do I still give the things that count the most priority in my daily life?”

There are more insights in this book that everyone should think about at the end of life—and beforehand. For instance, Zacks asks a question that most of us dread dealing with: What should I do if I reach the stage when I need to use a walker, a wheelchair, or even diapers?

The instinctive reaction most of us would have to such a question is: How can I live without my dignity? But Zacks gets past that question and says that what we think of as “dignity” may sometimes be vanity in disguise. He says that man doesn’t give dignity to man—God does. Therefore, a person should come to terms with who he is now and what he can and can’t do now, and must understand that dignity doesn’t depend on appearances, but rather on a commitment to his tasks and values, even when he can no longer live without the help of others.

You don’t have to be terminally ill to learn from this book or to think of organizing such a “seminar” for those you love, although impending mortality does concentrate the mind. You only need to have strong convictions and goals, the desire to teach them to your children, and the hope that they will carry them on when their turn to lead comes. If you have these convictions and goals, this is a valuable book to study—and then to emulate.

Reprinted from JNS.org

Study: All Ashkenazi Jews are Distant, Distant Cousins Study: All Ashkenazi Jews are Distant, Distant Cousins TrendingAn Israeli Startup Is Developing A Health-Conscious Inhaler for Medicinal Marijuana Patients An Israeli Startup Is Developing A Health-Conscious Inhaler for Medicinal Marijuana Patients TrendingIsraeli Company Looking to Mass Produce Ebola Drug Israeli Company Looking to Mass Produce Ebola Drug Trending
 

The Top Ten Female Jewish Entrepreneurs

September 12, 2014 | By Caitlin Marceau
The Top Ten Female Jewish Entrepreneurs

We look at those determined, charismatic women who have proven themselves through their business savvy and originality

Read More

Lena Dunham Poses as Grecian Statue For New York Times Magazine

September 12, 2014 | By Sara Torvik
Lena Dunham Poses as Grecian Statue For New York Times Magazine

The 'Girls' creator transforms herself into a statue for the culture issue of New York Times magazine.

Read More

James Franco to Bring Chuck Palahnuik's 'Rant' to the Big Screen

September 12, 2014 | By Sara Torvik
James Franco to Bring Chuck Palahnuik's 'Rant' to the Big Screen

Can Franco make 'Rant' as successful as 'Fight Club'?

Read More

Iron Dome Creator Developing Cyber Dome

September 12, 2014 | By Daniel Koren
Iron Dome Creator Developing Cyber Dome

Danny Gold is currently working on a system that will target and attack cyber hackers

Read More

How a Jewish Leader with 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

September 12, 2014 | By Rabbi Jack Riemer
How a Jewish Leader with 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

Gordon Zacks decided to make his bedroom a school in which he and those he loved would study together about how to live at the end of life

Read More

Israeli Family Attacked En Route to Western Wall

September 12, 2014 | By Noam (Dabul) Dvir
Israeli Family Attacked En Route to Western Wall

Ramat Gan family recovering after Arabs threw rocks and bricks at their car

Read More

Jewish Rapper Ari Lesser Says You're A Fool If You Support Hamas [VIDEO]

September 12, 2014 | By Daniel Koren
Jewish Rapper Ari Lesser Says You're A Fool If You Support Hamas [VIDEO]

Lesser recorded his new politically-charged song "Hamas" in partnership with Israeli advocacy group StandWithUs

Read More

Greece Introduces New Law Banning Holocaust Denial

September 12, 2014 | By Daniel Koren
Greece Introduces New Law Banning Holocaust Denial

Legislation is in response to rise of Golden Dawn neo-Nazi party; Jewish groups commend parliament for taking action

Read More

More Headlines