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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2018 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved.


 

January 12, 2018  RSS feed
Front Page

Text: T T T

Community mourns Weiss family

By BOB FRYER Jewish Press


A portrait of the Weiss family taken at Congregation B’nai Israel in St. Petersburg for son Ari’s Bar Mitzvah in November 2014. (L-R) Dr. Leslie Weiss, Dr. Mitchell Weiss, daughter Hannah and Ari. A portrait of the Weiss family taken at Congregation B’nai Israel in St. Petersburg for son Ari’s Bar Mitzvah in November 2014. (L-R) Dr. Leslie Weiss, Dr. Mitchell Weiss, daughter Hannah and Ari. With gentle nudging by their mothers, Mitch Weiss and Leslie Levin met as medical school students, fell in love and got married. They raised two bright and talented children, Hannah and Ari, who achieved much at young ages and held promise for even greater things in the coming years. The Pinellas County family was close knit and all were smart, made strong and lasting friendships and were deeply ingrained in their Jewish faith and heritage.

The wonderful, vibrant nature of their characters, their smiles and laughter, their generous hearts, strong faith and deep bonds with family, friends and colleagues made their sudden deaths in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve both shocking and nearly unbearable for the many people touched by their lives.

A portion of the estimated crowd of 1,000 mourners at the 3 1/2-hour long memorial service Wednesday, Jan. 10, for the Weiss family. The crowd stood as Cantor Jonathan Schultz sang the El Maleh Rachamim - Prayer for the Soul of the Departed - four times for the four victims: Dr. Mitchell Weiss, Dr. Leslie Weiss, Hannah Weiss and Ari Weiss. The memorial service, livestreamed and archived at webeamtv.com./weissfuneral, was held in lieu of a funeral since the bodies had not yet been returned from the crash site.Live streaming viawebeamtv.com A portion of the estimated crowd of 1,000 mourners at the 3 1/2-hour long memorial service Wednesday, Jan. 10, for the Weiss family. The crowd stood as Cantor Jonathan Schultz sang the El Maleh Rachamim - Prayer for the Soul of the Departed - four times for the four victims: Dr. Mitchell Weiss, Dr. Leslie Weiss, Hannah Weiss and Ari Weiss. The memorial service, livestreamed and archived at webeamtv.com./weissfuneral, was held in lieu of a funeral since the bodies had not yet been returned from the crash site.
Live streaming viawebeamtv.com
The raw emotions and deep sorrow of those left behind have been expressed at grief counseling sessions, at a sunset gathering of friends at a local beach and during three memorial services – in the Philadelphia area where the family has roots, at Shorecrest Preparatory in St. Petersburg where Hannah and Ari attended, and at Congregation B’nai Israel in St. Petersburg which drew a crowd of 1,000 to the family’s spiritual home on Wednesday, Jan. 10.


Photos from Facebook, Camp Ramah Darom and Shorecrest Preparatory School. In the center, the Weiss Family is shown as they prepare to go whitewater rafting in Costa Rica. The photo was posted by a California woman who said she and her family were privileged to have met the Weiss family and shared the rafting adventure with them. At top right, Hannah shows her love for the environment as a kid and young adult. Bottom right, Leslie Weiss celebrates her recent shoe-themed 50th birthday. At bottom and left, Ari demonstrates his talents on stage at school and at Camp Ramah Darom. He left the message (top left) scrawled in Sharpie on his bunk bed at camp. Photos from Facebook, Camp Ramah Darom and Shorecrest Preparatory School. In the center, the Weiss Family is shown as they prepare to go whitewater rafting in Costa Rica. The photo was posted by a California woman who said she and her family were privileged to have met the Weiss family and shared the rafting adventure with them. At top right, Hannah shows her love for the environment as a kid and young adult. Bottom right, Leslie Weiss celebrates her recent shoe-themed 50th birthday. At bottom and left, Ari demonstrates his talents on stage at school and at Camp Ramah Darom. He left the message (top left) scrawled in Sharpie on his bunk bed at camp. A number at the Jan. 10 service were classmates of Hannah and Ari and about 100, from near and far, had known the siblings at Camp Ramah Darom, a Jewish summer camp in north Georgia.

So many wanted to attend that the service was livestreamed to Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater, where Mitch and Leslie practiced medicine; to Temple Ahavat Shalom in Palm Harbor, where Mitch’s mother Bibby is a member, and to Temple B’nai Israel in Clearwater.

More than 700 also took to Facebook, posting photos and words expressing their grief and sharing memories on a page titled “Loving the Weiss Family.”

Mitch and Leslie grew up in the Philadelphia area and in 2005 moved their young family to Belleair.

Hannah and Ari attended the Pinellas County Jewish Day School until it closed, then Shorecrest Prep. Ari was still a student there, known for his musical and acting talents as well as his sharp mind. Hannah was a sophomore in a joint undergraduate program between Columbia University and List College at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She was studying sustainable development and Jewish ethics – two of her passions.

Mitch, 52, Leslie, 50, Hannah, 19, and Ari, 16, were finishing up a weeklong vacation in Costa Rica on Dec. 31 when a small plane they were aboard crashed enroute from Punto Islita to the capital, San Jose. The fiery crash of the Nature Air Cessna 208 claimed the lives of all 12 aboard: four members of the Weiss family, five members of a Jewish family from Scarsdale, NY, a tour guide from California and two members of the crew.

News reports indicated that there were strong winds in the area at the time and that weather conditions and possible mechanical failure were all factors investigators would be looking into. It took more than a day for forensic officials to reach the crash and as of the day of the memorial service their remains had still not been sent home for burial.

“Words are most difficult today …. This is a time of unbelievable and penetrating shock because death came so quickly and so unexpectedly,” said Congregation B’nai Israel Rabbi Jacob Luski as he opened the memorial service. “It is a tragic time because all four of our beloved friends left us at such young and vibrant ages. There was so much undone, unlived and unsaid, yet words are our only vehicle to communicate with each other.”

Time and again the profound loss felt by those who knew and loved the family was expressed at the memorial service, sometimes with cracking voices and flowing tears, sometimes with sad smiles.

Through the many shared memories, profiles of the family and individual members of what one mourner called “Team Weiss” emerged:

The family

Many spoke of the strong bonds between Mitch and Leslie and between parents and children.

“The nature of the Weiss family has emerged today – they are amazing people and the world is a worse place without them. ... The whole family accepted you and made you feel welcome and comfortable and like you were their best friend,” said Michael Harrad, who had known Mitch since childhood.

A local friend, Audrey Schechter, told the Jewish Press that her family hosted the Weiss family for Thanksgiving dinner last year and that each family felt they were part of the other.

“I just want to make sure that those who did not know them know that they were, all four of them, the smartest, kindest, most wonderful caring, compassionate people. They were the definition of good and of what this world needs,” Schechter said.

Rabbi Gary Klein of Temple Ahavat Shalom and several others spoke of the love all four Weisses showed Mitch’s mom Bibby and of the comfort they gave to Mitch’s late father, Sid, as his health was failing.

Rabbi Klein last saw Mitch and Leslie in December at the Straz Center during intermission of a play, Love Never Dies. “The title of the play reminds us of an important truth – love never dies,” he said, “The love that any of you gave Mitch, Leslie, Hannah or Ari and the love that they gave you will not die. It will live on in you to inspire and to strengthen and, we pray, to comfort you.”

Another family friend wrote that Mitch and Leslie taught their children not to focus on the material things in life and to live by the example their parents set – of doing good deeds.

Mitch

Friends and family members spoke of Mitch’s unique sense of humor and how he sometimes told jokes that only he got. “He really did think he was funny,” said his sister-in-law Marci Hackel, while family friend Debbie Berner quipped, “No one could crack up Mitch better than Mitch.”

Whether they got his jokes or not, Mitch’s intent was not lost on one friend who said Mitch’s jokes could break tensions, and that Mitch was always quick to offer a comforting embrace.

“I’ll be the first one to admit, his jokes didn’t always land. They could be off or a little prickly, but to me Uncle Mitch could be the sweetest – a real softie,” said his niece, Jess Hackel.

As a child Mitch was fascinated with math and how things worked, often taking things apart – sometimes put back together by his sister Rhonda. That followed him into adulthood with an interest in inventing medical devices to improve patient care.

While growing up, he was a competitive gymnast, and after marrying Leslie he was a very proud and giving father who loved his wife and children deeply and was a good handyman around the house.

He was a smart, compassionate doctor who practiced vascular and interventional radiology. He took extra steps to check on patients, even when off duty. Audrey Schechter credited Mitch with twice saving the life of her father-in-law in surgery.

Mitch was also an avid skier and had an outgoing personality. Like his wife Leslie, he formed friendships in childhood and at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia that lasted a lifetime.

Leslie

Leslie was known for her generosity and infectious laughter and her sister Marci Hackel described her as “super smart, always inquisitive, and above all loved life in a big way.”

She was among the first invited to join an honors program at Penn State University.

A pediatrician and hospitalist, “Leslie loved kids and babies and her patients and parents loved her back,” her sister said. Leslie would tell patients her name was Dr. Weiss and it rhymed with nice, “so you can call me Dr. Nice.”

“Being Jewish was a key part of who my sister was,” Hackel said.

Leslie was active at her synagogue in Philadelphia and continued that involvement, reading Torah and serving on committees at Congregation B’nai Israel including one searching for a new spiritual leader to replace retiring Rabbi Luski. As the rabbinic search committee wrote to congregants after her death, they continued their Skype interviews, asking Leslie’s question: “What would you do for a congregation suffering a loss?”

Among things Leslie enjoyed were Purim parties, watching Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on TV, reading and talking about books, buying shoes and shopping for gifts for others. She was generous with contributions to Camp Ramah, Israel Bonds and Planned Parenthood.

Mitch’s sister Debbie Picker praised Leslie for caring for Mitch’s parents not like a daughter-in-law, but like a true daughter. Niece Jess Hackel recalled a time when she took her Aunt Leslie to check out a venue for a planned party and the place had karaoke. She said she will always remember how her aunt took the mic and sang “Fat Bottom Girls” by Queen.

Nephew Greg Picker said his Aunt Leslie “loved to laugh more than anyone I know.”

Dr. Lori Berkowitz, a friend of Leslie’s from medical school days, spoke about their longtime friendship. “Some things that Leslie taught me: choose to see the best in people … buy expensive shoes … join a temple … choose your spouse wisely, love unconditionally.”

Hannah

Hannah was known for her support of environmental causes, sustainability, social justice, her passion for Judaism and her sharing nature.

“She was my closest and oldest friend,” said Peninah Benjamin. They shared times at each other’s homes and at Jewish Day School and Shorecrest. Fighting back tears in a halting voice, she told mourners, “We were supposed to save the world together, but my world will never be the same.”

Hannah took on a composting project, was a vegan and in college she was studying sustainable development and Jewish ethics – both right in line with her passions. She was a go-getter from a young age.

One aunt, Rhonda Weiss, called Hannah her buddy and sweetheart. “We planted her first flower garden together. She loved digging in the dirt, watching the flowers grow,” she said. “We both loved animals, gardening, music, kindness and our brothers.” Multiple pictures on Facebook show the siblings hugging each other lovingly.

Through high school and college, Hannah was active in USY (United Synagogue Youth). She was president of her synagogue USY chapter and went on to leadership roles on the regional and international boards. At Camp Ramah Darom she was the one who loved to walk the goats and milk them, and last summer she worked on a kibbutz in Israel where she again tended to the goats and weeded vegetable beds.

Steven Resnick, a youth director at a synagogue in Georgia who knew Hannah through USY, posted on Facebook a message Hannah wrote in 2014: “Bring out the good in your friends. If you see something that reminds you of them, let them know. … if they look upset, see if they need help. Always offer your assistance. Offer to carry stuff, host things, buy whatever needs to be bought, come early to set up, stay late to cleanup. You’re only a memory to some people. Try your best to be a good one.”

Ari

He was only 16 yet already friends and family affectionately called him a “rock star” for his musical and acting talents, the deep friendships he formed, and his outgoing nature.

He acted in plays at Shorecrest and other venues and his guitar and vocal skills made him a favorite as he fronted a band at Camp Ramah Darom and performed at school. He was beginning to write and play his own songs and one of them, “Only Girl,” – a haunting love story – is not only on the memorial Facebook page, but also has more than 7,000 listens since Ari uploaded the song to SoundCloud two months ago.

Ari was tall, handsome, funny and “had the greatest smile that spread all the way up to his eyebrows,” his aunt Marci said. “He was definitely the smartest one. Even in a family of smarties, Leslie and Mitch agreed he was off-the-charts smart.”

His cousin Jess said he “was at the center of everything” and made people feel special. Friend Benjamin Berner spoke of Ari’s “astounding stage presence.” He and others, from Camp Ramah and locally, emphasized his strong emphasis on maintaining friendships – not superficial ones that teens often have, but ones with depth.

Ethan Pine, a friend from Camp Ramah, said he knew from camp experiences that Ari had a fear of heights, but he got texts from him on Dec. 27, telling about rappelling down a waterfall in Costa Rica. “He had conquered his fear … and I was very proud of him,” Ethan said.

David Paskin, a staff member at Camp Ramah, remembered seeing Ari sobbing on the last day of camp this past summer as he said goodbye to friends. “As an adult, the tears shed at the end of a camp session often seem excessive. After all, we’ll be back here before too long and in between we have multiple ways to stay connected. But his tears were real - he was genuinely mourning the end of a sacred time in his life. If only I had known the value and importance of those tears. If only I had known the depth of mourning that was to come, then I would have shared those tears with him instead of shedding them now – alone,” Paskin wrote.

Jeffery Minkowitz, director of Camp Ramah, said the camp staff tries to wipe out graffiti left by campers, but a message Ari wrote in Sharpie on his bunk bed passed under the radar. It spoke to Ari’s character:

“Make memories. More importantly, make connections,” Ari wrote. “Take every moment and be active and present in all things you do. Be nice to everyone, for we are all part of a beautiful community. Talk to someone new every day. Have a positive attitude, even if you hate the activity. Make Memories. Make Memories that count. By the end all you will have are memories.”

Survivors include: Bibby Weiss, mother of Dr. Mitchell Weiss and grandmother of Hannah and Ari Weiss; Ed and Sandy Levin, parents of Dr. Leslie Weiss and grandparents of Hannah and Ari Weiss; Dr. Rhonda Weiss and Debbie (Michael) Picker, sisters of Dr. Mitchell Weiss, and Marci (Bob) Hackel, sister of Dr. Leslie Weiss.

Memorial donation information

The Weiss family’s impact surpassed local boundaries. Several organizations have opened scholarship funds in their memory.

Congregation B’nai Israel Weiss Family Memorial Fund

The Weiss family – Dr. Mitchell, Dr. Leslie, Hannah and Ari – were long-time members of Congregation B’nai Israel. The Weiss and Levin families have given their blessings to the creation of this memorial to fund a hands-on play and environmental learning area to continue their cherished work of sustainability, child health and social justice. www.cbistpete.org.

Camp Ramah Darom Weiss Family Scholarship Fund

A Conservative summer camp in Clayton, GA, Camp Ramah Darom established a fund in memory of the Weiss family. Hannah and Ari Weiss attended Camp Ramah Darom for 10 years. Leslie Weiss and her sisters also attended Ramah camps as children. The scholarship fund was created at the request of relatives of the Weiss family. It will be used “to enable other campers to experience the magic of Ramah,” the camp website said. www.ramahdarom.org/donate/

United Synagogue Youth Designate Scholarship Fund

Hannah was a past USY International SATO (social action/tikkun olam) Vice President and Ari was currently serving as his USY Chapter president. Hannah was also a USY intern in the Metropolitan New York Region. www.uscj.org/donate or call Michelle Rich at (212) 533-7800.

Jewish Theological Seminary

Hannah was a Jewish Theological Seminary List College sophomore in the Joint Program with Columbia University. “She was a wonderful student, great friend, strong leader, and a beloved member of our community. Above all, she was deeply passionate about the environment. Hannah worked tirelessly to secure composting and other initiatives at JTS and inspired us all to intensify our individual efforts to protect our planet,” JTS wrote on its website www.jtsa.edu/give or (212) 678-8870.

Shorecrest Preparatory School

Ari was a sophomore at Shorecrest Preparatory School and was active in singing and acting in productions at the school. His most recent performance was as the character of Jim in Lincoln Park Zoo in August. Hannah was a Shorecrest alumnus who participated in extracurricular activities such as Relay for Life and Shorecrest Upper School’s Global Scholars Initiative. www.shorecrest.myschoolapp.com and click “Support Shorecrest.”


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