The Beth El community was profoundly saddened by the October 26 death of our president, Jerry Sorkin, at the age of 51, following an incredibly courageous nine-year battle against stage 4 lung cancer.
Rabbi Greg Harris captured Jerry’s unique value to our shul: “Jerry’s leadership stemmed from his humble sense of lifting others up while achieving a goal. He always brought humor, vision, and focus. Jerry deeply understood the positive impact of building a vibrant synagogue community.”
At Jerry’s funeral, his three siblings delivered a joint eulogy. His oldest brother, Howard, recounted how he thought Jerry, who had been born just before Howard’s bar mitzvah, was their parents’ bar mitzvah gift to him. Jerry’s life was indeed a gift that kept on giving. He inspired us by the way he lived life and by the way he confronted the prospect of death.
Jerry possessed an extraordinary combination of attributes. He was smart – very smart. Jerry could think big. In meetings at Beth El, he would listen to lengthy discussions, distill their essence, and invariably come up with an elegant solution that was both creative and practical. An illustration is our recent effort to coordinate and rebrand social action activities at Beth El. As committee members grappled with the task, an endearing smile (familiar to many of us) drifted across Jerry’s face. He said, “How about ToBE – Tikkun Olam at Beth El, what we want the world to be?” And so, ToBE was launched.
Jerry also could think small and humorous. When he served as vice president for tikkun olam and communications, he made many contributions to the Scroll, drawing upon his love of statistics. Who but Jerry could have documented for posterity that Beth El had purchased 720 groggers for Purim, sold 5,000 bagels annually on Sunday morning, and charged $6 per month for tuition when the Beth El nursery school opened in 1956?
Although his intellect dazzled, Jerry was modest, his Yale and Harvard Law School pedigrees notwithstanding. Jerry was just one of us, whether at Jews and Brews or in the board room. Our past president, David Mills, recalls that he gave Jerry two hours’ notice before appointing him to lead a ”blue ribbon” sanctuary renovation committee. Jerry was to promise that all of the work – planning, designing, fundraising, contracts, and construction – would be completed in one year. Jerry did not flinch at the magnitude of the effort; he only hesitated about calling it a “blue ribbon” committee, thinking that label a bit much. We now are blessed to pray in the renovated sanctuary that reflects Jerry’s tireless commitment, skills, and, yes, aesthetic sense.
Jerry’s contributions to Beth El are legion. As vice president for tikkun olam and communications, he launched the revamping of the Beth El website, making it more user friendly and appealing to prospective members. As executive vice president, he was a full partner with David Mills in devising and implementing the values-driven and consensus-focused process that culminated in the elevation of Rabbi Harris to be head rabbi and the selection of Rabbi Fabián Werbin as associate rabbi. In his tragically abbreviated tenure as president, Jerry facilitated the smooth transition of Rabbis Harris and Werbin to their new roles. He also established the Atid 2 Committee to develop a long-term strategic plan to ensure and enhance Beth El’s future.
Jerry’s contributions to Beth El transcended the tangible. David affectionately described his relationship with Jerry: “He was my friend, confidant, and therapist during many months of parlor meetings, surveys, scary renovation delays, and inevitable differences of opinion among congregants.”
Jerry listened thoughtfully to others and made people feel that their ideas were appreciated, regardless of whether they ultimately were accepted. Jerry’s smile generated warmth. His delightful sense of humor brought levity to tense moments. His gentleness of spirit suffused a room.
Larisa Trainor, who as executive vice president will fill out Jerry’s term as president according to the Beth El bylaws, said, “Jerry was a wonderful co-worker, a friend, a tremendous leader, and a visionary for the shul and the Beth El community. He constantly challenged us with his thoughtful and strategic vision and made me and others around him better leaders. Jerry’s legacy can be seen all around Beth El, especially in the sanctuary. His passing leaves a huge void in Beth El and our larger community.”
Jerry’s reach extended far beyond Beth El. In his 20 years with the Corporate Executive Board, now CEB Global, the company grew to more than 60 times its original size. In a memo to CEB employees following Jerry’s death, Chairman and CEO Tom Monahan wrote, “All of us work in a place which Jerry helped think up, launch, run, save, or fix.”
Jerry’s response to being diagnosed with lung cancer in 2007 was to fight it both medically and communally. He became involved with Lungevity, a national organization dedicated to finding a cure for lung cancer, and became vice chair of its board. In 2008, Jerry founded Breathe Deep DC, an annual 5K walk on the national mall to raise funds and awareness. This year’s walk, occurring less than two weeks following Jerry’s death, drew 1,754 participants.
Jerry’s courage, indomitable spirit, and joie de vivre penetrated to our souls. He gave us strength. He made us reflect on the way we live our own lives with the intensity of introspection reserved for Yom Kippur. How can we optimize the short time given us on earth? How can we give back to our community? How will we confront our own mortality?
When a Jewish person passes away, we add the letters z”l after his or her name, standing for “may his/her memory be for a blessing.” In Jerry’s case, that is more than a wish; it is a certainty. May Jerry’s cherished wife, Lisa, and his beloved children, Emma and Claire, be comforted by that knowledge. As much as Jerry gave to the rest of us, his family was the center of his universe. May they be reassured that the Beth El community is here for them, now and always.
This article, penned by Larry Sidman, originally appeared in the December, 2016 issue of the Scroll.