The famous priestly blessing comes from this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Naso. It is a familiar text to us all—may God bless you and keep you, may God shine the light of the divine face upon you and be gracious unto you, may God always look with favor upon and grant you peace. How many times have we heard those words? But our ancient rabbis, who also found them beyond familiar, also found them troubling. How could one human being offer God’s blessings to another, they wondered. If these blessings come from God, then shouldn’t it be God who bestows them? And even if God has commissioned the ancient priests to offer these specific blessings to the people, why are they offered freely to all and not solely to those who have earned the right to be blessed with these choicest of all blessings? All these questions occupied the ancients who studied the text and attempted to draw out from it its deepest meaning.
But mostly they wondered about the concept itself of one person blessing another, and particularly in God’s name. That seemed crazy to them, not just an overreach. And yet in the discussions surrounding that specific issue they found deep meaning and just the right lesson for me to teach you here in the presence of David’s casket.
The blessings, they explained, don’t come from the priests, but from God. The text says that as much at the end: “do this,” the Torah says in God’s name, “so that I may bless them. And why, then, does God not just bless the people without the use of intermediaries? That obviously could happen! But the Torah is teaching something else here and that is the point of the passage: that God’s blessings occasionally appear unexpectedly in our lives in a moment of divine favor, but more often than that—and, at that, far more often—they come to use through the medium of other human beings, friends—or parents or teachers or someone—who enters our life and brings us some specific blessing from God. David was not an ancient priest of Israel. But he was the agent who brought God’s best blessings to this family and to so many countless others—his students at Lynbrook High School and at Herricks High School foremost among them, but also countless others whom David met along the way and whose lives he enriched by his very presence in their midst. Some were his students. Others were his friends, myself surely included, at Shelter Rock. Still others were the parents of Alan’s classmates, and his teachers. All were the recipients of some of the greatest blessings from God, blessings that came to them because David walked in their midst and did good where he saw good could be done.
David was born on April 4, 1942. It was a terrible time for the world, a ghastly time. The first transports arrived at Auschwitz that week. The Battle of Bataan, culminating in the Bataan Death March, was raging. FDR had just signed Executive Order 9012 which would result in the uprooting and forced relocation of American citizens of Japanese descent. And yet the world somehow kept spinning despite it all. And so in South Nassau Community Hospital a child was born to Abraham Stollwerk, called Al, and the former Ida Miller. In some ways, theirs was a typical story for their time and place. Al came here from Poland as a teenager, a lonely journey undertaken on his own to a safer, better place. Ida was a Yankee, born right here on the Lower East Side. There was a serious gap in their ages, she was just eighteen when they married and he considerably older, but their marriage was successful and they produced a family of loving children including David’s older sister Florence Hilda, who died as a young woman still in her twenties, and his older brother Murray, who is joining us today from North Carolina via zoom.
David attended Lynbrook High School, then went on—as anyone who ever met David, even casually, surely knows—to Duke. Less well known is that David was a pre-med student, who then went on to enroll in the Duke University Medical School. But his heart wasn’t in it and so he left North Carolina and chose instead to pursue his graduate studies at New York University, where he earned his M.A. in English. He went on to enroll in the school’s Ph.D. program too, but life got in the way and, although he completed sixty credits towards his doctorate, he never finished and instead went to work to help support his family. He took a job at Lynbrook High School, in fact, his own alma mater and spent his first three years as a teacher in halls he knew well because he had once been a student wandering them himself. And then he moved north to Herricks High School in 1969 and there he stayed for thirty-one years until he finally retired.
Nor was David only a teacher in the Herricks School District: after retiring, he ran for the school board and won, thus stepping into a new role in a familiar setting.
In the meantime, however, David’s life was progressing in different directions as well. David had a student named Larry Liebowitz, a boy in one of his English classes. But he made such an impression that Larry, who came to think of David as a friend as well as a teacher, found the courage somehow to ask if, by any chance, David was single. When David reported that he was indeed single, Larry asked if he would like to meet his Cousin Susan. David agreed. So now Larry had a new job: getting Susan to agree! He asked if she would like to meet one of his friends. She was underwhelmed—she was ten years older than he and couldn’t imagine he was seriously suggesting she date a high school boy. But then he explained that his “friend” was actually his teacher and was a grown man, and someone he thought Susan would like very much. So she agreed to a first date. One thing led to another. And eventually they were married on March 27, 1983, in Susan’s parents’ house. My predecessor at Shelter Rock, Rabbi Myron M. Fenster, officiated.
At first, the couple settled in Franklin Square where Susan owned a house. But just four years later, in 1987, the Stollwerks bought the house on Crest Hollow Lane in Searingtown and there they stayed. It was a good choice of a neighborhood. For one thing, it was a five minute drive, or less, to Herricks High School. For another, David had already established a bond to Shelter Rock, the congregation I serve, when he had been looking around for a convenient minyan, one near school I suppose, to say Kaddish in when Al died in 1981.
And so the framework for family life was established. The Stollwerks had two children, Alissa and Alan. And then there would be a son-in-law in Alissa’s husband, Jason Cohen, and grandchildren in their daughters Abigail and Dara.
I should speak for a moment about David’s tireless, heroic, and truly intense work on Alan’s behalf. Or perhaps I should step back and read instead an email that Alissa received on Tuesday from Nicole Weidenbaum, the executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk Services for Autism organization and also of its school, the Martin C. Barell School. She wrote as follows: “David served tirelessly on our Board of Directors since 1993, when his son Alan began receiving services here. His unwavering commitment to helping children and families touched by autism was ever present in his daily life and in the Board room. He has guided the path of countless families over the past 27 years and never missed a Board meeting, a fundraiser, or an opportunity to help anyone in our community. To know him was to love him and he will be sorely missed by his NSSA family.” Left unsaid here is how much of what the NSSA offers was not merely supported, but actually invented by David. When Alan graduated the Barell School at age 21, David saw to it that an Adult Education program was inaugurated that would continue to provide learning and social services to graduates who were technically too old for school but whose needs were not at all diminished by crossing the line into technical adulthood. David was the living embodiment of the truth that most things in life can happen if you personally make them happen. Of course, you can always sit around and hope someone else does the work. Or you can ignore that possibility and feel called personally to do good in the world because you saw an opportunity and chose to take it. That was David’s system: he understood, and long before the facts of autism were well known to all, that either he was personally going to create a world for Alan to live and learn and thrive in, or else it wasn’t going to happen. And so he did what it took, helping to found the Barell School—which is, by the way, named after the Nassau County official who helped find the funding that allowed the school to open—and founding the Adult Ed. program, and tirelessly fundraising personally to guarantee that its work would continue.
David was not a shy man. He had opinions, and strongly felt ones at that, and he had absolutely no compunction about making them known. He spoke his mind and felt no need to filter his thoughts. Nor did he often hesitate to help someone who held incorrect opinions regarding some matter that David felt deeply about to revise his or her thinking.
This was already a feature of the young David’s life at Duke, where he participated in the sit-in’s that characterized the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, and famously getting himself arrested, or at least taken away by the police, for demonstrating in front of a Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Durham that would not agree to seat black patrons on the premises. In the end, the owner chose to close the restaurant rather than to integrate its dining room. But David’s real problem was explaining his arrest to his father. Al was not pleased! But when he asked David what he thought he was doing, getting himself in all sorts of trouble over discrimination that was not specifically leveled at him personally, David answered that we were slaves in the land of Egypt and that our obligation to work for justice in the world, and specifically on behalf of people who themselves were the descendants of our nation’s own slaves, derives directly from that thought. What more was there to say? I only quote the story today because it was so emblematic of who David was. He could not look away from oppression or from injustice. He felt personally attacked when some defenseless party was taken advantage of by someone stronger, richer, or more influential. He had the kind of heart that could simply not beat normally or well in the presence of unfairness, inequality, or discrimination. And he lived as he believed, never hesitating to speak his mind forcefully and clearly when he felt that someone nearby didn’t fully understand why he felt as strongly as he did about some specific issue.
David’s years at Duke were formative ones for him aside from with respect to his political awareness. When departing for North Carolina, David hadn’t ever been away from home. When he flew home for Florence’s funeral, it was the first time he was in an airplane. I mentioned before that Florence died as a young woman, but I would like to speak about his relationship with her in just a bit more detail now. She was ten years his senior, so not quite old enough to be his mother but still enough older for David to idolize her. And she was like a mother in many ways, making sure that David and Murray both got the very best educations possible and taking both boys to their first Broadway shows. Because she worked for the newspaper now known as Newsday, she had entrée into all sorts of places, including stars’ dressing rooms. And that too was part of the magic, which made her loss all the more terrible for David.
These last years have been difficult ones. David’s health woes first began about eight years ago. There were peaks and valleys over the years, including some very low moments in the course of this last year in particular. But the man himself was unaffected by the course of his illness. He remained available to all who sought his counsel. He continued to teach his class in Current Events at Shelter Rock. He couldn’t imagine not making himself available to former students or colleagues—or to anyone at all—that sought his counsel. He was not his body! And the soul of the man remained not only intact, but magnificently so, until he drew his last breath earlier this week.
And, of course, he remained his outspoken self to the very end. This was, after all, a man who thought nothing of pulling over and parking his car so he could go into a store or a restaurant that was displaying a sign in the window with a spelling mistake or an error of punctuation to explain the error clearly and authoritatively. I can speak personally in that regard as well. David and I had an excellent relationship. He liked reading what I wrote and listening when I spoke. But none of that kept him from correcting my mispronunciation of words he felt I should say properly rather than improperly, or my use of words in their popular, but not precisely dictionary-correct, meaning. He was always polite. But he simply could not bear the thought that someone—in this case myself—could do better because of his counsel and then would not improve because he failed to speak up. How, I’m sure he thought, how could that be a good thing? I’m sure he would have been magnanimous if it turned out that my usage was correct and his correction, incorrect. But it never happened.
I suppose my favorite image of David is of him holding court at “his” table in the Kiddush room following Shabbat morning services. All were welcome. And the conversation was always lively. David, even when he already seriously ill, continued to occupy his place of honor, happy to be among his friends, eager to express his opinion, not at all uninterested in what others had to say, and fully animated by whatever topic was under discussion. That actually bears saying as well: this was a man who didn’t understand the concept of boredom, who was interested in everything, who never met a book he hadn’t either read or wanted to read, who was relentlessly curious about everything, and who took it as personal affront not to understand some issue under discussion in the world in all of its intricacy. In a less person, this kind of intellectual involvement in all the issues of the day might a bit quixotic: surely no one can know everything! But David was simply a man who loved learning, who felt it painful not fully to understand something under discussion in his presence. He was relentlessly curious. And he was always full of new ideas he was eager to share. He was his own man in every way. And he will be sorely missed—by his tablemates at Kiddush, by his countless friends and admirers at Shelter Rock and at the NSSA, by his innumerable students—so many of whom became friends later on and remained wholly faithful to him not for years but for decades, by all of you here today in person or on the Zoom platform, and by so many others as well.
When Jewish people die, we always pray that their memory be a source of ongoing blessing for the families and friends they leave behind. In different contexts, we obviously mean different things by that thought. But today, as I invite you all to join me in the prayer that David’s memory be a blessing for us all, I think it must be obvious what I think we all must mean. Here was a man who knew where he stood and had no difficulty speaking his mind out loud and to whomever was interested in listening. Here was a man who was totally himself, who never dreamt of tailoring his personality or his opinions to suit others, whose devotion to his family was exemplary, whose devotion to his profession was legendary, and whose record of service to others was not just outstanding but truly remarkable. If you spend your lives attempting to live up to the model David set—and if you are successfully even partially—then your lives truly will have been blessed by your memories of him. And that is my prayer for you all: may you all be blessed by your reminiscences of David’s time on earth. And may he himself rest in peace in this sacred place.