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Eulogy for Susan Schacht

by Rabbi Burt JacobsonSusan Schacht

Losing Susan has been a shocking blow to all of us who were privileged to know her. I am so glad that family and friends have assembled here today to remember and honor her memory. I’d like to share with you some of the significant details about her life. I want to thank Susan’s sister, Jennie, for providing most of the details for this eulogy.

 Susan Rachel Schacht came into this world on September 16, 1959, the youngest of four children born to Leatrice and Mervyn Schacht. She was quite an energetic child, delighting her family with her lively imagination and her many projects. Susan began studying piano at age 5, practicing diligently, often playing duets with her sister Jennie. And at age 10 she wrote and edited a family magazine. There were 5 issues over the course of the summer of 1969.

 By age 11, Susan’s social conscience was already emerging. She was becoming aware of the great economic and social inequities in American society and of the great dangers to the earth’s environment. When she found that Kraft Foods was wrapping their cheese slices individually in plastic, she wrote them a letter complaining about their wastefulness.

 In 1975, when she was 15, Susan went to France to participate in a program called Experiment in International Living. She spent time in Avignon and lived with the Perrin family in Beaucourt, and she stayed in touch with the Perrin family throughout her life.

 In 1977, she graduated from Scarsdale Alternative School, and went on to Brown University for her college education, majoring in American civilization. But she took off time from college for various projects that interested her, such as an internship with a national association of student cooperatives, and working with the Frontier Nursing Service in Lexington, Kentucky, helping them to conduct an oral history of their rural visiting nursing service. Susan received her B.A. from Brown University in 1982.

 All through these years she remained serious about her piano studies and she performed a senior piano recital for the entire university. As you entered the sanctuary today, you heard part of a recording of that recital.

 Susan once wrote her brother Paul, telling him how helpless she felt about the possibility of changing the things about America that she found so unjust. She wrote that she couldn’t sit back and relax while the world was starving and going downhill.

 Because she was gifted with a mastery of language, Susan decided to contribute to tikkun olam, repairing the world, through writing. She spent 30 years of as a journalist, writer, and editor, and as an independent consultant to scholars, students, and nonprofit organizations. For ten of those years she was also a reading mentor and tutor. She worked for a number of different newspapers and magazines, focusing her reportage on investigative journalism. In 1986 she received an award from the New England Press Association for Massachusetts election coverage. In 1989 she came on the staff of Dollars and Sense magazine in Boston, where she served for six years as a Contributing Editor. Dollars and Sense focuses on the field of economics from a progressive perspective.

 In 1990, she received an Alumni Fellowship to Harvard University, earning a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the University’s Kennedy School of Government.

 In 1991, Susan became Associate Editor at the Regional Review, a publication of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, where she authored or co-authored articles on health, medicine, managed care, child care, school choice, fiscal and economic issues, and more.

 But in 1993, Susan became severely ill. The illness completely altered her life. She had to leave her work and go on disability. Initially, she was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It would be many years before she was correctly diagnosed with Lyme Disease. She stayed at the Pendle Hill Quaker community in Pennsylvania for a year, and then moved to Oakland in 1995.

 It was then that Susan reconnected with her Jewish roots, joining Kehilla Community Synagogue, largely because of its integration of spirituality with progressive political action. She served on the Board of Trustees for six years and on a number of committees. Madeleine Adkins, who served on the Board at the same time, wrote that Susan was insightful, caring, strategic and tough. Susan also assisted with the synagogue’s financial planning and participated in a havurah.

 I met Susan at that time and helped her plan her adult Bat Mitzvah, which took place in 2000. Susan worked with Kehilla’s Middle East Peace Committee and edited a workbook on how Jews could speak civilly to one another about the Israel/Palestine issue. Unfortunately, her illness did not allow her to complete that project.

 Susan participated in the Jewish Spiritual Leadership Program at Chochmat HaLev and then initiated a meditation group. Later she started a New Yorker discussion group, and participated in classes at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UC Berkeley.

 In a few minutes we will hear from a number of speakers about Susan’s character and relationships, so I will not speak in depth about this now, but I do want to say a few words about this, because her spirit and moral fiber impressed me so deeply. Over the years I was privileged to get to know Susan quite well and I can testify to her extraordinary character. I was her spiritual counselor, and she was one of the main editors for my book on the great 18th century Jewish mystic, the Ba’al Shem Tov.

 Because our work in spiritual direction was confidential I cannot reveal what Susan confided to me in our sessions over the years. But I will say this: Though she appeared buoyant to the world, she often experienced the darkness of life and she could be flooded with fear. But her response was to come out fighting. She took up the challenges of life in a courageous way, and she never gave up. Even when she was experiencing pain and suffering, she was grateful for the gifts that life offered her.

 I can testify that Susan was a brilliant and rigorous editor. I well remember the first chapter I gave her to edit many years ago. When we sat down to examine the chapter closely she practically tore it apart, and I was visibly crestfallen. Susan apologized vociferously, and then she told me that one of the editors she worked for told her that she was the most ruthless editor he had ever encountered. Then she launched into all of the qualities in the piece that she found creative and meaningful. I then suggested that in the future she start with what she liked and afterwards provide the necessary criticism. Most certainly, she said. And in her future editing of my book, she always provided a balanced and nuanced view of my writing.

 But above all, we became good friends, whether we were talking about the headlines or matters of the heart and soul. We delighted in sharing our lives with one another. I came to think of her almost as a daughter.

 At Susan’ funeral in Seattle on November 14th, her brother Paul spoke about her having been happy, buoyant, inventive, creative, artistic, adventurous, principled, and most important, loving. And Susan’s sister, Jennie, also emphasized Susan’s ability to love. She told me that Susan always loved her family and friends deeply, fiercely, tenderly, and with great care.

 I would like to conclude these remarks with some words by her good friend, Sam Lucas:

 Over the years and many conversations, we explored how to live in these odd and perplexing days, how to keep an open heart, how to navigate the meanness and poverty of the world while maintaining integrity, hope, and love. We shared our joys with the beautiful days, the simple pleasantnesses of life, the potential of awakening. We celebrated each other in the triumphs we experienced, and supported each other through the tough moments of life.

Because these are core aspects of meaningful life, and I shared them with Susan here for more than a decade, I cannot, I will not imagine it otherwise. In the days to come, when times are good, I will smile and nod to my good friend, and share some of the moment with Susan. And, when times are tough, I will reflect on Susan’s strength and love, and draw energy and inspiration to continue.


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