Eulogy for Sam Begner

Earlier in the service, we read words from the Book of Ecclesiastes: “There is a season set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven.”  Surely the biblical author did not anticipate an experience such as this one under heaven.  There is no “season set” for a day like today, a day on which we gather to remember a life that tragically ended too soon.  We must find, instead, our own words, and come to terms with the loss of Sam Begner.


Sam’s untimely death has come as a shock, a cruel blow and a reality that many of us cannot fully comprehend.  Our hearts go out to Alan and Cory and Henry, to Sam’s grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins.  And, of course, to each of us who were a part of Sam’s large extended family of friends.  We are, today, truly in the company of fellow mourners who have experienced a shared, sad loss.


The story of Sam Begner is really the story of two Sams.


The first Sam was a very bright, high-performance student.  In fact, beginning around his junior year of high school, Sam inhaled knowledge; he had an extraordinary thirst for reading, bringing his pursuit to Clark University in Worcester, Mass.  While Sam was there, he got involved with The Scarlet, the school newspaper, eventually rising to the rank of Editor in Chief.  In this capacity, he made editorial decisions at a decidedly interesting time.  Bradley Smith, a Holocaust Denier, purchased ad space in a variety of newspapers, including The Scarlet.  Sam wrestled with whether to run the ad, seeking counsel from a myriad of sources, including his parents.  Both Cory and Alan helped Sam understand that the issue was inherently one of free speech and encouraged him to publish the ad, as disgusting as it was.  Though Sam also passionately defended the right of free speech, he arrived at a different conclusion: he would decline to print the ad and would, instead, write and print an article detailing his decision and his thought process.  Sam wrote that he believed the ad was a lie and felt as if he, and the newspaper, were being used.  Part apology and part philosophical treatise, the article was submitted to the ADL and Hillel for competition for a prestigious Bess Myerson Award.


Soon after becoming the first Jewish woman to be awarded the title of Miss America in 1945, Bess Myerson participated in ADL’s program “You Can’t Be Beautiful and Hate,” touring high schools and college campuses throughout the country, encouraging the values of goodwill and understanding among peoples of all religious, ethnic and racial backgrounds.  Established through a generous donation from Bess Myerson, the purpose of the award is to  help to advance interfaith and multicultural understanding through excellence in human relations reporting and commentary in campus newspapers.  The Bess Myerson Campus Journalism Award is given to only three individuals per year and is awarded only to those deserving the title, “Excellence in Journalism.”


Needless to say, Sam won the award and accepted with glee the prize: a VIP Trip to Israel, a truly profound experience for him.


After college, Sam continued his journalistic pursuits, finding work at the Urban Land Institute, writing articles for their publication.  Following that opportunity, Sam worked at the Robert Charles Lesser and Company, a prestigious think tank for city development.  While there he earned the respect of his colleagues and his supervisors, meeting success early on in his tenure.  He was so inspired by the work that he eventually earned his Master’s Degree in Urban Policy from Georgia State.


Sam next worked at the Hands On Network, a position he held for roughly six years.  During his stint with Hands On, he traveled to various dilapidated urban areas and planted trees and built playgrounds, doing what he did best: using his brilliance and his speciality to make someone else’s environment that much better.  Eventually, he transitioned to serving as a grant writer, securing funding for the projects about which he cared so much.


But Sam wasn’t all about work; this was a young man who volunteered in the community with organizations about which he was passionate.  He devoted two afternoons a week to Hosea Feed the Hungry and even took a gig, moonlighting as their grant writer.  Among his successful grant requests was an application that netted $100,000 for Hosea.  He loved playing poker, frequently winding up ahead.  He loved music- for a time he followed the band Phish, so we can assume he loved not only the music but the camaraderie that the band endeared.  And, of course, Sam loved politics, and enjoyed the sport of political disagreements with friends and loved ones.  Which makes sense, because he also possessed a sharp wit that was often used to get his point across.  And, though I mentioned it before, it bears repeating: Sam inhaled books, especially books about religion, mysticism, and physics.  In fact, in his condo, Sam converted the master bedroom – one of only two bedrooms – into a library, lining all 4 walls with volumes, a rocking chair and desk in the middle of the room.


This Sam was brilliant and driven, the life of social and intellectual situations and filled with promise.  Not only promise about his own future, but promise that his involvement with urban planning and social causes would result in monumental change in a broken system that perpetuates itself.


That is the story of Sam number one.  Sam number two had a much darker side.


Sam’s mother, Cory, has considered it a personal mission to break down the societal stigma surrounding mental illness.  I firmly believe that the vast majority of us here today are at least familiar with Sam’s struggles.  As we are here to tell Sam’s story, it would be a mistake to ignore this second Sam.


Sam’s illness began to manifest in a more obvious fashion while he was employed at Robert Charles Lesser and Company.  He began to distance himself from his co-workers, particularly painful for a social and sociable young man, and he began to fight with family members, saying truly harmful and hurtful things.  After he lost his job, he regressed to sitting at home in his pajamas and escaping in the television.  The Sam who was so intellectually motivated gave way to a Sam who refused all help, even assistance to find a job.  Eventually, during this time, in 2003, Sam was persuaded to seek treatment, resulting in his being diagnosed with Borderline/Early Schizophrenia.


Sam #2 made comebacks, and could be overshadowed for a time by Sam #1.  It was during the comeback period that Sam achieved his Master’s degree and began his volunteer work.  But, sadly, those comebacks were short lived, and every time he came back from the edge, something else had been lost.


In August of 2004, Sam quit his meds, resulting in another bleak period in his life and the lives of those who were closest with him.  The behavior of Sam #2 was erratic, unpredictable, compulsive and often destructive.  Gradually, those working with Sam learned that he also suffered from paranoia and severe anxiety.  As a direct result of his illness, the things that Sam loved, that gave him the most pleasure, were no longer fulfilling.  I return to the image of his master bedroom, full of books.  During his more recent bleak period, Sam confided that he had not read a book in over a year.


The nature of Sam’s illness was to deprive him of joy, to fill him with an inability to make decisions, and to manifest delusions that led to behavior that was disaffecting and isolating.  Overwhelmed with anxiety, a year and a half ago, Sam returned home with Cory and Alan.  That was a year and a half ago.  And during this time, Sam struggled with his illness, and gradually came to tire of the struggle.


It is our own lack of understanding of the nature of mental illness that compels us to conclude that we could have helped in some way.  That we could have called more, or been more patient, with Sam.  That if only we had been more aware of the signs we might have been able to break through.

Cory explained it best: He had the nest of home, the larger nest of family, an even larger nest of friends, all focused on giving him something to help make his life worthwhile.  But the illness was and is so insidious that it just overwhelmed him.  That is the tragedy.”  I am hopeful that you hear me clearly at this point: Sam’s illness prevented, and would have prevented, efforts aimed at affirming Sam’s value.


This is the tale of two Sams and this is the tragedy of two Sams.  The first Sam, intelligent, witty, entertaining, with the world on the horizon, waiting to be conquered.  And the second Sam, paranoid, skeptical, numb, with the world weighing him down.


The reality is that these two Sams existed side by side, at the same time.  That was the totality of Sam’s experience.  He could be in the midst of a bleak period and we could see shards of Sam #1 breaking through in his gaze, his embrace, or a comment here or there.  But, with the benefit of viewing Sam through the lens of memory, we can also see early signs of Sam’s illness; we can connect dots and draw conclusions that only yesterday were invisible to our eyes.  I refer to many of the comments left on Dressler’s, or on Facebook, by those who were close with Sam during these various periods and their thoughts and reflections about time with Sam.  While struggling, he still portrayed confidence.  It is not that he had us fooled; it is that Sam number 1 was unique, was magnetic, and is the Sam that we all wanted, and were able, to see.


Cory and Alan, there is no replacing the Sam-sized hole that now exists in your hearts.  Yes, there were hurtful things that were said, harmful actions that cloud your memories of Sam.  But you should know: you did everything you could to offer him help, to make sure that he knew he was loved.  While you may tend to focus on the challenging moments with Sam, I would encourage you to also reflect upon the good times, to not surrender Sam #1 to Sam #2.  Reflect upon the time spent sitting on folding chairs, speaking honestly, devoid of the inhibitions of his illness.  While it may be tempting to remember the oys, I hope you never lose sight of the joys, those moments when Sam’s smile broke through the darkness.  He was a blessing in your life, and I hope you know that you would certainly be counted among the blessings in his.


Henry and Rihanna, you spent a wonderful time last March with Sam, and I am hopeful that your memories from those interactions bring a slight smile to your face… even today.  What you missed, however, was how much Sam looked forward to spending time with you, that he was excited for months before his visit.  You caused him to smile, and in so doing gave him and those around Sam a great gift.


For those who are here today mourning Sam, and those offering support to Henry and Cory and Alan, I invite you to consider this for a moment: after death, we can see more clearly the totality of a person’s life.  Certain themes become more evident and are simply undeniable.  In reading through the comments that have been offered online, and listening to stories told by you when you heard this sad news, it has become evident that Sam was the glue that brought, and often kept, people together.  We could define Sam by the illness that so altered his life… but what a mistake, for that would deprive us of acknowledging the many blessings in his life… and the many ways in which he blessed ours.  I now invite you to take just a moment, a short moment, and consider one person who currently populates your life simply because, before he or she entered, Sam was there, and brought you together.


Friends, we are here to remember Sam… both Sams.  A few days ago, Sam went to Biloxi, and upon his departure, he stopped by the Gulf of Mexico.  He got out of his car.  And he went out in a raft… May Sam rest safely under the shelter of God’s wings, and may he now have peace.



Published in: on November 4, 2012 at 6:38 pm  Comments (4)  

A Sad Development in Atlanta

This statement was delivered at Shabbat services on November 2, 2012.

This past week, I offered the following words to our congregation with regard to the upcoming election:  I am often asked, “What does Judaism teach about this” or “what does Judaism say about that?”  The answer usually includes the old joke: “two Jews, three opinions,” because our tradition is one of “this AND that,” namely, the Jewish exercise of discussion preserves the majority and minority opinions.  Moreover, when a legitimate and substantive debate occurs, it is very Jewish to say, “both these and these are the living words of God.”


How fitting that just one week before we affirm our differences, affirm that multiple approaches to challenging contemporary issues exist, affirm that there is a place for dialogue, in Jewish tradition, and lament the absence of sincere dialogue in our country today, our local Jewish community is shaken by a very un-Jewish approach to handling disagreements.


For those who are unaware, Peter Beinart was invited to participate in the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta’s Book Festival.  A community festival in a communal venue, the festival presents a myriad of authors on a variety of topics.  Some of those presentations are sponsored, and Beinart’s event was sponsored by J-Street.  After objections were raised by some of the members of the JCC, J-Street’s national leadership was called by the leadership of the JCC and informed that the event would be cancelled.  Sorry, not cancelled- moved, off-site, stripped from the website.  At present, one cannot purchase tickets to this event through the Book Festival link or the JCC website.


Our tradition affirms the validity and importance of a plurality of opinions.  I believe that our community is strongest when sincere and honest dialogue occurs.  It is a shame, then, that the center of the Jewish community in Atlanta is not the place for one of the most important conversations impacting the Jewish community in Atlanta.


I do not speak this evening in defense of Peter Beinart’s ideas, but rather in defense of his right to share them.  I do not speak this evening as a declaration of support behind J-Street, but rather in support of their right to share their approach and the fact that many, many members of the Jewish community in Atlanta have found J-street to be the organization that offers them the best outlet to support Israel.  I do not speak this evening in condemnation of the JCC or its leadership, but rather in opposition to this decision and the dangerous precedent it sets.


Friends, for two years now I have co-chaired the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival Selection Committee and have participated in countless conversations concerning whether a film is “too controversial” to be shown in the festival.  I have held, as have my predecessors in this role, that film can be a wonderful vehicle to contribute new ideas and new perspectives to a receptive audience.  And the same is true of our Book Festival.  We should be as proud of the wonderful ideas and perspectives and authors and culture that are celebrated in our wildly successful festival as we should be ashamed that Peter Beinart was uninvited out of a concern for controversy.


I hope that you will consider attending the Beinart event in its new location- the Margaret Mitchell House- as it promises to be a compelling evening.  If you agree with Beinart, then the purpose of the Book Festival will have been met: you will have been exposed to a new idea and an author that is inspiring.  And if you disagree with Beinart, you will have the ability to demonstrate to the JCC and to the other Jewish institutions that stray from the conversation that you are fully capable of listening to a presentation to which you are in opposition.  We don’t win the argument by refusing to allow the conversation.  That’s not what Jews do.

Published in: on November 4, 2012 at 4:27 am  Comments (1)