“My father was a ‘roll up the sleeves’ kind of guy who would get involved and do what needed to be done,” said Gershon Distenfeld about his father, Fred Distenfeld. With his father’s first yahrzeit approaching, Gershon looked to mark the event in a manner that would be elevating and also reflective of the type of person his father was, while displaying the way Fred’s legacy continues to inspire their family today.
Having moved from Queens to Teaneck over 30 years ago, the Distenfeld family has been a part of the Jewish life in many ways, whether supporting NCSY missions to involvement in their local shuls and as active members of schools and school boards. Fred Distenfeld’s wife, Debby Sondheim has been a beloved teacher at SAR for 45 years. Fred and Debby even began their life together in the Bronx community, when they were introduced to each other by a couple in Riverdale.
A popular way to mark a shloshim or a yahrzeit is to have people learn in memory of the deceased. While they did have a siyum Mishnayot for his father’s shloshim, “I wanted to focus on the bein adam l’chaveiro aspect of Judaism, which can often get overlooked,” he said.
Instead of a siyum Mishnayot, Gershon decided to reach out and encourage family and friends, and anyone else who wants to participate in chesed on a community level, to sign up and pledge to perform acts of chesed in memory of Fred Distenfeld. “A traditional siyum on Mishna or Gemara typically excludes various groups of people, such as women and children, but chesed is something that can be performed by anyone. This gives the ability for everyone to get involved on their level,” said Gershon. “Often, our first thought about memorializing someone’s memory is ‘What can I do for God?’ but we should also be asking ‘What can we do for each other?’ Helping another person should be high on the priority list.”
Gershon is excited about this effort for his father’s yahrzeit, and explained that his father was never one to take the easy way out of a situation. The idea of doing something different and getting people involved and pledging to help others is a fitting way to remember his father, and what Fred Distenfeld stood for. “My father would appreciate doing this for his memory,” he said.
Though sign-up is only in the early stages, Gershon is happy to see that 56 people have already signed up and pledged 730 hours of chesed. The target audience is anyone looking to be involved in a chesed. Children are not only welcome to participate, but are encouraged to be part of this chesed initiative. “We support chesed because we need to remember what our purpose is,” he said. “Tikun olam is real and necessary. I believe very strongly that we need balance.”
The Distenfeld family is looking forward to an influx of participation from the community and hope to make the chesed siyum in early June, to coincide with the yahrzeit. “Besides the spiritual and non-tangible merit you get for chesed, you have the chance to positively impact people’s lives,” said Gershon.
The entire family is supportive of this idea and loves how it truly captures who Fred Distenfeld was. “My husband, Fred, always wanted to help people. He was happiest when he could anticipate a need you had not even noticed and fulfill it,” said his wife, Debby Sondheim. “Fred did all this quietly, not wanting a thank you, and lived according to the rule ‘Say little and do a lot.’” Now the Distenfeld family has invited everyone to partner with them and “do a lot” in his memory.
To participate in this opportunity and add your chesed pledge to the form, sign up at http://bit.ly/chesedsiyum.
By Jenny Gans