Remembering Sammy Cohen-Eckstein

Remembering Sammy Cohen-Eckstein

I'll be honest. I wasn’t sure I could attend the Park Slope Participatory Budgeting Neighborhood Assembly on Thursday night. Like so many friends and neighbors, I was still shaken in the hours after the funeral for Sammy Cohen-Eckstein, who was hit by a van on Prospect Park West on Tuesday. It feels like our whole community was punched in the gut.

No words are going to help us comprehend this tragedy. But I wanted to share a little of what I’ve been thinking.

We’ve spent all week thinking and learning about Sammy. I knew him, but not as well as many of you. I know his parents, Amy Cohen and Gary Eckstein, better. I’ve worked with them in efforts to save child care for low-income families, to push for economic justice, and yes, for safer streets.

Sammy was a remarkable kid. We heard heart-wrenching, beautiful stories at the funeral, and from kids and adults all around the neighborhood, about his young wisdom (some in his class called him “the philosopher”), his compassion and his smile, his skills as a soccer and trumpet player, and the rock-solid support he gave as a sibling and friend. His bar mitzvah was going to be November 16th.

As I’ve talked to people all over the neighborhood, I have the sense that people are both grieving for Sammy, who so many knew and loved, and also wrestling with the terrifying sense of fragility that this could have been any of us. Certainly that’s true for me and Meg who are, like Amy and Gary, parents at Beacon High School (where Sammy’s sister Tamar attends) and MS 51, members of Kolot Chayeinu synagogue, fighters for social justice causes, cyclists, and people who love this community.

The NYPD’s Collision Investigation Squad is still investigating what happened, and we should wait to see the results before we make any conclusions. But it appears, as Rabbi Ellen Lippmann said at Sammy’s funeral, that he slipped and fell into the street, an unimaginably horrible accident.

As much as it hurts, there is nothing we could have done to save Sammy. But it is a reminder of why we work so hard for safer streets. We’ve done a lot to make this community safer for everyone – pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, young people, and seniors. But we’ve still got a lot to do. Our passionate goal, through engineering and education and enforcement, is to have not one single person killed on our streets. We can’t control fate, and it is sometimes just brutal beyond our comprehension – as Sammy’s death, and too many others from our community over the past year have far-too-painfully shown us. But doing everything we can for safer streets will save other lives in the future, and that is one way we will make his memory into a blessing.

As deeply painful as this week has been, it would have been simply impossible without the remarkable networks of support in our community. I have never been more grateful for or our Congregation Kolot Chayeinu (and also to Congregation Beth Elohim, who opened up their sanctuary), and especially to Rabbi Ellen Lippmann and Cantor Lisa B. Segal for their comfort in impossibly-hard times. I’m proud to belong to a synagogue that could offer us the spoken-word prayer of Tehila Wise, Sammy’s bar mitzvah tutor (as she was for our son Marek).

Middle School 51 and PS 321, Brooklyn’s youth soccer teams, and Shire Village Camp worked so hard to support Sammy’s friends and classmates … and the young people in our neighborhood showed me so many times that they are learning the deep values of community that we are trying to model. They poured out their grief and their love of Sammy into memorials at the school, at 3rd Street in Prospect Park, with teddy bears nearby, on websites and blogs, with hugs in the street. It really did feel at times like the whole neighborhood was grieving together, but also making sure that Sammy’s memory will become, for all of us, a blessing.

Over the past year, I have had far too many occasions to quote one of my favorite lines, from poet Adrienne Rich (who herself died last year): “What would it mean to live in a city whose people were changing each other's despair into hope?” I have to tell you, this week, I am really tired of the despair. It is too much.

But we haven’t had much choice about trying to change that despair into hope – whether it's making food and providing shelter after hurricanes, or trying to get our city more ready for next time. Or making our streets safer. Or continuing to build and model the values of this community, which is why I was, eventually, glad to be at the Participatory Budgeting assembly on Thursday night.

Or, for now, just providing all the strength and comfort we can to Sammy’s parents Amy and Gary, his sister Tamar, his extended family, and his close friends. It's not enough to say that our hearts go out to them – but it does feel like our hearts are fighting to get out of our chests, and that we are just trying to give them infinite love and support. As Rabbi Lippmann guided us at the funeral, we don’t have much choice but to do our best, to “build a new world from the love and grace and joy Sammy brought to so many lives.”

The Cohen-Eckstein family is sitting shiva on Saturday 8 – 10 pm, Sunday through Wednesday, 3 – 8 pm, at their home at 75 Prospect Park West.

Contributions in Sammy’s memory to:

Heifer International, which empowers poor communities around the globe to turn hunger and poverty into hope and prosperity through sustainable agriculture.

Transportation Alternatives, which works to reclaim New York City’s streets for people by ensuring that every New Yorker has access to public transportation, and a safe space to bike and walk.

May Sammy’s memory be for a blessing.