Why do bad things happen to good people? A lifelong question that we will never be able to answer.
On Saturday, July 24, Michael Jeser (z"l) passed away at the age of 45 after a four-year battle with esophageal cancer. Michael was the current CEO of the Jewish Federation of San Diego, but from 2015-2018 he served as our Jewish Federation’s Campaign Director.
Michael was a “big teddy bear of a guy” (as his wife Laura said to me, while his brothers referred to him as a grizzly bear) with incredible warmth and charm. He loved people. He made friends easily. He had a soft-spoken voice that drew you in to hear him, while at the same time he was an incredible listener. It enabled him to connect with anyone and everyone. A true mensch. Most of all, he was a fighter, advocate, and champion for his family and the Jewish people.
I knew Michael, who was seven years younger than me, and his family when we were both very young living in Orlando, Florida. Michael’s father was the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando, and his mother was the music director at my synagogue. His parents were friendly with mine. The Jeser family would eventually leave Orlando.
While Michael’s oldest brother is a doctor and the middle brother is a television writer, Michael entered the “family business” -- Jewish communal service. After earning his undergraduate degree at the University of Arizona and graduating from the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management at Hebrew Union College in 2004 (Michael was recently awarded the Sherut L’Am Award from the school for his exemplary service to the Jewish people – he and his father are the only father/son duo to earn the award), Michael began his career in Jewish professional life. Michael’s career spanned multiple Jewish Community Centers, Jewish summer camps, he served as the director of the University of Southern California Hillel, and then we were fortunate enough to hire him to come to Portland.
Everyone in our community who worked with Michael loved their experience. He was simply an unstoppable force when it came to community building. Michael oversaw three straight years of increased annual campaigns, created our Pathways program for young adults, and was a wonderful confidante and colleague. He made me a much better professional.
Sadly, he was first diagnosed with cancer while in Portland. He went through treatments, never complaining, always wanting to fulfill his responsibilities. The cancer went into remission and Michael and his wife, Laura, were blessed with a beautiful daughter, Eleanore (Leni).
Michael always wanted to go back to Southern California to be closer to family. The opportunity to lead the San Diego Jewish Federation was a perfect opportunity to advance his career. Sadly, he was confronted with two challenges upon his arrival -- the Poway shooting incident and his cancer recurrence. On top of it all, COVID. It was not easy, but his leadership was incredible. Here is a beautiful write-up from the San Diego Jewish Federation about Michael and all that he did for the community.
Several weeks ago, I received a call from Michael and he shared that he would no longer be seeking treatment for his cancer. I was devastated. The next day, he posted it on Facebook and on his CaringBridge account. One thing throughout all of this was that Michael was a “sharer," whether on Facebook or CaringBridge. He would write pointedly about his condition, how he felt, and most of all, his love for his family. I believe Michael’s openness is one reason why he has so many friends around the country – he always gave of his authentic self.
After that, each week I would text Michael a Shabbat message and every once in a while we would speak. But in his final weeks, his focus was on his family -- to make every moment count. Then six days before his passing, I got a text from Michael (that I still have on my phone – which is rare because I never hold on to any texts) with him about to enjoy a Dairy Queen Blizzard. Michael knew my penchant for blizzards and I was delighted to see him enjoy such a treat. Then, last Friday, as I did each week, I sent him a Shabbat greeting. Little did I know 24 hours later he would pass away. I was shocked, sad, and angry. He was too great a person and far too young to be taken from his family and all of us.
To Laura, his beautiful and very funny wife, and his daughter, Eleanore, who looks just like Michael and reportedly was kissing his forehead when he passed away, my heart and love goes out to you. And to his parents, brothers, and extended family, I can only imagine your hurt and pain.
I know many of you reading this never had the opportunity to know Michael. He was more than a special person. He was a shining light, a beacon to family and colleagues alike, and a friend to everyone. The family has requested that donations in Michael’s memory be given to either the Jewish Federation of San Diego in support of the newly created Michael Jeser Outstanding Jewish Professional Award or his childhood Jewish overnight camp, Camp Tevya.
Michael’s funeral was on Wednesday and it was heartfelt. Before passing, he literally planned it out -- which rabbi, what songs he wanted played, and who would speak. Listening to his dear friends was heartwarming. I truly believe the Jeser family was comforted in knowing how many lives Michael touched in such wonderful ways. And then, with tremendous strength, his brothers, parents, daughter, and wife all shared their incredible love for Michael. It was beautiful! Michael was celebrated as he should be!
Baruch dayan HaEmet – May Michael’s memory forever be a blessing.