On Dec. 2, 2017, the sanctuary of the Hebrew Educational Alliance was filled to overflow capacity for Koby Gruenwald’s Bar Mitzvah. Fifty days later, Jan. 21, 2018, the sanctuary filled once again, this time for Koby’s funeral.
The agony was palpable.
Yaakov “Koby” Rani Gruenwald lost his 22-month battle with brain cancer a half hour before Shabbat began on Friday, Jan. 19.
Like his Bar Mitzvah, the funeral service for Koby celebrated the life of the young man who was the oldest son of Rabbi Salomon and Melanie Gruenwald. Unlike the Bar Mitzvah, the
celebration of Koby’s life was entwined with unimaginable grief, the depth of which is reserved for the loss of a child.
Cantor Martin Goldstein of the HEA opened the service singing the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” one of Koby’s favorite songs that he loved to sing at Shabbat and holiday services. The mourners in the congregation sang the chorus of the song along with the cantor.
The cantor chanted Psalm 23 in Hebrew, and Rabbi Bruce Dollin, who officiated at the funeral, read the Psalm in English.
Koby’s death “has broken our hearts,” Rabbi Dollin said as he began his eulogy. He paraphrased Elie Wiesel who said that times like this, silence is appropriate. “There is no right thing to say, so we say nothing. . . . All we can do for comfort is to be here. Judaism teaches: do not separate yourself from the community. We do not understand, but at least we are here.”
Rabbi Dollin called Koby “a very sweet child — fun, full of life — who would make his friends laugh.” Koby loved children and babies, and even after his illness he would go up to people and tell them how cute their babies were.
Koby was born Nov. 21, 2004, in Los Angeles. He was three-and-a-half when he came to Denver with his family as his father took the position of assistant rabbi at HEA. He is now associate rabbi.
Rabbi Dollin said Koby learned to snowboard — and loved it. He also loved baseball, and he loved Denver Jewish Day School, where he was popular. He could also be a little mischievous, the rabbi noted. He remembers him going on the bimah, scrounging for candy that had been tossed for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah or aufruf.
“He also crashed all the Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties, where he danced and danced.” Koby’s dance style was all his own. “He felt the music and just danced the way he wanted to.”
Koby loved music, even in the later days of his illness. The musical Shir Chadash service at HEA became Koby’s spiritual home. In those services, “he drummed his heart out,” Rabbi Dollin recalled. Even after he got sick and lost the use of one of his hands, he drummed one-handed.
When he was sick, his love of music manifested itself in his own show at the Seacrest Studio at Children’s Hospital, where he hosted the Koby Karaoke Hour, to the delight of other young patients at the hospital. He also had the opportunity to perform at Red Rocks during the week after his Bar Mitzvah.
Rabbi Dollin shared that Koby loved talking to adults and they enjoyed his company. “He was a flatterer.”
Koby showed courage and good cheer throughout his illness. “He was a jokester, a performer, and just a kid, who believed that his loved ones who had passed away would be waiting for him in Heaven.”
A message on behalf of DJDS was delivered by Rabbi Bernard Gerson, its sixth grade Judaics teacher who had Koby as a student. He related a parable about Torah scrolls which sit in an Ark. One or more of the Torah scrolls are placed within easy reach and are used often, while other scrolls may be less accessible and not read from frequently. The scribe who writes the scroll does not know how much it will be used. He compared that to people. “We do not know who will live to fulfill their potential.”
Rabbi Gerson said he enjoyed Koby in the classroom. “To say his presence was soulful would be an understatement.”
The rabbi directed praise to Koby’s DJDS peers: “You gave him the space to be himself.”
Through tears and between sobs, Koby’s Uncle Daniel Gruenwald, Aunt Judy Mass, Uncle and Aunt Allison Sasson and grandmothers Sonia Gruenwald and Shelia Sasson, recalled memories of Koby and expressed their love for him, his parents and siblings.
Koby was spiritual. “Even in your darkest days, you rejoiced in prayer,” said his grandmother Sonia whom he called “Oiya.”
Rabbi Salomon and Melanie Gruenwald ascended the bimah. Melanie, who has been writing a series of letters to her son on the blog Caring Bridge over the past couple of years, shared thoughts from her final letter to Koby: “You’ve been a teacher to me. You have taught me hope, resilience, living in the moment and love.”
Rabbi Gruenwald said, “You dream for your child and the future — milestones such as Bar Mitzvah, learning to drive, falling in love, pursuing a purpose. On Purim in 2016, our dreams turned into nightmares.”
“We lived as fully as we could these past 22 months. In the past two years, Koby revealed to us who he really was. We didn’t get to see our dreams fulfilled, only a glimpse of who he was, of the man he was destined to be.”
Rabbi Gruenwald charged Koby’s friends and young cousins to honor him in their lives by reaching for their potentials. “Honor him. Live your life.”
Besides “Let It Be,” Koby’s other favorite song was Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” No Shir Chadash service at HEA was complete without Koby belting out the biblically-inspired ballad. Rabbi Joe Black of Temple Emanuel — who frequently visited Koby and sang with him during his illness — and family friend Kolby Morris Dahary sang “Hallelujah” while the mourners in the congregation wrapped arms around each other and swayed and sang along.
The service concluded with Cantor Goldstein’s chanting of the E-l Male Rachamim memorial prayer.
Burial took place at Mt. Nebo Cemetery. Feldman Mortuary made the arrangements.
Koby is survived by his parents Rabbi Salomon and Melanie Gruenwald, sister Hannah Gruenwald and brother Micah Gruenwald, and grandparents Willie and Sonia Gruenwald, Sheila Sasson, and Howard Sasson. He is mourned by many aunts, uncles, cousins and friends.
The family suggests memorial contributions to Morgan Adams Foundation, Children’s Hospital of Colorado Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders, Roundup River Ranch Camp, Camp Ramah in the Rockies, The Denver Hospice, DJDS or HEA.
Larry Hankin may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2018 by the Intermountain Jewish News