Ron Rich, center, with his four children.
By Richard Friedman
A year along, the struggles of the Covid-19 pandemic are being felt by Jewish communities throughout the Deep South — from New Orleans to Birmingham and points in between, from individuals who have recovered from the virus, those who lost loved ones, and social service agencies helping community members deal with everything from loss to isolation.
Those who knew Ron Rich knew him as a fit and energetic guy with a fertile mind, talents ranging from music to mortgage banking, and restless ambition.
Ron, a member of a well-known Birmingham Jewish family, died of Covid on March 28, 2020 at the age of 65.
No one knew him better than his sister, Bobbye Seligman.
He was her older brother and first friend. Their big brother-little sister relationship never waned for a moment, even when they were living in separate cities or at different points in life.
They talked nearly every day, texted constantly, and enjoyed trading insights and those whimsical quips that uniquely bond siblings.
Then it all went dark when something few people understood at the time snatched Ron by the lungs and snuffed out his life. Ron contracted Covid in south Florida where he had been living the past 10 years. Exactly when and where he was exposed is unclear.
“We were stunned and in disbelief. His downturn started with a simple cough that just wouldn’t go away,” recalls Bobbye. “How could this be happening?” Other family members became equally concerned.
Bobbye watched helplessly from afar as the dreaded infection, which would claim the lives of more than 500,000 Americans over the next 12 months, took the life of her brother over a six-day span, ruthlessly and savagely.
Wrote Ron in one of his last texts to Bobbye, “I don’t even know one person from the next. My fever is so high I can’t think straight.” Bobbye believes Ron knew he was dying, frightened and alone in a south Florida hospital.
His four children, spread out from Arizona to Alabama to Israel, could not be at his bedside.
In an obituary the four wrote collectively, they said this about their dad: “He had a good sense of humor even though he was serious a lot of the time. He had a big heart and cared for his friends and family. His advice was second to none and he always ended up being right.”
The funeral was in Birmingham. The three children living elsewhere, and their mother Rhonda, also in Arizona, along with other family members who were spread out, were unable to be there because of Covid. Friends who would have attended also refrained because of the pandemic.
The only child there was Becky and her husband, Jared Glass, who live in Talladega. Bobbye and her husband Michael were there, though her younger brother Charles, who has asthma, was discouraged from coming due to Covid.
“Not only did we not have shiva, my own children and I couldn’t hug each other through this,” said Bobbye as emotion began to overtake her.
“No one was together. We couldn’t laugh together, hug, talk about silly memories. My friends who wanted to do things for me couldn’t. You are alone with your grief through the entire process.”
Ron’s death hovers over Bobbye every day. It struck her in a particular way a few weeks ago on her way home from her second Covid vaccine.
“I cried the whole way home. Ronnie should have been getting his shot. That is maybe why it is so hard now that they have come out with the vaccine. He could be living life.”
Prime of Life
A conversation with Birmingham’s Honi Mazer Gottlieb about the loss of her sister to Covid is powerful and compelling and lingers in the heart afterward for days.
Honi, like Bobbye Seligman, is a familiar face to many and grew up in a well-known Birmingham Jewish family, the youngest of three girls.
Her middle sister, Davida Mazer Lasley, who lived most of her adult life in Atlanta, died of Covid on Feb. 24, 2021. She was 64.
Davida was the mother of two children and a grandmother. “She was in the prime of life,” says Honi, who spoke to or texted with Davida 25 to 50 times a week. “To say we were close was an understatement.” Davida inspired Honi and many others with her singing talent and decorating skills.
For Honi, two words describe her sister. “Kindness personified.”
On a beautiful early spring morning, sitting outside her suburban Birmingham home, Honi says, “Davida always put everybody before herself. She would do anything for you. She always had your back.”
Honi fights back tears as she continues.
“Davida was fit and healthy with no underlying health issues. She and her husband David did everything right — they were super-careful when it came to the pandemic — double-masking before it was widespread, social distancing, washing packages, etc.”
Yet in January they contracted Covid.
Honi believes it might have happened on a day they decided to go out and run some errands and visit several stores, though no one in the family is sure. “They would do this periodically just to get out, and always wore masks.”
Her brother-in-law’s brush with Covid was relatively mild, though he wound up in the hospital for a few days.
Davida would suffer a far worse fate. Her downturn started at home in late January with headaches and coughing.
Then in early February she was hospitalized, where she would struggle for weeks with increasing difficulty breathing, sinking oxygen levels, blood clots in her lungs — and confusion, isolation and fear.
At around 6 in the morning after she was hospitalized, she called Honi to tell her she was in the hospital.
“I told Davida she is going to be fine. I told her they will make her feel better, that she will get well and then get the vaccine. ‘We will all get to visit,’ I said. ‘It will be fabulous.’ That’s the last time I heard her voice. It never occurred to me she was going to die.“
This below was included in Davida’s funeral announcement, which Honi asked to be included in this story:
“In lieu of donations, the family requests an act that was extremely close to Davida’s heart: Please get your Covid-19 vaccination or reach out to others in your community and help them get vaccinated. Davida’s fondest wish was that everyone get vaccinated. We have the opportunity to help with this cause.”
Pensacola’s Fred Levin, a famed trial attorney who was known for taking down Big Tobacco, among many high profile cases, died unexpectedly on Jan. 12 at age 83, five days after showing symptoms of Covid-19 “despite receiving the most advanced and best treatment available in the United States,” as his obituary noted.
When he tested positive for Covid, he was asymptomatic for 10 days, but died on the day that he was originally scheduled to receive his first dose of the Covid vaccine.
In his obituary, he said “just wear a mask! It’s not too much to ask.”
Didn’t Die Alone
New Orleans, like Birmingham, Pensacola and other Jewish communities throughout the Deep South, lost well-known and admired community members.
Dr. Jack Zoller, a well-known New Orleans physician and community leader, died April 2, 2020 due to complications from Covid-19. He was 91.
A year later, his son Gary reflected on his death. “I think the good news for me is that my dad didn’t die alone in a hospital room like so many other people. Otherwise I might not have had the closure that I did.”
Jack lived at New Orleans’ Lambeth House, a continuing care retirement community, which at the start of the pandemic was a Covid hot spot. He became exposed after spending time with a friend. His symptoms at first were mild, mainly shortness of breath.
Jack was hospitalized briefly, but then discharged because it appeared he was doing better. His downturn began shortly after returning to Lambeth House, where he had been living in an independent unit.
As his breathing worsened, he was moved to an assisted living unit, which is where he died, alert until the end.
Gary was with him the day he died, still comforted a year later that his dad did not die alone. “The good part is that we got to be together.”
Other family members, children and grandchildren spread out from Los Angeles to Dallas to Tel Aviv, all got the chance to say goodbye virtually.
Jack even whispered a joke into Gary’s ear an hour before he died. “He was fully there. Being there with him was a gift.”
Jack was an obstetrician and gynecologist for more than 35 years, delivering thousands of babies. He also was a Jewish community volunteer leader. He became a Bar Mitzvah in his 80s. In addition to his New Orleans home, Jack had a home in Telluride, Colorado. He loved fishing and skiing.
“He treated everyone with dignity and respect,” said his obituary. “Wherever he went, he had a smile on his face, always offering a kind word or gesture. Jack made everyone feel as though he was their best friend.”
The national television show, CBS Sunday Morning, did a piece on the New Orleans physician and his passing as the pandemic was erupting.
Despite the closure that Gary feels, the day to day closeness that he enjoyed with his dad since moving back to New Orleans 17 years ago, and being with him the day he died, one part of the saga remains an open wound for Gary.
“Zoom shiva was unfulfilling for me. It was nice to hear stories. But I missed family and friends being together.”
There was no funeral.
Jack chose to be cremated. His remains are in Gary’s living room. Gary’s mom, Linda, died in 1994. Her ashes were scattered on a mountainside in Telluride. Jack wanted his scattered in the same place. Covid has put that on hold.
“When we will be able to do that as a family is still undetermined,” said Gary. “Not being able to mourn loved ones properly is just one more struggle of pandemic life.”
On The Front Lines
The tragedy of losing siblings of almost identical age in such a jarring way has formed a deeper friendship between Bobbye Seligman and Honi Mazer Gottlieb, which is a reflection of the mutually-supportive friendships that have taken hold in the Jewish community since the pandemic began a little more than a year ago.
One community leader who has been on the front lines since day one is Lauren Schwartz. “Individual and collective losses have been enormous,” says Schwartz, executive director of Birmingham’s Collat Jewish Family Services.
“Some have lost loved ones and the ability to grieve in traditional ways, surrounded by community and support. Others have lost jobs and financial stability. And at some level, we all have lost the regular, social contact that makes us human.”
While most have not lost loved ones, nearly everyone, it seems, knows at least one person who has died. And no one has escaped the impact of the pandemic or being forced to wrestle with once-unimaginable fears.
“In families the stress of managing work, school and home life has resulted in increasing anxiety and depression. This impact is reflected in the increased need we have seen for counseling services,” says Schwartz.
CJFS has experienced a 41 percent increase in the number of active counseling clients from February 2020 to February 2021.
Participation in the agency’s support groups has grown significantly over the past year. Its group for caregivers went from meeting once a month to meeting online twice a week.
“For older adults, particularly those with memory disorders, research is showing that the pandemic has led to more rapid physical and cognitive decline. At CJFS we see this anecdotally in our CARES clients, some of whom have passed away during the pandemic or moved into memory care units.” CARES is a memory care program that used to meet in person pre-Covid and provide socialization and activities, along with a respite for caregivers.
Jewish Family Service of Greater New Orleans also has seen increasing demand, says Executive Director Roselle Ungar. However, she says, because of the legacy of Hurricane Katrina, her agency was able to shift into an emergency response mode almost immediately after the Covid crisis erupted.
There already was a playbook for working off-site and how to continue the work of a service-delivery agency even after its hub offices shut down. The biggest challenge was to set up a HIPAA compliant platform for “seeing” clients. This was accomplished within a few days of closing the physical office.
Two immediate needs began to emerge as the pandemic took hold: the need to respond to the increased stress and disruption that the agency’s current clients were experiencing, and new clients coming to Jewish Family Service for help.
“We were fortunate that through a significant grant from the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Louisiana we could set up a relief fund for members of the Jewish community affected by Covid. This included providing housing assistance, help with utility bills, gift cards for food — helping people with the basic necessities.”
As Ungar notes, New Orleans, like Birmingham, is a smaller Jewish community, relatively speaking.
“You are not going to see the massive number of people affected that you would see in a larger community.”
Nonetheless, the demand for services has grown significantly. Since the pandemic started, her agency, which also serves the broader community, has added 35 Jewish case management clients — a 30 percent increase.
“These are not clients we would see on a regular basis. These are people new to the agency.”