Nobody really wanted to be at New Orleans’ Touro Synagogue at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday.
Cantor Kevin Margolius said “we should not be here.”
And yet, on June 7, hundreds felt they needed to be there, to say farewell to a unique individual, proudly and vocally Jewish, proudly and vocally queer — and far too young.
Belle Adelman-Cannon was 17, a rising senior at Benjamin Franklin High School and, within days, planning to be a counselor in training at the Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica. But on June 3, they were struck by a school bus and died of their injuries.
The incident took place shortly after 3 p.m., after Belle finished a shift at the Grow Dat Youth Farm. They were walking along Zachary Taylor Drive when struck. The New Orleans Police Department is classifying it as an accident, and the 34-year-old bus driver is not facing charges.
The accident stunned the New Orleans Jewish community and the general community, as well as the Jacobs Camp family.
Anna Herman, director of Jacobs Camp, said she was “beyond heartbroken and devastated over the loss of our camper Belle. I want to live like Belle and celebrate,” she said. Herman’s birthday was June 4, and when she woke up that day, “all I wanted was for the news to not be real.”
The Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans issued a statement on June 5. Our hearts are heavy with sorrow as we remember the life that was lost and the impact that was made during their brief time with us,” said Aaron Bloch, director of the Federation’s Center for Jewish-Multicultural Affairs. “May their memory be for a blessing.”
A statement from Grow Dat said “we are devastated by the tragic death of Belle Adelman-Cannon.”
At the time of the funeral, Touro Rabbi Katie Bauman was returning to New Orleans from Israel, where there had been a congregational mission. She related that on Saturday evening in Jerusalem, when they learned about the accident, “our entire group of 65 Touro Synagogue family members have been weeping for Belle and sending all our love to this community” and the family.
Bauman said “Belle was as connected, committed and engaged as a young Jewish leader as anyone could hope to meet in their lifetime,” and “a compassionate and fiery voice for change in the world.”
She added that Belle was “a center of gravity in our synagogue, at 17.”
The accident prompted the cancellation of the Federation’s Gift of Israel program on June 4, and the tragedy was mentioned at the start of the Survivor Torah program at the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience later that day.
Though it is summer break, Ben Franklin opened its doors during the week for students and families who wanted to talk with counselors.
Belle was remembered for their many talents and her fearless advocacy, as well as how they made others a priority.
In recent years, legislation targeting the LGBTQ community has been proposed in states throughout the region. Rep. Mandie Landry invited Belle to Baton Rouge to address the legislature, when she was 15.
Belle told the legislators “Every day I choose to live my life as wholly myself because of the way I was raised. I do not cower away from people who hate me, instead I take on that challenge. I want every child to be able to live this way. No child is broken.”
They also were involved in annual walkouts at Ben Franklin over anti-trans legislation being debated in Baton Rouge.
On the day of the funeral, Landry called for a moment of silence in their memory in the Louisiana House. “Make sure you tell people who you are and who you love,” Landry said.
They also started sewing masks in 2020 at the start of the pandemic. They said as people were locked down, it was important to do something meaningful with their time. “People need to help other people in need because this isn’t going to be the last time something scary like this happens,” they said.
A feature about this on WWL called Belle the “Rosie the Riveter of our generation,” and Nickelodeon took the story national.
But aside from those aspects of their personality, there was also mention of their speaking several languages, riding unicycles and stilt walking.
At the funeral, Margolius recounted a story from Midrash Lamentations Rabbah where a horrific tragedy caught God by surprise, and He asked the angels how one could start to mourn what happened. The story teaches “surely, God did not will it to happen and God did not allow it to happen… and today God cries with all of us.”
Three of Belle’s close friends spoke at the service.
Maya Freedman of Jackson was emotionally unable to give her remarks, so Rabbi Todd Silverman stood with her and read her remembrance. She became best friends with Belle at Jacobs Camp, and the times when she could travel three hours to New Orleans for a visit “were my everything.”
Freedman was social action vice president for NFTY-Southern this past year, Belle was membership vice president.
She said that Belle taught her to always choose love and kindness, always step out of her comfort zone, use her voice, stand up for her beliefs and advocate for good in the world.
“You changed so many lives in just 17 years. I can’t even imagine what you would have done with more time,” Freedman said.
Classmate Ben Kornman spoke about the typical interactions they had, as if he were writing a letter to her. But he said his talent pales in comparison, as “you don’t really write, words are art supplies and you are the most gifted painter in the world.”
Recalling subjects from anecdotes he had mentioned, he added that he will find reminders of her everywhere. “You’re there in the flowers, you’re there in the frogs, you’re there in the stray cats, and you’re there in every word you used to paint.”
Ava Kreutziger, who worked with Belle at Grow Dat, said that their last words to her were “I’ll see you in 12 hours, I love you Ava, I’ll miss you so much,” but that “was Belle’s departing refrain to all of us every time.”
She said Belle would measure time by time spent with friends and family, and “made the ordinary extraordinary.”
They would drive together from school to Grow Dat, expanding the 10-minute trip into the hour between the two. As neither had a sense of direction, they would sometimes get lost. Kreutziger said she realized that “I may have not known where I was going, but I had everything I needed. There was no rush to be anywhere, we were just soaking up the moment. Eventually and always, we found our way home.”
Though the reunion 12 hours later would not happen, Kreutziger said “Now it is our turn to say to Belle, forever and always, ‘we love you and we miss you.’ May the time spent with them remain a blessing.”
Margolius said Belle “embodied potential, a future of possibilities,” and now there is a “painful, enormous void.” He added, “Even as a clergyman, this moment tests my own faith and leaves me grasping for answers.”
Margolius spoke of how they embraced their Judaism and brought their own uniqueness to their B’nai Mitzvah service, and that they participated in the recent writing of the congregational Torah. “Belle was multicultural and multifaceted, and their moment at the Torah was theirs.”
They “knew the importance that every individual feel loved and supported in whatever form their body is,” he said, and that they were “uplifting peers with one arm and fighting for justice with the other.”
Belle was preceded in death by grandmothers Carrell Anne Cannon and Lana Weeks. Surviving Belle are their parents, Charles Cannon and Laura Adelman-Cannon; brother, Russell Adelman-Cannon; grandparents, Mary Beth and Stanley Adelman and Stephen Cannon; aunts, Sarah Adelman and Jennifer Cannon; and uncle, Sean (Sabine) Cannon. Memorials can be made to the Henry S. Jacobs Camp.