Jeremy Spinak: 1982-2018

November 19, 2018 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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Family, friends, business associates and political and community identities some coming from interstate filled Sydney’s Emanuel Synagogue to attend the funeral of Jeremy Spinak who passed away last week at the age of 36 following a long battle with a rare, aggressive cancer.

Jeremy Spinak   Born: May 25, 1982, Sydney   Died: November 15, 2018, Sydney

At the age of 32, Jeremy Spinak became the president of the The New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, a position he retired from only a few months ago.

The hushed main synagogue heard Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins deliver an emotional eulogy some parts of which turned many to tears including the rabbi himself.

The eulogy:

“Soon after Jeremy Spinak passed away in the early hours of Thursday morning, tributes came in from far and wide from those who had been touched by his life.  One congregant wrote, “It’s so hard to accept why someone who created so much good in his short years and could make such a positive difference in the future should be taken away so young.  For his family and close friends, the heartbreak must be unbearable.”   One of his caring doctors of these last months said, “I had the opportunity to get to know Jeremy very well in the last year. It’s hard to recall a sadder story or a man who bore the burden of his fate with such courage and dignity. As I think of how devastated I feel about his tragic illness, I cannot begin to imagine the suffering of his dear family or friends.

The premier of New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian issued this statement:

‘Jeremy was an outstanding community advocate and an amazing human being. He had a huge impact on everyone he met, including myself, and will be so sorely missed.  Jeremy was dedicated to forging strong links between our multicultural and religious communities and was a champion of an inclusive and harmonious State.  Whether mentoring young Jewish leaders, advocating for policy reforms or strengthening ties with the diplomatic community, Jeremy represented our State’s Jewry with pride and distinction.  Jeremy’s leadership was crucial to the NSW Government’s passage of landmark reforms to protect our State’s communities from the incitement of violence, replacing section 20D of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act.’

How did a 36-year-old man come to be the person he was, achieve so much and touch so many?  A suggestion is given in our tradition, in Pirkei Avot, where the sage Ben Azzai says the most important verse in the Torah is the seemingly minor, “Zeh sefer toldot Adam – this is the book of the generations of Adam.” Ben Azzai is suggesting that each one of us is a product of those who have come before us; Jeremy, gracious and thoughtful, a man of the book himself, always acknowledged those who preceded him in life with shaping his life.  No wonder he had wisdom, insight, sincerity and humility beyond his years.  Indeed, their influences in his childhood and youth gave the depth and meaning to his book of life.

All four of his grandparents played a major role in his life, and he spent much meaningful time with them as his parents were working.  Even though the family was not deeply observant, there were always Shabbat and festival meals, and with their European Jewish background having fled just before the Shoah, they imparted to him a deep connection with his heritage. Especially because of the experiences he shared with his grandparents attending Emanuel Synagogue, Jeremy always enjoyed his time here, loving the tradition and rituals more than anyone else in the family, that appreciation manifesting later in life in his celebration of Bar Mitzvah and then chuppah with Rhiannon here, and also his overall commitment to Jewish community.

Further, his early connection with his grandparents made him easy-going around older people all his life.  The family recalls that when Jeremy was a little boy, they toured Tasmania. Walking and talking on the golf course with friends of his grandparents, Jeremy amazed them, a little tot in conversation as if he were one of them.

Margie’s parents, who had fled Germany in 1939, absolutely adored him. Every day after school Jeremy walked to their home to spend time with them, right until their deaths in 1991 when he was nine years old.  Marianne, his omi, gave him absolute and unconditional love, a deep sense of security, solace and comfort in her warm company.  This sense of safety engendered Jeremy’s confidence and grounding in life.

His opi Gunter had a beautiful bond with him, referring to Jeremy as his “little bonus”.  Opi was more a comedian, playing games with Jeremy, teasing him and having fun, nurturing Jeremy’s playful nature – his wit, humour and ability to niggle as well. An excellent judge of character, Jeremy knew just what button to push, in a very loving and funny way, with each member of his family.

His father’s parents also influenced him.  His Pa, Gabrish, who had fled Warsaw just before the war, gave him lots of knowledge, playing games to teach him current events and world affairs, such as what is the capital of…., and who is the leader of…., Jeremy taking on his love of history from him.  Pa also had a book on FDR, from which began Jeremy’s love of American politics.

His Nanna Eda, who fled from Poland, was also an avid reader of history and did all the family’s business work, a feminist before her time.  She impressed Jeremy with her iron will and how she was tough and unrelenting in everything she faced. Jeremy would draw down on that energy throughout this last year.  In contrast to his easy-going older siblings, Jeremy had drive and determination from an early age.  The family has a photograph of five-year-old Jeremy, his mouth held tight, his eyes intense, as he tries to throw a boomerang, so determined to do what his brother Jason could.  He was disciplined in his studies and also began working early, getting a job stacking boxes at Kmart with his friend Ari Feller when they were 14-year-old students.  Jeremy then created a job at the tennis courts, guiding people where to park at the showground, never showing favour. Later he joined Jenny as a respite worker with children.  Jeremy was always doing more than one thing at a time, so committed to achieving.

One sees in Jeremy the influences of each and all of his grandparents.  It was not just the heritage, the tradition, and the history; it was also the love of learning, of reading, the empathy and determination. His parents deeply reinforced these characteristics, providing him with a grounded, secure, loving, enthusiastic and creative outlook on life.

Jeremy described his mum like her mum, a real security blanket who absolutely doted on her children with unconditional love. She imparted to each of them a sense of tremendous empathy, giving Jeremy his ability to relate to people no matter what their position in life, what their politics, what their background.   A librarian, Margie further instilled in her children a love of books and reading, Jeremy’s library at his home with Rhiannon showing his love of history and politics in particular.  Already in kindergarten, his teacher commented, “What a super reader! Is there anything this five-year-old can’t read?  Jeremy’s love and knowledge of books give him great pleasure.”

Margie further opened his eyes to broader culture, taking him on walks through the park, trips to the art gallery and opening his ears to classical music. In a similar vein, this last year, when he was well enough he would take Michael and Grace on walks in their neighbourhood, or down to the beach or local park, and talk to them about the trees. At home, he would be playing music for them or singing them songs.

His father Richard exemplified genuine modesty, always treating others equally, enjoying the simple things in life, and that success comes from within. Like his parents, Richard motivated Jeremy’s love of learning and politics and inspired his sense of humour.  In the evenings, Richard would blast the house with music, Jeremy growing up with love of classical music from both sides of his family, going to as many symphony concerts as he could go – Beethoven, Mahler and Dvorak among his favourites.

It is no wonder that Jeremy came out a strong, well balanced, delightful, intelligent human being, the influences of his grandparents and parents only being amplified by the blessing of two older siblings, Jason by eight years and Jenny by six, who welcomed him with open arms.  Jenny remembers the family going to celebrate Jeremy’s birth at Centre Point. Jeremy was so cute, and she always wondered when he would stop being cute, which turns out to be never.  The five would go on holiday, and the little one was so adored, there would be film just of him.  While the baby became the centre of attention, there was no jealousy, only love and embrace.

Jason looked on Jeremy as a gift, their connection deep and profound.  Jason would race home from Woollahra Public School, drop his bag, and run up to Jeremy, playing with him until bedtime, incidentally making his parents’ life so much easier.  Jason was Jeremy’s best friend and strongest influence, the two “bros” so tight. When Jeremy was in the midst of HSC studies and Jason finishing uni, Jason made him watch The Godfather, telling him “you’re going to learn more now from this film than anything you’re going to learn in your studies for your economics exam.”  The entire Godfather series eventually became part of their brotherly language, although Jason eventually realized that one of the reasons Jeremy loved it so much is the younger son, Michael, takes over the family business.  Indeed, the film has influenced Jeremy and Rhiannon’s choice of name for their son. It’s extraordinary to see two brothers who are such close friends and love each other so much, as we heard in Jason’s speech at Jeremy’s and Rhiannon’s wedding. Jason and Jeremy always shared a lot of common references, especially intellectual pursuits, politics and European nostalgia, they hoped one day to trace the family roots and history in a trip to Poland and Germany, just one of the many things that now will not happen.

Jenny exemplified for Jeremy what it means to be good, inclusive and dedicated to others. The three siblings are all incredibly witty and funny, their engagement with the broader world all influenced by their family of origin.

Jeremy, the little one, watched his siblings growing up, determined to mark out an identity for himself.  He did not just want to be “little Jeremy”.  His early report cards from Woollahra Public reveal a boy who has the confident nature of someone experiencing three generations of loving care and support from his grandparents, parents and siblings. Jeremy is described as confident, enthusiastic, able to express himself well, communicate in front of others, good at understanding people and working in groups, a vital and interested person. His teachers are commenting already on his sensitivity to others, intelligence and wit.  Jeremy’s ability to understand and engage with others enabled him always to get along with people whom others might find difficult.  His empathy and enthusiasm always shone through.

From Woollahra Public, in year six Jeremy joined Emanuel School, which his brother Jason and sister Jenny had attended before him. In his first year, his teacher presented him with an award for “being considerate and making other children feel welcome in the class.”  His loving character was always present.  After matriculating from Emanuel School in 2000, he went to UNSW, studying politics and international relations, graduating with first class honours in his double degree in arts/economics. By this time, all of his family’s influences had consolidated in making him an influencer himself, someone who could engage with others in a highly intelligent way, but with humour, not bombast, with sincerity, not ego.  He was ready to launch into the world.

In terms of his career, things unfolded organically from his love of politics, which led to his meeting Bob Carr during his second year of university at the age of 20, Jeremy impressing him so much with his knowledge of U.S. presidential history that Carr invited him a few months later to his exclusive Chester A Arthur Society, a bipartisan friends of American society, held at the U.S. Embassy in Canberra.  There, in addition to Bob Carr, he met the U.S. Ambassador to Australia, the former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, and the former opposition leader and foreign minister Andrew Peacock.  Both sides of politics embraced him. That evening he also met two of his future employers, Michael Costa and Michael Easson.

At the end of his second year of university, with the assistance of his lecturer in US politics, Jeremy obtained an internship in Michael Costa’s office. Costa’s chief of staff, Jack Wheelan, who would become another lifelong friend and the MC at his wedding with Rhiannon, advised Jeremy about how to succeed in the contentious world of politics.  With his engaging personality and ability to understand others, Jeremy was a natural.  At the end of the internship, he was asked to continue on, and typical of Jeremy he began two doing things at once, working part-time while studying in university.  The Ambassador and Bob Car wrote his reference for his studies at Georgetown University after he graduated from UNSW.

In Washington D.C, Jeremy pursued his dream of engagement with US politics, working on John Kerry’s presidential campaign and also as a legislative aide to the U.S. Senate Minority Leader.  It was a heady time for Jeremy, but at the same time, he realised that he had been too single-minded, so focused on pursuing a particular goal that he had not kept balance and perspective.

In December 2011, speaking at Emanuel School’s speech night and reflecting on those years, Jeremy gave insight into how he lived life and what he valued.  He told the students that to be successful, one should live a well balanced-life, focusing not just on work, but also one’s interests, one’s relationships and one’s community, lessons he had learned from his family but now more deeply understood and internalised.  He was now ready to take responsibility for writing his own book and shaping the future.

After his all-consuming experience in Washington, Jeremy lived a well-balanced life, managing always to do things on the run, more than one thing at a time, packing as much into life as he possibly could. Margie advised him his gift was his ability to relate to everyone, no matter what their religion, creed, race or gender.  He was always real, always sincere, which is a gift and talent.  She encouraged him to enter the workforce as opposed to pursuing another academic degree. Jeremy’s internship with Michael Costa became a four-year stint as a political advisor to him. While a career in politics always intrigued Jeremy, at that time he chose a different path. Jeremy always held on to his dream to take more leadership roles in the future and to make a difference; he did that in communal life, but there were so many more chapters that still could have been written, a loss for his family, our community and our country.

Michael Easson offered Jeremy a job at EG Property Group, and like everyone else who became a friend, he was a lifelong friend.  “A brilliant young man,” said Easson of Jeremy. From EG Property Group, in March 2011 Jeremy began his own business, Land Use Investment, consulting to a wide range of clients. With his strong moral sense, Jeremy enhanced the transparency and standards of all the projects with which he was involved. In 2013, he would travel to community hall meetings in Townsville, discussing proposed developments to which the residents were hostile; with his wit, charm and intelligent persuasion they ended up loving this man they had come to oppose.

One of his largest clients, Baiada Group, appreciated his strategic capabilities and broad perspectives, and in early 2015, just before his wedding to Rhiannon, asked him to join them in-house, he running their corporate affairs and guiding their property arm as well. They embraced Jeremy and Rhiannon as family and have been extraordinarily supportive of him in this last year of his illness.   Jeremy had a demanding work schedule, in addition to his volunteer work, and managed to squeeze all that in, still having beautiful quality time with Rhiannon and being a devoted, amazing father in spite of his last year of illness.

So while determined in work, Jeremy managed to find time for his interests, his relationships and his community. He loved running, going to the beach, cricket, swimming, football – so pleased his beloved Roosters won the grand finals this year.  He enjoyed music, movies and television. He had a great ear and was a fantastic mimic, with fabulous accents.  He would read to Michael and Grace “Dear Zoo” with his different voices, entertaining them and all with his great sense of humour and irreverence.

Jeremy was a natural people’s person, and nurtured his relationships with his native charm, from his dear friends at Emanuel School, uni, work, and every walk of life in which he was involved.  No wonder he was MC for so many friends at their wedding nights. Upon his death, the sense of loss in the halls of government was palpable, as well as in the interfaith community, with so many representatives of those communities here today to pay tribute to Jeremy.

Given the influence of his grandparents and love of heritage and tradition, combined with his love of history and politics, it perhaps was inevitable Jeremy would get involved in communal service.  He attended a meeting of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies when in his early 20s, realizing there was only one other person there under the age of 40.  As he said in his Speech Night Address: “The Jewish community has been so successful for so long because our people have been willing to put up their hands and contribute toward community life.  Looking around that room, it worried me that all of the volunteerism and energy that made us great was not transcending down the generations.”  Only a decade later Jeremy was the youngest serving president of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, as well as a Vice President of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, having brought so many other young people along with him.

After his passing the Board’s president Lesli Berger and CEO Vic Alhadeff issued this statement:

“Jeremy joined the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies in his mid-20s and made a significant impact on all areas of our work, in particular being the driving force behind an increased focus on intercultural relationships and many of our interfaith programs.  He was a much-loved and greatly respected leader of the community. His contribution to enhanced political bipartisanship, a nuanced approach to advocacy and engagement with all sectors within the Jewish community were features of his presidency.  His influence on our approach to representing the community, coalition-building, legislative reform, child protection and supporting marriage equality were among the numerous achievements which will be his lasting legacy both to our organisation and the entire community. He helped make the community safer. He possessed a sharp intellect and keen sense of humour, but most importantly, he was a mensch, devoting countless hours to the Board of Deputies despite a demanding career and his responsibilities as a young husband and father.”

As Jeremy was writing this incredible book of life, he remembered the lesson learned from his family, and despite it all, put family first.  Jeremy lived upstairs from Jason and Michelle before they had children, and he would come down, raid the refrigerator as he had no food in his flat, sit right in the middle of the couch, turn on the TV and say to Jason: “What are you up to Bru?” before inevitably having to dash off to his next commitment.  After Zac and Leo were born, they called him Adi. Adi would generally show up around six pm, just when it was time for their bath and bed, for Adi bombs, throwing Zac and Leo high in the air, playing up a storm, singing silly little songs, each one witty and starring him as “Adi”.  Then it was time to be going off somewhere else, fitting the next thing in – a meeting, a conference, an appointment with someone, hurricane Adi having passed thru the tranquil family home, but Zac and Leo delighted by their uncle Adi’s playful nature.  While he was so happy to celebrate Jenny’s wedding with Ari, unfortunately, he was already too ill to attend the naming of their baby Remy just a few months ago.

Meanwhile, it was just over six years ago that he finally found the love of his life, Rhiannon.  The two met at a mutual friend’s wedding in a church, sitting in the same pew by coincidence. Later on, they chatted at the reception, and while she disappeared like Cinderella before the party ended, with his inquisitive and determined nature he tracked her down. Their first date was on the 14thof November six years ago at a wine bar, where they both realized neither of them was drinkers and after nursing a Pimms for some time they went across the street for dinner, talking the night away.  Jeremy was single and 30 and had been on so many bad dates that he had thought of cancelling, but their mutual friend Nisha said to him, why do that, she could be your wife. That evening, he spotted her approaching for their date, saw her smile, felt her warmth and he knew he was OK.

Jeremy and Rhiannon thought it was amazing that they met and fell in love – they were from different worlds, but the two of them knew like no others how they were totally in the moment together, how present they were forever. Despite their different backgrounds and personalities, they communicated deeply and beautifully. They both came from families that demonstrated wonderful role models of relationship, their parents and grandparents holding similar values and outlooks. Jeremy developed a close and loving bond with Rhi’s father Richard – perfectly caring; mother Sophia – incredibly selfless and devoted; and her brother James – an extremely welcoming gentleman.

Jeremy and Rhiannon shared beautiful romance leading up to their wedding in 2015, the magical melding of two families, and in the years following.  They loved their coastal walks, breakfasts out, the symphony and movies, coffee and going to restaurants, having relaxed time to talk. Jeremy never took a linear path, always liked thinking outside the box, going against the grain.  When he and Rhiannon took their trips, instead of going to the tourist sites, they would select a neighbourhood and just walk around and get a sense of community and culture.  They would walk, meander and even get lost – on their honeymoon in Paris and Sicily, enjoying their walks to different parks in various suburbs, exploring and experiencing new things.

The best of the new experiences was the birth of their twins, Grace and Michael, despite the challenging circumstances, with Rhi on mandated bed rest from 27 weeks both at home and in hospital.  Jeremy was with her throughout this, day in and out, his home office in the hospital room, sleeping there overnight whenever she needed him there.  The twins were born on the 14thof October at 31 weeks, but already Jeremy was beginning to feel unwell – there was a period while he was at St. Vincent’s, Rhi and the children in hospital at POW. Jeremy was diagnosed then with pericarditis, and went home with medication, continuing to be active, working, helping feed the babies, changing the nappies, going for a swim at the beach, but he still did not feel quite right.  In late March he went back to hospital with fevers and sweats, and despite all the tests they ran, the doctors could not figure out what was wrong – blood tests and full body scans ruling out immune diseases and even – so they thought – cancer.  In hospital for months, despite all his health issues, Jeremy would be on the computer, on the phone, working for his company, for the community. Whenever he was home, he would fully engage with Grace and Michael, Jeremy and Grace having a special bond, she often stroking his head, with him singing one of his songs, a take-off on “The Lady in Red”: “Gracie in pink, boy does she stink.”  Jeremy so loved his life, his wife, his children, his family. “I just want to be me again”, he said on the last day of his life.

But the rare, cruel and deadly diagnosis of pericarditis mesothelioma after heart surgery in June turned out to be relentless.  While community, friends and especially family rallied around Jeremy and Rhi, while doctors tried everything they could, each treatment had no success and Jeremy spiralled downward physically, never mentally. He had big dreams to live for his children and his beautiful Rhiannon and was able to celebrate Michael and Grace’s first birthday with the extended family at their home, but following that event came this dreadful last month, Jeremy fighting to the end with all his determination, only hours before his passing saying to his mum that at last, he could not take it anymore. With all her love she guided him toward the end. He died at 2:15 in the morning, with Rhiannon and Margie holding him tightly; the nanny back at home noting that at that time Gracie began howling uncontrollably for half an hour.  Yet Jeremy said that he knew Michael and Grace would be OK because all the great US presidents never knew their father.

Today we honour a beautiful, unique and much appreciated young man of untold value, an excellent unselfish man devoted to Australia, community and family. The Board’s President and CEO wrote: “Jeremy was devoted to his family and to the community, and he gave freely of himself to both.  His passing is a great loss to all of us.  At 36 years of age, he had a wise head on young shoulders. Jeremy was well liked and respected by everyone who knew him. He had excellent judgement and a compassionate, Jewish heart.  In all his communal work he was a conciliator, a healer and a unifier.  He was a true mensch. Jeremy’s light shone brightly, but not long enough.”  Jeremy’s light does shine on, through each of us blessed to know him, and into the future.

As Rhiannon said before their wedding, “Jeremy loves selflessly, is compassionate, trustworthy and has a warm and thoughtful way. He is highly attuned to the needs of others, supportive always and inspires me every day.  I feel blessed to have him in my life.  He is inclusive of everyone and draws out the best in others. Jeremy has exceptional insight into possibilities in others and outcomes in difficult situations.  He also has the energy to actualise them, I love his strong family orientation and how he accepts my love too.”

Ben Azzai has taught that the most important verse of Torah is: “These are the generations of man”.  Just as Jeremy has been a product of the generations of those who shaped him – his grandparents, Margie and Richard, Jason and Jenny – so too will Michael and Grace be the generation carrying his memory and influence, forever into the generations to come, forever a blessing and inspiration.

Jeremy Spinak

Born:  May 25, 1982, Sydney

Died:  November 15, 2018, Sydney

Comments

2 Responses to “Jeremy Spinak: 1982-2018”
  1. Richard and Kristine Trayer says:

    As long time friends of the Spinak family we were present to hear an amazing and moving eulogy.Jeremy was a wonderful human being and will be sadly missed by us all,

  2. Michael Jaku says:

    Beautifully said and from the heart. Vale Jeremy; we’ll miss you.

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