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My View: Ten years after tragedy, cantor's presence felt

By Peter Simon

When Penny Marranca lost her baby girl five months into her pregnancy, Cantor Susan Wehle provided comfort and encouragement at a prayer service. "Susan's presence, grace, strength and dignity gave me the strength to go on," Marranca said. "Her voice let me know my Talia was at peace."

My own sadness was becoming numbing the day my mother, confused and afraid, was taken to a hospital from her assisted living facility. Suddenly and unexpectedly, I felt a reassuring hand on my shoulder. It was Cantor Wehle, gently giving me  a badly needed opportunity to vent my feelings and prepare for Mom's future.

Peter Simon

Wehle was a source of both spiritual and practical  support for many members of Congregation Shir Shalom, my Amherst synagogue. In ways large and small, she brought us closer to God.

When Wehle officiated at a wedding at a vineyard overlooking Lake Ontario,"you could see the joy in her face as she sang the sacred blessings," said Dr. Mindy P. Weinman. "She felt so strongly about making the world a better place."

Our community suffered  a stunning blow when Wehle was one of 50 people who died on Feb. 12, 2009, when Continental Flight 3407 crashed in Clarence Center. Ten years later, a tribute to Wehle will be hosted by Shir Shalom and North Presbyterian Church at 7 p.m. on Feb. 9 at Shir Shalom, 4660 Sheridan Drive, Williamsville.

Wehle, who died at age 55, valued participation and self-improvement.

She urged Judy Feldman to chant rather than read her bat mitzvah portion, while Feldman balked because she couldn't carry a tune. "Susan's comment was always the same: 'God doesn't care,'" Feldman said. "Susan was an amazing lady with 'ruach' (spirit) beyond most."

Similarly, Wehle convinced Pauline Bergman, then a shy 7-year-old, to belt out a solo line in the children's choir rendition of "I am a pizza."

Many of Wehle's friends, including Linda Levine, are astonished that she has been gone 10 years.  "Without exaggeration, to this day I cannot walk into temple and not hear her angelic voice," Levine said.

Wehle, who believed that men and women are "fully equal" in all aspects of Jewish life, and who worked while raising two sons, had strong connections with many female congregants.

The cantor brought "immense joy" to a program for mothers and their preschool children, said Shoshanna Zucker, an assistant professor at D'Youville College. "Her warm, vibrant smile made us all feel happy and positive even as many of us were struggling with balancing our careers and new motherhood experiences," Zucker said.

When Brittany Swiderski studied Jewish texts 15 years ago in preparation for her bat mitzvah, Wehle crossed out references to God as a male and instead penciled in "The Eternal One."

"At the end of my bat mitzvah, Wehle sang a song about women guiding other women, and sometimes I swear I can still hear it," said Swiderski, now an orthodontic resident in Detroit.

Alexa Zappia, who had a bat mitzvah lesson from the cantor the week before the crash, transformed her grief into founding a program – now active in 35 states and 25 countries – that places inspiring art displays on the outside of buildings and runs workshops on inclusiveness and understanding.

"When tragedy strikes, you have to find a positive way to heal and to honor your loved ones," Zappia said. "The time I had with Cantor Susan and the life lessons she taught me will always be held close to my heart."

Peter Simon is a past president of Congregation Shir Shalom.



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