Family and friends of Joyce Fienberg, 75, eulogized the Tree of Life victim as a woman endearingly characterized by her preparedness and consideration. Speaking at her Oct. 31 funeral service at Congregation Beth Shalom, they painted the picture of someone who brightened the world around her.
“I knew Joyce and Stephen for 30 years,” said Rabbi Alvin Berkun, rabbi emeritus of Tree of Life, referring to Fienberg’s late husband. Although Stephen Fienberg, a professor emeritus at Carnegie Mellon University, was an internationally celebrated statistician, his wife was truly his “helpmate.” Similarly, “she brought a joy to those she met.”
Fienberg’s manner was unobtrusive and unmistakable, explained her brother, Robert Lipman, of Toronto. “She was not the person who would be the life of the party, but the type of person who would give life to a party.”
Whether volunteering at the synagogue or working with families in need, Fienberg invested herself in honorable pursuits.
Tradition teaches when a tzaddik dies perhaps we should examine our own lives, because maybe we can do better, Lipman said. We need to “measure up. … Joyce is still my role model and always will be, she is a role model to us all.”
Fienberg’s son, Anthony, who lives in Paris, said his mother ensured that Judaism was a “focal point in our lives educationally and culturally so that we could transmit to our children and to our children’s children.”
The son also noted his mother’s pragmatism. On the first yahrtzeit of her late husband, she and her sons went to trade in his red sports car, said Anthony. When the dealer inquired, “Will you miss the car?” she replied, “No, I will miss my husband.”
After Stephen Fienberg died in 2016, Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha “became a refuge for her,” said son Howard Fienberg, of Virginia. At her synagogue, she looked out for others. “She was my mom, your mom too, and your sister and your best friend.”
Devorah Kurin, Fienberg’s niece, told a story while the family sat shiva in Oakland that illustrated her aunt’s concern for others.
After Kurin’s husband, Michael, matched in Pittsburgh as an internal medicine resident at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the niece and aunt were able to spend considerable time together. Each Friday morning, Fienberg texted her niece asking what ingredients were needed for that evening’s dinner.
As Shabbat approached, and Kurin returned home from work, she and her aunt began cooking.
Though some variety of chicken or potatoes was the norm, a certain staple was always present. Each Shabbat, Fienberg, like her mother before her, brought a tray of cut-up fruit. Mellons, berries and other items adorned the platter, but the uniquely “Auntie Joyce” element was that apart from the platter and its prepared pieces, Fienberg would bring a cooler, with ice packs, to store it all.
“She wouldn’t bring something that needed to be prepared,” and she wouldn’t bring something that required refrigerator space lest there wasn’t room, explained Kurin. “She had an uncanny ability to know my needs better than I know my needs.”
For three years, the niece and aunt followed the routine. It was a perfect pairing, as after Fienberg’s husband died, “she needed someone to take care of,” and it provided Kurin’s parents and in-laws in Canada comfort knowing that “family was taking care of us.”
The warmth extended to non-family members.
“Every graduate student Steve had, she just absorbed us,” said Jana Asher, Stephen Fienberg’s last doctoral student. “Joyce was just like the mom to all of us.”
Even when he was dying of cancer, “Joyce and Howard made sure Steve signed all of my paperwork.” At that point, there was plenty going on in Fienberg’s life that she didn’t need to think about necessary signatures and forms, said Asher, but “she had enough caring and heart to make things right for a student.”
In May, nearly five months after her husband died, Joyce attended Asher’s graduation.
“She wrote me a beautiful letter on how this was such a momentous task,” said Asher.
Fienberg also gave Asher a scarf. It was the same one the former student of Fienberg’s deceased husband donned to stay warm at the shiva. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.