On Sunday, April 19, there was a touching memorial for Vivien Lichter. Many of the speakers at the service were Shomrei people – Rabbi Greenstein, Toby Stein, Aileen Grossberg, Dale Russakoff and me [Shirley Grill] – and our stories were about Viv and Shomrei…It felt like a story of Shomrei as well as Vivien.
From Rabbi Greenstein
I spoke extemporaneously and said many of the points mentioned by others. I added this framework with which to appreciate Vivien:
We say that each of us is created “in God’s Image.” Well, what does that mean? Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan described God as “the unseen force for Good in the world.” In that sense, indeed, Vivien was an exemplar of God’s Image – she did so much good and always took care to be unseen while doing it. May her memory be a source of blessing for us!
From Sid Lichter
Vivien came from the Binghamton, New York area, and I was from Brooklyn. She was the oldest of four siblings (the other three were boys) and early on became the “assistant mom”. She was a good role model and teacher. She taught her three brothers, our two daughters, two Russian emigres, and me how to drive.
She was a member of a group at Michigan State University, of which I knew one or two members, and joined after a while.
She decided that she would prefer to live in Case Hall rather than Wilson Hall, and moved to North Case before Winter Quarter, 1963, which worked out rather nicely since the rest of the group all lived in Case (the women in North and the men in South).
We saw each other socially, usually as part of the group, and sort of fell into being a couple.
Not very long after, we married.
Vivien was my best friend for 53 years. She always will be.
From Toby Stein
This is as personal a remembrance as I think Vivien would tolerate.
About 7 years ago, Vivien answered a Mensch Squad email asking for someone to take me to a doctor’s visit, and Vivien said she would. A little more than a week ago and about 720 trips to my doctor appointments later, Vivien died. In between medical visits, she took me to the supermarket and thrift shops and Dollar Stores for decals used to welcome the IHN families. And I learned to buy some things in K-Mart. In time, I switched to her Shop-Rite because it was bigger and better than Brookdale. That’s an easy example of how I followed Vivien’s suggestions most of the time. People have of course asked opinionated me why I so often changed plans or habits or sources to match Vivien’s. I think, having helped raise her three younger brothers, she was utterly comfortable being bossy. And the truth is, I was on my own at such a young age that having someone boss me around felt like a relief.
Besides, Vivien was right about 95% of the time. She’d tell you–she just whispered it to me–she was right 98.5% of the time.
I was not Vivien’s only Mensch Squad project: But driving others came to an end when Vivien decided that it would be easier to stick with me as her ongoing Mensch Squad assignment, rather than have to drive people whom she did not know except by face. Which was almost everyone at Shomrei, excluding the three women who are also speaking about Viv this evening and who know a lot about Vivien’s work at Shomrei.
Vivien had very definite opinions. If she gave me advice readily and often, she had made clear almost from the beginning of our relationship that that didn’t work both ways. During the first year of her driving me to physical therapy, she casually mentioned some physical issue she was having. I promptly recommended something she might try. We had arrived at Kessler, and I only got a glance at her suddenly locked face. When I returned, she said, not loudly but in a tone new to me, You need to know that making any suggestion to me guarantees that I will not do whatever you suggested. It’s not you in particular, this applies to everyone. I believed her. Believe me, you would have too. In the half-dozen years that followed, I think I made two suggestions. She actually followed up on one–but didn’t tell me.
Oh, Vivien was an interesting woman. She loved driving–and liked being alone almost as much. A few years ago, she began to consider leaving her job–and her profession–to drive 10 or 12 wheelers on their long routes. Before signing up for the necessary pre-licensing class, she drove two routes, to check on the quality of the eating places along them–but only those which had parking spaces long enough for those trucks. In the end, she decided that too few places with satisfactory food had long enough parking spots–and stayed at the job she had.
When Viv took me on as her Mensch Squad responsibility, I was seven years younger than I am now, and had only two specialists. But as time passed and I accumulated specialists, and appointments and tests, Viv invariably said, “I think we can manage that.” And unless Sid had an appointment at the VA, she did. She would wait in the car, absorbed in one of the 78,000 puzzle apps she managed to fit on her cell phone. I know more than a couple of very kind people, but no one else who stuck with a commitment to someone who wasn’t family as long as Viv, even as the commitment became more and more demanding of her time.
My mother taught me that the only magical phrase in English is “Thank you.” I like those words a lot and said thank you to Vivien a thousand times–not nearly enough. I need to thank her now for something she did not acknowledge: that she was my friend. Vivien you were as fine a friend as God ever smiled upon. A
nd I do thank you– for all the driving and the friendship you may not acknowledge even now. It doesn’t matter. You gave it to me, and I will keep it safe.
Vivien, I know you are with God now. I also know how sure you are of your point of view, but please don’t boss God around, and if He has a suggestion, try it. Oh, never mind. I’m sure He’s making you welcome, just as you are.
From Aileen Grossberg
It’s my sad privilege to say a few words about Vivien tonight.
I feel that I’ve known Vivien and Sid for the more than forty years that my husband and I have lived in Montclair. That’s because Sid and Vivien were fixtures around Congregation Shomrei Emunah and it seems that they had been there forever, but it’s probably more like only 25.
When I think of Vivien, I think of sharing and also. Vivien was the stalwart shopper- and preparer with Sid- for our synagogue kiddushes for many years, shopping for and preparing a tasty lunch for the after Shabbat services crowd. She was efficient and practical and had it all down to a science. She knew what she wanted; she knew how she wanted it done; she got things done her way.
When I took over ten years ago, Vivien and Sid were a hard act to follow. We still use some of their techniques in the kitchen.
As heir to the Saturday kiddush lunch responsibilities,I was always pleased to prepare a special kiddush in August when the Lichters celebrated their anniversary and made sure that lunch that day was up to Vivien’s exacting standards.
Whenever there was an event, Vivien could be counted on to find time in her busy day to stop at Costco and pick up whatever was needed for the event and be price conscious, too. And everything was labeled so that it would not be mistakenly used by someone for another event.
Simhat Torah and Purim always brought out lots of people and Vivien and Sid kept the tables laden with tasty snacks. Even when they were no longer the main planners, they rarely said “no” to picking up items for the holiday events.
But Vivien didn’t do just for the Shomrei community. Vivien was a mainstay of the Jewish War Veterans, preparing breakfast for the Sunday morning meetings, making sure that everything was just so for the hungry vets and the Sunday minyan goers whom she would always graciously invite to share the lox and bagel breakfast.
She and Sid- it’s hard to think of one without the other- also shopped for the Interfaith Hospitality Network – Dale Russakoff will tell you more about that.
Twice a year, they’d go to Costco and Restaurant Depot; buy huge boxes of cereal, gallons of milk, dozens of eggs- and anything else that hungry adults and kids could use -and lug it all to Shomrei. It’s a good thing that the Lichters had a van.
We at Shomrei knew that we could always count on Vivien. Even after Sid had his accident and could no longer be as helpful as he had been, she was still there to care and share. How she found the time between work and family is a miracle. Vivien kept her troubles to herself when she was thinking of others. She never bragged about all she did. She just did it, efficiently and quietly. She was there.
Our community has lost a true friend, whose organization and generosity of time and spirit, have been selfless and priceless.
Sid and Valerie, and friends and relatives of Vivien, may you all be comforted by your memories of this fine woman.
From Dale Russakoff
I knew Vivien because she was a stalwart of the Mensch Squad and the Interfaith Hospitality Network, two of Shomrei’s largest volunteer corps through which our members perform acts of kindness and, through working together, do extraordinary things.
I think the first time we talked was a summer 15 or 20 years ago when I was running our week of housing homeless families on my own for the first time. Shirley Grill, our founding leader of the Interfaith Hospitality program, was out of town and I was her freshly minted deputy, with no experience running the show. Vivien had from the beginning of this program done all the shopping for food and diapers for the families staying with us. As luck would have it, this was the first week that Sid and Vivien were, like Shirley, going to be out of town for our hosting week, so I had to do all the shopping, too. I called Vivien to ask her how to buy groceries for 14 people ages 3 months to 40. She calmly told me to get out my pen or pencil and rattled off : this many gallons of milk, this many bottles of apple juice and orange juice, this many megaboxes of cheerios and corn flakes, this many boxes of instant oatmeal in a variety of flavors,,this many dozens of clementines, apples, bunches of grapes, this many juice boxes, snack packs, packages of cookies, loaves of bread, bottles of peanut butter, packages of cold cuts and sliced cheese, cans of tuna fish, jars of mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, salad dressing. She told me in no uncertain terms to ascertain which children and parents had allergies and to what and to avoid getting any foods that contained those allergens. It took me days to assemble all these supplies and to lug them to my car and then into Shomrei. And from then on, when Vivien was back in town and in charge, I marveled at how when we came to set up the shelter on the first Sunday morning of our hosting week, all those groceries would already be in the refrigerator and the pantry waiting for us. It was like magic. Vivien would have gotten them all for us.
At the end of every hosting week, Vivien would pick up all the dirty linens, towels, blankets and bedspreads from 14 adults and children, haul them out of the shul, down to her basement and wash them all, fold them and bring them back to the storage room at Shomrei. When the job got physically too demanding for her, this fell to Shirley and me. We took one look at the mountain of linens and decided –
We’re not up to this. So we started a tradition of taking them to the laundry, a tradition that continues to this day.
For all that Vivien did for others, she never wanted credit. Some people do, and that’s fine. But with Vivien, there was no fuss, no fanfare, no desire for attention. She and Sid just did what they did for other people because that’s who they always were. About six years ago, a beloved congregant was in the hospital, fighting a losing battle with cancer, and her husband needed rides to Hackensack hospital every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to be with her. Vivien let me know that the hospital was near her place of work and she would arrange her schedule to be available on Mondays and Wednesdays as long as he needed rides. I recently found an old email listing the ride schedule for this congregant in the month of March, 2014. Every Monday and Wednesday, every week of that March, Vivien drove him from Montclair to Hackensack. Sometimes the schedule changed at the last minute but no problem, Vivien adjusted her work schedule on a dime. It took ten people to cover the return rides. In other words, ten people to match what Vivien did on her own.
Sid and Valerie, our hearts go out to you. Contemplating our future as Shomrei volunteers, without Vivien as our guardian angel, we can only imagine the loss you are experiencing.
From Shirley Grill
My memories of Vivian always start with visual image of her: she is carrying bags, moving very fast and deliberately, getting things done, very late in the evening. I don’t see her sitting still. You’ve heard how Vivian shopped for our IHN hosting weeks—she always stocked up on eggs, milk, and orange juice—especially eggs. Vivian was a baker. Vivian would come into Shomrei late in the evening…she had finished work, gone shopping and then she baked. The next day, there were home baked cookies for IHN (or for Kiddush)—but no one ever saw them being made!
Vivian didn’t only shop—she appealed to her boss to donate funds to Shomrei to essentially cover the cost of the groceries…she was a tough and passionate fundraiser. Vivian’s other IHN task was the Laundry after each hosting week. This was no small task—it was linens and towels for up to 14 people. And she would return the sheets for the next hosting sorted and assigned by family with the perfect sheets for each person—children’s sheets carefully assigned by gender—princess for the little girls and superheroes for the little boys. And the pillowcases, fitted and top sheets were always matched so each room looked like home. I eventually suggested to Vivian that the laundry was too much for her, and we sent the laundry to the laundromat—I’m sorry Vivian—when you agreed to give up the task our sheet sets in the rooms never were the same!
Vivian liked to do her work in the background—where no one noticed her hard work. Yet Toby reminded me that people did notice… Toby had reached out for help with fundraising for Sid and Vivian’s 50th Anniversary party. The committee wanted to have it catered so Aileen and Sid wouldn’t have to cook…and the party was a surprise for Viv. I reached out to a few people—in minutes we had more than enough donations for the party!
Vivian thought no one noticed her enormous heart and her commitment to serving others. We all noticed…and wanted to give something back to her. Vivian, you were a presence and you will be missed!