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A Tribute to Dr. Adrienne Asch

In the day and age of impersonal, large university classrooms, personal mentorship is a rare occurrence. During my second year at YU, I had the great fortune of meeting Dr. Adrienne Asch. She quickly became my mentor through several independent studies and my senior thesis and she left an indelible imprint on my life for which I will be eternally grateful.

Dr. Adrienne Asch, known to most at Yeshiva University through her role as the head of the Centre for Ethics, passed away on the morning of November 19th as a result of her battle with cancer at the age of 67.

My fortune of being Adrienne’s student goes back to my involvement working as a counselor for individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities at Camp HASC. That seminal experience aroused my curiosity in the study of disability ethics, culminating in an event that I helped to coordinate with the Centre for Ethics exploring the relationship between disability ethics and Jewish thought. The project sprouted my keen interest in the topic of bioethics, and opened the door to an independent study mentored by Dr. Asch in disability ethics, then another in neuroethics, before finally completing my honors thesis under her supervision.

Adrienne was one of the world’s most outspoken and well-respected bioethicists, specifically known for her work in disability and reproductive ethics. Arguably most well known for her position opposing prenatal testing as a method for screening for and selecting against fetuses with disabilities. As she outlined succinctly in a 1999 American Journal of Public Health article, “My moral opposition to prenatal testing and selective abortion flows from the conviction that life with disability is worthwhile and the belief that a just society must appreciate and nurture the lives of all people, whatever the endowments they receive in the natural lottery.”

Adrienne was a courageous, kind, and loyal human being. She was a dear friend to me and many other people. Her friend and colleague, Dr. Carmen Ortiz Hendricks, the Dorothy and David I. Schachne Dean of Wurzweiler, shared: “It is sad that you only learn how wonderful, loved, and special someone is after they have passed away.  At the November 20th Memorial Service, Adrienne’s brother, sister, and close friends did a remarkable job of painting a picture of an Adrienne I wish I had known.  I knew the scholar and director of the Ethics Center.  They spoke about Adrienne’s love of music, shared seders, reading and debating, and mostly her love of friends and friendships. What greater gift can a person have than to be surrounded by friends as one leaves this world.”

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Dr. Asch was much more than a teacher to me. She was an example of courage and resilience, taking everything in her stride. When I first met Adrienne, I was amazed by her abilities, especially given her lack of sight. Again and again, I was struck by her perseverance and temperament. She fought her cancer to complete her book on reproductive rights.

One of my cherished memories was sharing a shabbat dinner with her, other staff from Centre for Ethics as well as a few of my close friends. We all sang together over the course of the meal—a memory I will treasure forever. It was one of my great pleasures that she was able to attend my graduation from Yeshiva University and meet my parents. Since, graduating in 2011, I stayed in contact with my mentor and visited her and Centre for Ethics on several occasions.

In the context of my life, Adrienne will be remembered as my mentor and as a hero. She is a part of my existence and an integral element of my development as a human being. She symbolizes the best of what education has to offer.

Marlon Danilewitz, a native of South Africa, graduated YC in 2011.

Dr. Asch also left a powerful imprint on her colleagues at Yeshiva University. Dr. Adam Zachary Newton, University Professor and Ronald P. Stanton Chair in Literature and Humanities, shared:

In an essay, ethical philosopher Emmanuel Levinas writes, “To have an outside, to listen to what comes from outside — oh miracle of exteriority! That is what is called knowledge or Torah.”  Adrienne Asch was a bioethicist, of course; Levinasian ethics and Torah were but two of many subjects through which our conversations--unique in this milieu--allowed us to meet in the middle.  But if I reflect on the singular gifts that she brought to YU itself, and what a concomitant loss her passing means for the university, “miracle of exteriority” feels like no exaggeration.   For an institution whose very brand is “knowledge and Torah,” one can only hope the ethical force of her presence taught the invaluable lesson of having an outside and listening.