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YU Senior Aaron Heller Remembered

Twenty years ago this month, twenty-one year old Yeshiva University senior Aaron Heller passed away. His tragic death came as a shock to all those around him. Distraught peers and friends instantly thought back to the last time they had seen him, to the last conversations they had shared together. What may have seemed then to be an unimportant and trivial moment would now be forever ingrained in memory. It was hard to imagine that he was gone. No more Aaron causally greeting friends in the hallways, or dropping by for a quick chat. No more Aaron, always ready to join in a game of basketball or baseball. No more Aaron, who had been so filled with zest, with excitement, with happiness, so filled with the life that was abruptly wrested from him.

Thursday, November 13th had started out like any other day. One of Aaron’s oldest friends, Ben-Tzion Goldfischer, dropped into Aaron’s room in the morning to tell him that he would not be traveling with Aaron back to West Orange for Shabbat, as was customary for the two boys. Rabbi Goldfischer noted that “he was still in bed and seemed like typical Aaron.” Another friend, Jonathan Schloss, remembers passing Aaron in the crowded hallways just before class on the previous day. The two seniors had exchanged smirks as they entered their respective classrooms. It would be the last time they saw each other. As Schloss noted, forty-eight hours later they would be at his funeral.

Aaron Heller was the only child of parents Shirley and Chaim. Early in his childhood, Aaron’s father passed away, leaving behind his young wife and child. The bereaved family moved to West Orange, New Jersey when Aaron was in eighth grade; he subsequently attended JEC in Edison. Aaron was passionate about kids and was heavily involved with Junior NCSY in West Orange. He also spent several summers working as a sports counselor at the YMHA (Camp Kehilla) in nearby Union, NJ, where he was adored by his campers. Aaron was also much admired for his prowess as both a basketball and a baseball player and was an avid fan of the Yankees, the Celtics, and Duke. A childhood friend, Shmulie Pineles, remembers the sports games that they went to together. As a testament to Aaron’s love of sports, in one instance the pair waited in line all night to secure tickets to a Knicks playoff game (which never ended up happening, because the Knicks didn’t make it to the playoffs).

At Yeshiva, Aaron attended the James Striar School in the mornings and was majoring in sociology. He had hoped to pursue a degree in social work after graduating. A naturally social individual, Aaron was a staunch fixture on Rubin Hall’s second floor, where he lived for three years. A roommate, Chaim Stadtmauer, described their room as “always open to all,” with friends constantly stopping by to hang out and catch up. Stadtmauer noted that Aaron “was a great friend” with a wonderful sense of humor, who “knew how to push buttons, but always in jest.” Rabbi Goldfischer agreed, calling Aaron a true “people’s person,” whose “mother and friends were his life.” “A real mensch,” said Schloss, adding that Aaron was extremely outgoing and had friends across the gamut of YU’s diverse student body. Pineles shared that Aaron was “like a brother to me,” and as a result, “there was a big hole in my life after he died.”

Following Aaron’s death, his mother strived to eternalize the memory of her only child. She sponsored many shiurim and shmirat halashon campaigns for Aaron and donated a number of Torah scrolls in his memory. Shirley sponsored a wedding in Aaron’s memory and was instrumental in creating the Aaron Heller English Seforim Memorial Library in the Rubin Shul, together with the Student Government and SOY. She remained involved in the upkeep of the library up until her passing three years ago, also around this time.

Twenty years later, Aaron’s death is still keenly felt amongst his friends. His death came just as they were all set to embark on their adult lives, with the celebrations of weddings and the joyous births of children still ahead of them. Schloss noted that “Aaron’s absence from our life cycle events still resonates,” explaining that time has not healed the pain of their loss and that “all his friends still feel a profound sadness and cannot fathom that twenty years have gone by since his passing.” Pineles concurred, adding that “I think of him often.” Ben Reich, one of Aaron’s closest friends, said that when he reflects on Aaron today, he often wonders how their relationship would have fared and how close they would be today. “Every time it comes to mind, the answer is always the same. I have no doubt in my mind that we would be as close as we were twenty years ago.” Y’hi Zichro Baruch.