Beth Am packed for memorial for beloved Palo Alto teen

Thursday, May 24, 2012 | by renee ghert-zand

Hundreds of people packed the sanctuary of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills on May 19 to honor the memory and celebrate the all-too-short life of Emily Benatar. It was hard for mourners to believe that the vivacious 19-year-old from Palo Alto was gone, having died of meningococcal disease, a form of bacterial meningitis, on May 9.

Benatar, a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis, reportedly had been vaccinated against meningococcal disease, which causes inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord.

“Adolescents are vaccinated at age 11 and then get a booster before going off to college or the military,” Dr. Cara Barone, a pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, said in an interview. “This is generally adequate, but the vaccine is not 100 percent protective, so some breakthrough disease does occur — and when it does, it usually takes a horrific course, causing death or terrible complications.”

Emily Benatar   photo/courtesy of the benatar family
Emily Benatar photo/courtesy of the benatar family
According to the Centers for Disease Control, meningococcal bacteria are spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions, usually from living in close quarters. Approximately 1,200 people contract the disease every year in the United States, and 10 to15 percent of them die, even when they are treated with antibiotics, the CDC notes. No other cases had been reported at Washington U., according to the San Jose Mercury News.

Benatar died at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis with her family by her side three weeks after falling ill. Following a private funeral attended by family, her parents, Lisa and Darrell, and sisters Isabel, 16, and Maya, 13, observed shiva in the family’s Palo Alto home.

Photo displays put together by friends and bouquets of flowers sent by supporters filled parts of the living room and dining room. On a table in one seating area, some of Benatar’s sketchbooks were laid out alongside a variety of crafts projects she had made. Her mother wore a necklace of sea glass made for her by her late daughter.

“She was a very appreciative person,” Lisa Benatar said. “She was an amazing role model for Isabel and Maya. She set the tone.”

Family friend Sandra Tucher recalled how Benatar, already away at college, had taken the time to knit one of her mother’s friends a warm hat to wear during chemotherapy treatment. “No one asked her to do it; she just thought to do it herself,” Tucher said. “She was a giving, loving person. She was always aware and thoughtful of other people — not at all a self-absorbed teen.”

Rabbi Janet Marder and Cantor Lauren Bandman presided at the memorial service at Beth Am, where Benatar had her bat mitzvah six years earlier. As a youth, Benatar attended the T’enna Preschool at the Palo Alto JCC.

“Although she wasn’t that Jewishly active during high school, she was starting to get re-engaged at Wash U.,” her mother said. “There were a lot of Jewish girls in her Alpha Phi sorority, she went to a seder at a faculty member’s home and she was planning to go on a Birthright trip to Israel.”

Marder opened her remarks by saying, “Our heart is breaking tonight.”

Friends, teachers, coaches and family members took the podium to share reminiscences, many of them emphasizing Benatar’s willingness to take risks and try new things.

Many people shared memories of Benatar’s dedication to lacrosse. An original member of the Palo Alto High girls lacrosse team, according to the San Jose Mercury News, and a team co-captain, she was remembered by her teammates with an emotional ceremony before a playoff game two weeks ago; current and former players placed notes, flowers and drawings on the fence surrounding the playing fields.

At Beth Am, Benatar’s sister Maya and her friends from high school and college recalled her joyous and infectious laugh. Many remembered her always laughing and smiling. “It is a rare person who is able to make other people so happy,” said Benatar’s boyfriend, Sam Maliska.

Peter Monahan, her freshman writing course professor, came from St. Louis to tell the crowd about the impact Benatar made on his class. “She showed her classmates how to be a great student.” While other speakers spoke of her great beauty, Monahan emphasized that she was “a woman of great depth, great complexity, deep thoughts and generosity of spirit.”

Benatar’s father, Darrell, explained why he has chosen not to ask about the odds that his daughter would have contracted and succumbed to meningitis; he said he’d rather ask, “What are the odds that we would be blessed with such a wonderful daughter?”

Similarly, Lisa Benatar offered a quotation her daughter presciently used in a high school project on living skills: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

Gifts in Benatar’s memory can be made to the Emily Benatar Memorial Fund at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Funds raised will be used to support organizations that reflect Benatar’s values and spirit, the family said. Donations can be made at http://www.emilybenatar.com.