Audrey Siegel | Special to WJW
I knew Michele Amira Pinczuk for a few short years, but during that time I was deeply impacted by the presence of this remarkable young woman.
I met her because of food.
In May 2018, Michele sent me an email explaining that she had a rare autoimmune disorder that shut down her gastrointestinal system. She wrote, “I benefited soooo much from the family-centered care at Children’s National Medical Center’s Hematology Center. My mother and I keep kosher and we benefited from the Bikur Cholim of Greater Washington [BCGW] kosher pantry as well. It made it possible for my mother to stay with me even while I was getting a bone marrow transplant. I would like to do a mitzvah and make sure other Jewish families can stay comfortably with their ill offspring. Can I arrange a kosher food drive and, if so, where do I drop the items off?”
She followed this up with another note explaining, “I’m a Moishe House Without Walls host as well as a journalist. I would like to make the kosher food drive a Moishe House Without Walls event…Much gratitude.”
I don’t recall how many cans of food Michele collected or if she ever dropped any off. I would later learn that she was in and out of hospitals, squeezing in her mitzvah opportunities when and where she could. She would have a great idea — but would often be sidelined by the disruptive health issues that threatened her life.
When Michele was well enough to be out of the hospital, she was unstoppable. A year before COVID-19 hit, Michele came to my office. She and her mother, Jane, carried boxes of “Girly Swag Bags” that she made with Washington Hebrew Congregation tween volunteers. This endeavor was part of a program Michele created called Beauty & Quality of Life, which helps girls facing chronic life-threatening disease. Each bag contained sparkly, fun goodies that could help hospital patients forget their surroundings.
Every bag reflected Michele’s effervescent spirit. She glowed when describing the fun of creating them and how she hoped they would raise children’s spirits. At that moment, I wanted everyone to meet Michele and see what I saw. I asked if we could make a short film about her for the BCGW Hope and Healing Gala that November. Her big, smiling eyes signaled that she was in.
Not long after that visit, Michele began a stay at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring. She wrote, “Sorry, I didn’t write you back earlier. I’ve been having horrid flair ups and a lot of pain. I’m at Holy Cross Hospital Oncology Unit, getting IV Benadryl and some higher doses of chemo. My mother is like my guardian angel, staying with me all the time. I remembered on your website it says there’s a Kosher Pantry at Holy Cross Hospital. Please inform us where it is so my mom can get a nosh.”
Michele loved eating under the shaky bamboo roof in a sukkah. She adored falafel balls, Spanish sparkling wine and Shabbat Yerushalmi kugel. She loved the Medjool dates her Israeli cousins brought from Israel for Passover. Food was important to Michele — food as a sensory experience, food as a point of connection to her Jewish heritage and food as an expression of love for her family and her friends.
Michele was a prolific author and her writing spanned from music, culture and social justice issues to food reviews and innovative recipes. Food was important to Michele even though she couldn’t always eat it.
Michele and Jane were thrilled to find all the special kosher treats tucked into the pantry cabinets and refrigerator. Michele couldn’t always eat on her own, but she loved seeing her mom get joy from the kosher food and delighted in knowing that volunteers had lovingly stocked the pantry for her.
Michele was in the hospital again in November 2019 when we screened the film Michele’s Story at the BCGW Annual Hope and Healing Gala. Everyone at the gala had a chance to experience Michele through our film, who despite having grown up in and out of Children’s National Medical Center, had the determination and spunk as a teenager to become a journalist and filmmaker. Michele did not let her gastrointestinal disease or the fact that she was on the autism spectrum keep her from pursuing her dreams.
Shortly afterward, COVID-19 upended our world and Michele’s health deteriorated. BCGW staff volunteers brainstormed about how to help keep Michele feeling loved and connected. We arranged masked visits, delivered food, and made Team Michele sweatshirts for her and her mom. We simply tried to do what Michele would always do for others.
Michele was 27 years old when she passed away on May 1, 2021. She died between Passover and Shavuot — or, to put it in a way that Michele would appreciate, between matzah and cheesecake.
Michele died on the 34th day of the omer — right after Lag B’Omer, the day which commemorates the passing of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a man famous for his mystical knowledge.
I can’t think of a more fitting holiday than Lag B’Omer on which to remember Michele. She lived her life on a mystical journey, sending sparks of joy and caring into the air. She valued the time she had on this earth and left a legacy for others to remember her by.
Audrey Siegel is executive director of Bikur Cholim of Greater Washington.