Remembering Will Korthof
Adapted from Rabbi Lisa Edwards’s hesped (eulogy) for William Korthof (October 1, 1978 – October 2, 2014), delivered October 13, 2014 at Mount Sinai Memorial Park.
On Rosh Hashanah morning I mentioned to our congregation that the older I get, the more I appreciate the prayer known as Unetaneh tokef, a sometimes frightening, sometimes comforting prayer reserved for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. “Let us declare the sacred power of this day…on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is decided who shall live and who shall die, who shall live a long life and who will come to an untimely end…”
The prayer hits home for me each time I hear it sung, and I don’t require a real life example, but as the prayer notes, we seldom have a choice in the matter.
And on the morning before Yom Kippur I received a phone call from Lisa Rosen, Will Korthof’s mother, telling me that Will had been killed in a motorcycle accident in which he was the passenger. It happened the day after his 36th birthday. When I told the congregation that night at our Kol Nidre service, the most attended service of the year, the shock and sorrow in the sanctuary was palpable. That response was no surprise.
As a quick search on Facebook or a quick scan around our sanctuary will reveal, Will Korthof was a man loved by hundreds of people and many diverse
communities — conservationist, environmental activist, alternative energies “guru,” peace worker, avid marathon runner (nearly 40 of them), AIDS Lifecycle bicyclist, motorcyclist (when he wasn’t driving or advocating for electric vehicles), vegan, kind and caring son, brother, brother-in-law, uncle, cousin, grandson, lover, friend, employer, volunteer, organizer, schemer of schemes to make the world better, a man who walked the walk (or should I say, ran the marathon or rode the bike), AND talked the talk.
Will and his companies installed hundreds of electric vehicle charging stations and solar panel arrays on rooftops at homes, businesses, apartment buildings, Burning Man encampments, and synagogues. At BCC he also included a dedicated solar panel for our ner tamid, the eternal light in the sanctuary, and for our sukkah, the temporary shelter we spend time in during the holiday of Sukkot. Will’s solar installation in the sukkah allowed us to study Torah and read prayers there and look into each other’s faces even at night. No matter the time of day Will literally brought sunlight
wherever he went.
But Will wasn’t just a technician, engineer, and designer of these systems, he was also a mentsch. A mentsch is someone who is responsible, has a sense of right and wrong and is the sort of person other people look up to. In English the word has come to mean “a good guy,” someone you want to be around.
Here are some examples of the mentschlikeit of Will Korthof. One reason Will started his first solar company was because he knew so many people in need of a job. I’m told that if you were broke but willing to work, Will would find you a job. More than one person referred to it as going on “Willfare.”
Will started an intentional community, the Regen Cooperative, in 1999 while in college at Cal Poly Pomona. At the time of his death, Will was still living there with people who shared his enthusiasm for green living. He retrofitted these communal homes with gray water/rainwater catchment and energy efficiency systems, sustainable landscaping and rooftop solar arrays.
In addition to “Will-fare,” there was also “Will-power.” At BCC we got to know Will because he brought solar to our new synagogue building, but we loved him for who he was — the one who would “stop by” (out of his way) to see a congregant in a nursing home or make sure any congregants in wheelchairs got “enough” chocolate babka at the oneg on a Friday night; the guy who fearlessly climbed the really tall ladder to change light bulbs in the sanctuary or to re-do the outside lighting on the building; the one who rode his bicycle into LA from Pomona, or who drove his EV there after a long day of work (sometimes giving a ride to other congregants), plugging the vehicle into the charging station he’d installed in our parking lot, and then proceeding to design and set up special lighting for the Purim shpiel or the cabaret or the service that night, all with a smile on his face and meaningful conversation on his tongue.
When he served on our Board of Directors and as chair of our House Committee, he looked for low cost ways to accomplish things, even if that meant extra volunteer hours for him, while also encouraging us to increase the benefits and cost of living increases for staff. If our water or gas or electric bills (even with solar panels) seemed too high to him, he made changes. Our former Executive Director, Felicia Park- Rogers, worked closely with Will on many aspects of the new building.
Among her remembrances: “Will donated countless hours and tens of thousands of dollars of in-kind services (as well as actual dollars) to BCC. And he was so unassuming and easy about it. I often think of him as a role model for generosity. . . . Will was the only other person who could talk endlessly and obsessively with me about every light switch or building plan that we wish we had thought of doing just a little bit differently if only we’d known then what we knew now. We never grew tired of thinking about how we could improve the design or what we would do over again.”
A couple of years ago Will’s maternal grandmother,
Dorothy, and then his father, Doug, died just a few weeks apart. Will adored them both, and had amazing relationships with each of them. At that sad time, Will was there for his mother and dear friend, Lisa Rosen. He could shoulder a lot of burdens and still use his arms for hugging.
How poignant and appropriate that our gathering to inter Will’s ashes (another decision based on conserving resources) takes place during the holy time of Sukkot. For in Judaism Sukkot is a harvest festival that also looks toward planting the next crop (reminding us to appreciate what we have even as we plan for the future – and isn’t that a perfect description of Will Korthof?). This holiday whose symbol, the sukkah, a temporary hut made of natural branches and leaves, acknowledges and even celebrates the fragility of life by insisting that we dwell in a not very sturdy shelter (a shaky shelter really), partially protected but mostly exposed to the elements, in order that we might appreciate our vulnerability.
It is during Sukkot too that we read the scroll of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) with its many reminders of the unpredictability of life even as it invites us to live fully: “I have seen something else under the sun:” writes the poet Kohelet, “the race is not to the swift, nor battle to the strong, nor does bread come to the wise or wealth to the skilled or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to us all.” [9:11] Will’s mother Lisa told me that Will seemed to be in a good place in his life recently, so we can all be grateful that it seems he died happy, still celebrating his double chai birthday (36).
Killed instantly, he likely did not even know what happened. And it seems somehow comforting too that probably the accident was no one’s fault really, no drugs or alcohol or texting were involved, just a blind intersection and bad timing. “Know that the race is not to the swift…but time and chance happen to us all.” [9:11], the text of Kohelet reminds us.
Climbing mountains, running through deserts, riding bicycles, perched high up on a ladder or rooftop or (sigh) on the back of a motorcycle, Will Korthof was more comfortable than most of us with life’s precariousness. “Who shall live and who shall die?” we ask every year when the Days of Awe come around, never wanting an answer like the one we got on Yom Kippur this year. But how right, for our solar powered, marathon running mentsch, Will Korthof, that under the sukkah dedicated to his memory we also read Kohelet’s sad and sage advice: “Embrace life with the one[s] you love all the fleeting days that are given you under the sun, all the fleeting days.” [9:9]
On the morning after Will died, at our Yom Kippur service, we read this passage from the Book of Deuteronomy [30:19]: “I call heaven and earth to
witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your seed.” William Korthof, as it turns out, did not live a long life, but he did live a full life, and he did consistently “choose life,” he did consistently choose to be a blessing, and he did for many years plant seeds – growing ideas for change, nurturing those seeds and often bringing them to fruition. For us left behind there will be many opportunities to remember Will, to continue to share stories of his presence among us, but as his mother Lisa has said to me, the real way to honor Will’s memory will be to follow his lead, to take real action to make this world better —
one solar panel at a time, one electric vehicle at a time, one LED light bulb at time, one plastic bottle at a time, one vegan meal at a time, one kind and gentle act at a time. Whatever the ways each of us chooses to remember Will and to honor what he stood for (or did not stand still for!), it will add up, and together “Will-power” will continue to light up the world, allowing us all to choose life by choosing, like Will, to make our lives a blessing.
Zikhrono livracha – rest in peace, Will Korthof, knowing your life will continue to bring blessings to so many.