JEREMY Spinak was one of the most influential and highly respected communal leaders in Sydney, but last Thursday morning at the age of 36 he succumbed to a rare form of cancer.
The immediate past president of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies (JBOD), who only stepped down three months ago, was remembered in emotional speeches at his funeral on Sunday and a memorial service on Monday.
“Today we honour a beautiful, unique and much-appreciated young man of untold value, an excellent unselfish man devoted to Australia, community and family,” Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins told more than 1000 people at Spinak’s funeral on Sunday.
He said Spinak fought with all of his determination against pericardial mesothelioma, but late on Wednesday night last week he told his mother that he could not take it anymore. Spinak, a dedicated student of history and US presidents in particular, said he knew that his 13-month-old twins would be okay because all the great American presidents never knew their fathers.
“Today we honour a beautiful, unique and much appreciated young man of untold value, an excellent unselfish man devoted to Australia, community and family.
“Jeremy’s light does shine on, through each of us blessed to know him, and into the future.”
In a rare show of respect, Spinak’s death was announced at a NSW Cabinet meeting last week, and on Monday the NSW Labor caucus stopped for a minute of silence for him, an honour usually reserved only for deceased members of Parliament.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said he was “an outstanding community advocate and an amazing human being”, and NSW Deputy Opposition Leader in the NSW Legislative Council noted that “a dark cloud of sadness” spread through the corridors of NSW Parliament.
The Executive Council of Australian Jewry said in a statement that Spinak had excellent judgement and a compassionate, Jewish heart.
“In all his communal work he was a conciliator, a healer and a unifier.”
JBOD president Lesli Berger and CEO Vic Alhadeff said in a statement that Spinak was a much-loved and greatly respected leader of the community.
“His contribution to enhanced political bipartisanship, a nuanced approach to advocacy and engagement with all sectors within the Jewish community were features of his presidency,” they said.
“His influence on our approach to representing the community, coalition-building, legislative reform, child protection and supporting marriage equality were among the numerous achievements which will be his lasting legacy both to our organisation and the entire community.
“He helped make the community safer.”
Spinak’s wife Rhiannon delivered an emotional tribute at a minyan for his husband on Monday night.
“We had six wonderful years together – not nearly long enough,” she said.
“He gave me the experience of being completely understood, supported and utterly loved and I’ll carry that with me always.
“He also gave me the gift of our beautiful one-year-old twins, Michael and Grace.”
She said that despite a demanding work schedule and his huge communal leadership responsibilities, he was always there for his family.
Describing Spinak as his “soulmate”, his older brother Jason spoke of how excited he was when his baby brother was born.
“Jez was a gorgeous baby, eczema, cradle cap and all … he came out with charisma,” he said.
With a mix of tenderness and humour Jason described a sibling bond based on shared values and a mutual love of the film The Godfather, describing how Jeremy would plant himself on his and wife Michelle’s couch and eat their food and how “before he was an amazing father, he was a cheeky, dedicated uncle” to their children.
On being confronted with “the worst diagnosis possible”, he said pericardial mesothelioma “was inconceivable, discounted from our brains”.
“It’s too difficult to describe how Jeremy dealt with the diagnosis and the pain which it brought him,” he continued.
“But it didn’t cause any resentment from him at all. He still loved playing with my sons, he still loved hearing what I was doing and what his friends were doing.”
He would even send Jason video clips of West Indies cricket legend Viv Richards hitting sixes saying “that’s what I’m going to do to cancer”.
Jason described one night “when things really started to go down” when they were driving around looking for a particular medication which they couldn’t find.
“He would just hang his head on my shoulders, burying his head into my neck saying the pain’s so hard, how much he adores his children, how much he adores Rhiannon and he didn’t think he had much longer, it was too unbearable,” he said.
“We tried everything, every specialist around the world … and the response would always [be] there’s nothing more that we can do than what has been done for him in Australia.”
The Jeremy Spinak Family Fund, which will be administered by JewishCare in NSW, has been created to assist Spinak’s wife Rhiannon and their 13-month-old twins Grace and Michael. To donate, visit bit.ly/spinakfund
GARETH NARUNSKY and JOSHUA LEVI