The life and legacy of Neely Snyder should — and will — continue to reverberate and inspire those who knew her, and positively affect those who didn’t.
Neely Snyder, 37, was a devoted wife, mother of three young children, daughter, sister, aunt, granddaughter, friend, colleague, and a stellar Jewish educator. She was driving to work on Aug. 10, when a tractor-trailer hit her from behind in Maryland.
Early deaths remind us all of life’s fragility. We think we know about mortality. Yet we don’t. Intellectually we know that we won’t live forever but somehow we think the bad stuff will happen to someone else, over there.
Many have been amazed at how many lives Neely touched in just 37 years. Neely dedicated her professional life to dynamic Jewish institutions. She worked at Akiba Hebrew Academy, now the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, youth groups, camps, Baltimore’s Center for Jewish Education, founded JQ Baltimore in support of LGBTQ Jews, and served as Program Director at the Pearlstone Retreat Center. Pearlstone boasts a vibrant farm, with veggies, fruits and goats, as well as family programs, Jewish sustainability programs, Shabbat retreats and more. Neely graduated from Barnard and The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. When you add up all of her colleagues, students, retreat participants, youth groups, and innovative leadership symposiums; Neely must have studied texts, launched new programs, sang songs, made up skits, and petted the goats with literally thousands of teens, youth, and adults.
Neely’s life makes the case for how important it is to be involved in community. We often think in terms of individuality, and make choices to live far from a community center, or forgo joining a synagogue or place of worship. Neely’s life affirms that when we connect with larger numbers of people, we can have a greater impact and accomplish things collectively that we could not do by ourselves.
I remember before Neely and her husband, Josh, gave birth to their first child, Shalva, Neely gathered us for a women’s ritual. She asked us to write blessings on colorful strips of paper and then tape them onto poster board. She wanted to hang it in the delivery room so she could look at colorful blessings when she gave birth instead of a blank wall. How did Neely think to make medical spaces sacred? It was as if she instinctually knew how to enhance a space and lift people up in the process.
The art of merging ancient Jewish tradition with progressive values is essentially why I moved to Philadelphia over a decade ago. I wanted a particular lifestyle. I wanted to live around people who celebrated Shabbat and prioritized sustainability, a place with lots of universities and green trees, a place with affordable housing, public transit, arts, and a place where people cared about tikkun olam, or repairing the world. Neely and Josh represented quintessential community members who engaged in all of this and more.
Josh’s blogging since Neely has passed has been extraordinary, raw and frankly incomprehensible in its eloquence. A few hours before the funeral, at a time when he could have been bawling his eyes out, comforting his children, clamoring with family over shiva plans or veggie platters, or ignoring the rest of the world; Josh wrote one of the most powerful things I’ve ever read, and I paraphrase:
Whether you are far or near, come, come to the funeral and shiva, do not be afraid, do not be afraid of this tragedy, bask in Neely’s light, as she would want you to.
Stunned. I reread it. Again and again.
Had he, who just lost the love of his life of nearly 20 years and lost the mother of his three children, actually just turned the focus onto others? Did Josh just go outside of himself to invite us in? With outstretched arms, Josh comforted a wide array of people when he had lost his beloved. Unbelievable.
Josh’s eulogy for Neely has reminded me that we are not defined by how we die nor by the suffering we have endured. We are defined by how we live.
Josh described how he loved Neely’s laugh, her smile, her patience, her strong opinions and careful words, her being bossy pants even when she wasn’t boss, and her huge heart. He described how he had anticipated her return from the mikvah. Somehow to me, Josh’s sharing of the details of their loving relationship bravely affirmed that Jews of diverse backgrounds can and do uphold sacred mitzvot.
Upon hearing the news about Neely, many wanted to know what they could do. Judaism teaches that there are three main types of giving: (1) tzedakah or charitable giving, (2) tefillah or prayer and (3) chesed or acts of loving-kindness. These three go hand-in-hand; one without the others leaves us off-balance. Neely and Josh demonstrated what it means to give in each of these ways and more.
Contributions for Josh and the three children can be sent to:www.youcaring.com/rabbi-josh-snyder
Donations in Neely’s memory can be sent to: Pearlstone Retreat Center, 5425 Mt Gilead Rd, Reistertown, MD 21136
Goucher College Hillel, 1021 Dulaney Valley Rd, Towson, MD 21204
J.Q. Baltimore, 1601 Guilford Ave, 2 South, Baltimore, MD 21202