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UWM student was a tzaddik and mentsch

By Heidi Rattner

August 31st, 2012

The Milwaukee Jewish community lost a tzaddik and a mentsch on July 24 when Erik Zelman passed away at the age of 25 from complications of Marfan syndrome.

Erik Zelman

Erik Zelman

Had he lived longer, Erik would undoubtedly have designed attractive, affordable, functional buildings that would have profoundly enhanced our city.

Erik was scheduled to graduate this winter with a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

One of his architecture professors, Grace La, wrote, “For his studio with me, Erik imagined the potential for a commercial building to become an iconographic expression of sustainability, and designed many features to outwardly express the hidden qualities of buildings (their energy consumption, water use, etc.)…. In many ways, his work was an embodiment of tikkun olam [repair of the world]. As a professor, I watched him with great admiration and hope for the future of our profession.”

Erik’s talents extended beyond skillful architectural design. He demonstrated a rare talent for building community among his peers and extending throughout the generations. Embracing people from all walks of life, he ensured that people would feel comfortable with one another.

Erik was full of joie de vivre. For several years, he helped construct Hillel’s sukkah, enjoyed playing dreidel, baking challah, and eating great food. In the spring of 2011, he travelled with his peers to New Orleans on a community service trip. He attended the recent Israel Bonds dinner honoring the Komisar family and was happy to see members of his Beth El Ner Tamid Synagogue family where he celebrated becoming a bar mitzvah and attended Hebrew school.

It is unusual for a young person to be considered a tzaddik. However, Erik’s peers, teachers, and all who knew him agree. Erik was always there to lend a hand when asked.

Whether it was constructing the sukkah, moving the belongings of friends to a new home, helping with his mother’s friend’s rummage sale, no one can remember Erik turning anyone down.

Recently, he volunteered to design an accessible ramp for the Lake Park Synagogue. He was happy to be embraced by the congregants of Lake Park and enjoyed multiple opportunities to give of himself.

Within a few hours after his death, nearly 200 people offered tributes on a Facebook page set up in his memory. Susan Ellman wrote that Erik was “a gracious, thoughtful, good natured young man…. He was a rare soul, with a sharp mind and a great sense of humor, and he always had something edifying to say. He enriched the life of everyone who knew him.”

Erik loved Jewish learning. He would frequently follow classes at UWM with Torah study at Chabad. He was an avid reader and engaged in profound discussions about Jewish topics with his peers.

At his funeral, held at Beth El on July 26, his close friend Ira Tick said, “Erik impressed me, as he did everyone he met, not only with his size and his smile, his voice and his handshake, but with his good humor, his remarkable wisdom, his extraordinary kindness and — above all — his unceasing display of integrity and responsibility... Erik focused intently on maintaining self-reliance, and then on using his many talents and his forward-reaching vision to leave this world a better place than he found it. That is Erik’s legacy.”

Diana Azimov, his girlfriend, said, “Erik had a love, a reverence, and a respect for the people and the world around him that allowed him to be the best listener. He was genuinely empathetic, but never compromised his beliefs for the benefit of what was politically correct. Erik wanted what was ethical, and had a way of making things fair.”

I extend my deepest condolences to Erik’s mother, Nancy, his brother, Jeremy, and his girlfriend, Diana. Additionally, I offer my deepest concern for everyone, young and old, who were profoundly affected by Erik’s passing. May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

As Ira Tick reminded us at Erik’s funeral, “His unfinished work is ours to continue. Together with the love and the memories we hold in our hearts, let that be our way to honor him.”

Heidi Rattner is executive director of Hillel Milwaukee.