Sophomore Andrew Rosenthal met Rochester Institute of Technology student Joseph Ferraro on the Hillel-sponsored ?Birthright Israel? trip. Ferraro contracted meningitis on the trip and died shortly after his return. Here is Rosenthal?s personal account.
He sat down next to me, slowly taking off his headphones. ?Someone took my seat, so I think I?ll talk to you. By the way, my name is Joe.?
I tried to ask him what he was listening to, but I was interrupted by neighbors on the plane. It hadn?t taken him long to make friends. It was the only time I saw him wear his glasses. As his seat was no longer occupied, he threw me a handshake and trotted back there.
Joe, Binet Fink and I wandered as adventurers amongst the natives. We walked with elbows turned out through the crowded market, our backpacks twisted out in front of us like bumpers, weaving between exotic smells and errant shouts. Joe was excited like a child, happy to be apart of the Friday evening motions.
We were flagged down by two students of the ultra-orthodox Labovitcher movement who asked us if we would wear Tefillen, a wrap used for prayer. As a reform Jew, I don?t wear Tefillen daily, but I had worn it before. For Joe, however, it was a new experience.
He had only been bar mitzvahed a few days earlier at the Western Wall instead of at the usual age of 13. In retrospect, it was a fortunate situation, unaware as we were. Ritually reciting the prayers I remembered from my own bar mitzvah in unison with Joe, I remember the way he smiled as he too was feeling a part of our alien homeland.
The night before we left Israel, there was a contest amongst the members of our group to see if anyone could name everyone on the bus. Another made the first attempt, but failed by a few names.
Then Joe got up and quickly named everyone on the bus, signing along too for the deaf students on the trip. For this he was awarded a coveted milkshake which we all ended up partaking in with him.
We went out that night with a bunch of friends to a club in Tel Aviv. Our trip was cut short though, as the club we wanted to go to was closed. We decided to hail cabs and go back to the hotel and then hang out on the beach instead. It was one of the few times he didn?t have his video camera with him, as he was making a movie of our journey.
When we got back to the hotel, Joe had gone to bed. He had mentioned earlier that he wasn?t feeling well. We assumed it was simply exhaustion. We slept soundly that night, unaware as we were.
The next morning as I got on the bus, I was surprised to see Joe. He had decided while we were in Israel to extend his trip, but he had gotten too sick to stay and decided to go home instead.
I asked him off-handedly how he was feeling, but he simply rolled his head, his eyes obscured by the green-rimmed sunglasses he often wore. He sat three seats away from me on the plane. His head bobbed up and down with each jerk of the plane. He nodded off to sleep before the plane got off the ground. It didn?t take me long to fall asleep either, unaware as I was.
When I awoke, Joe had been moved up to first class next to my friend Nick. His condition had grown worse. Nick had come back to find me, but I was asleep.
Looping over Canada, the captain asked if there were any doctors on the plane. Joe?s condition was worsening. He broke out into red, pus-filled legions as the meningitis entered his bloodstream. Clutching Nick, he cried out the sounds and words that still haunt Nick, unable as he was to help. Stepping off the plane in Newark, I saw him for the last time, a decaying body hiding his young soul.
His head tilted to the left, his eyes veiled by familiar green-rimmed sunglasses, a clear I.V. winding above his head. It would be the last time I would ever see him, unaware as I was. I went home, saw my parents, ate dinner, went to sleep, unaware as I was.
Returning from a run, I could see my father sitting patiently on my stoop: ?That boy died last night.? My sneakers for a moment became cemented to the pavement as my heart raced ahead of my immobile feet.
Quickly calling the doctor, I went immediately on preventive antibiotics along with my parents and girlfriend. The day passed slowly, in a blurred time, on the phone with friends. Through fear, we relayed memories of him. Joe had told his mother that he loved her, and died two hours after getting off the plane.
The train from work lurched lethargically out of the tunnel, into the thick evening sky. moved slowly and methodically as if it were moving frame by frame in a motion picture.
?A Rochester man died of meningitis on an El Al flight,? the paper read. A man? I guess he was a man ? Joseph Ferraro was 20 years old, a young man, but a man nonetheless.
I brought back a lot from Israel ? candlesticks for my mom, a star of David which I still wear ? but I lost something, too. Gone is my immortality, the belief that I was protected from tragedy.
?Wither has fled that visionary gleam?? wrote Wordsworth. Where is my dream, where has my youth gone? But maybe it?s still there behind closed lids, in dreams and memories of a friend now departed, the images and words he spent capturing on film, of a world, of a friend not forgotten across the sea.