Gerry Willis – We Will Not Forget You

by Arliene Botnick, March 30, 2022

“Solu, solu – blaze, blaze the pathway! (Isaiah 62:10) From this verse, we chose Solel’s name almost 50 years ago. Solel means Pathfinder, and we were the Pathfinder for Jews in areas west of Toronto and for some families from Toronto to find a home, a community, a synagogue in Mississauga. We have had many great and wonderful leaders helping us build and widen and strengthen this path, but on March 27, 2022, we had to say goodbye to one of those remarkable leaders. On Mar 27, 2022, on what it would have been his 94th birthday, we buried Gerry Willis, an amazing man, a scholar, a loving husband, a dear friend, a real mensch!

In 1973, on Yom Kippur, a 44-year-old Gerry Willis walked up to Rabbi Englander and said that he, Gerry, wanted officially to be part of the Jewish community. Like Rabbi Akiva, Gerry, who chose as his Hebrew name Akiva, was a mature man when he found the path that directed his next 50 years And for almost 50 years, he has not only been part of our community but he has been a source of strength, of passion, and one of our brightest guiding lights. Many of you may remember Gerry as on each of the High Holidays, he would be there opening and closing the aron kodesh (ark) on the Bimah for the congregation. You may remember Gerry when he would read from Torah on Shabbat for us, especially his favourite portions from the story of Joseph in the book of Exodus and from any portion that had to do with the building of the tabernacle or the objects of clothing that the high priests wore. You may remember Gerry when he came to the school to teach our children about the art of scribing, as he himself had learned how a Torah is written by hand, by a scribe, with a quill pen on very special parchment. Or you may remember Gerry when he would be a greeter at the door of our sanctuary, warmly welcoming each and everyone of us into services.

It is so difficult to realize that Gerry will no longer be there to welcome us, to teach us, to lead us. But he will be remembered, because that’s what eternal life is about, being remembered for your good name and your good deeds. And there are so many ways in which Gerry will live on at Solel. It was in his honour and partially because of his initiative that the Torah project was set into motion. And in memory of his wonderful wife Nancy, Gerry financially supported the concept of Solel getting its very first new Torah, written by our very own soferet (scribe). It will be completed at the end of 2023 and this Torah scroll is part of Gerry’s legacy. And we will remember Gerry when we look at the spindles (the rollers – the eitzei chayim) that hold our existing Torahs, because he fashioned those for us. And we will remember Gerry because one of our very own members, Stuart Englander, took it upon himself to capture the amazing life that Gerry lived in a biography that Stuart wrote, after numerous interviews with Gerry, called “Pathfinder – The Remarkable Life Journey of Gerry Willis.” In this book, the amazing life of Gerry unfolds, and we learn what a exceptional man Gerry was. We learn about his enlisting in the Merchant Marines, about his near-death experiences during the war, about his meeting and marrying the love of his life Nancy, and about his passion and drive to lifelong study and involvement in the Jewish community of Solel. We also learn about the unwavering support given him by his wonderful Nancy (perhaps similar once again to the support given to Rabbi Akiva by his wife), how she stood by his side at our synagogue, in their home and in every walk of life that they shared together.

And then those of us who knew Gerry as a friend, as a colleague, as a real Mensch, will remember all the help he gave us in so many ways. I personally remember the number of times he would volunteer to come over and fix my very old lawnmower and each time he would suggest (very strongly) to me that it was time to buy a new one. Finally, he just got one for me! Then there was the time I commented on his exceptional woodworking skills he had when I saw some items that he had made in his own home. The next time he saw me, he had fashioned the most beautiful set of wooden salad forks – which I still use – as a gift to me. The Stoch family will remember the number of Passover Seders that they shared with Nancy and Gerry, and how much they enjoyed the warmth and hospitality of that holiday with this wonderful couple. Many of us have all these moving memories of this wonderful man, this exceptional man this man who never stopped studying, who never stopped learning, and who never stopped living his Jewish life to the fullest.

It is so hard to say goodbye to someone who has been part of your life for 50 years, but Gerry is still here in so many ways. As we all listened at his funeral to the eulogies spoken by his most dedicated caregiver Sherry Amar, and by our Rabbis Pollack and Englander, and by Gerry’s step son-in- law Jim, we are comforted knowing that Gerry will always be with us as long as we remember all that he stood for, all that he valued and all that he accomplished. Truly, the memory of the righteous is for a blessing and we are blessed to have had Gerry with us for almost 50 years.

Filed under: Educator's Message

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