They were close friends from childhood with a shared commitment to helping others. Now Jessie Streich-Kest and Jacob Vogelman are being buried just two days apart after being crushed by a falling tree in Brooklyn in the midst of Hurricane Sandy.
Streich-Kest, 24, was a young teacher dedicated to social justice. Vogelman, 23, was a student known for his eagerness to lend a helping hand.
The two were walking with Steich-Kest’s dog in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn at the height of the storm on October 29. They were found dead the following morning. Vogelman’s funeral is scheduled for November 2. Streich-Kest’s is set for November 4.
Streich-Kest “really had such a strong sense of how to treat people and what was right, and a real passion for life and for social change,” said Eric Zachary, a longtime family friend, in an interview with the Forward. “Here’s a young person whose integrity was unquestioned.”
“He died going to help a friend,” Vogelman’s father Lawrence Vogelman told Reuters.
Streich-Kest and Vogelman were two of the 38 people killed in New York City by the massive late November storm. More than 80 people were killed around the U.S., with many more displaced.
Streich-Kest’s death has rocked the tight-knit New York City social justice community, of which her parents are leading members. Her father, Jon Kest, is executive director of New York Communities for Change and former director of New York ACORN; her mother, Francine Streich, works for the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City teacher’s union. Kest is seriously ill, according to news reports.
A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Streich-Kest had started a job as a 10th grade special education teacher at the Bushwick High School for Social Justice just months before her death. Friends said she had just finished conducted her first parent-teacher conferences.
“It feels like she was just getting her footing,” said Barbara Gross, another friend of her family. “She found her way to teaching and she loved it. It brought so many things together for her – her commitment to young people, her [commitment to] social justice.”
Streich-Kest was a poet, an athlete, and a movie fan with a deep love for animals, those who knew her told the Forward. Streich-Kest has campaigned against the use of carriage horses in Central Park. Many spoke of her commitment to Max, her pit bull.
“Her and Max were inseparable,” Gross said.
Others said they remembered her as a leader. “People kind of flocked to her,” said Rabbi Ellen Lippman, spiritual leader of Kolot Chayeinu, a progressive synagogue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where Streich-Kest became bat mitzvah. “She had, even as a young person, a great ability to cross generations with a caring beyond her years.”
Lippman will conduct Streich-Kest’s funeral.
Streich-Kest grew up in Prospect Park South, a few blocks from the park. She went to middle school at Brooklyn Friends School, where she met Vogelman, and later attended Edward R. Murrow High School in the Midwood section.
On Streich-Kest’s Facebook wall, friends posted remembrances describing her as supportive and open-hearted. One writer described how she helped him come out as gay; another remembered tutoring students with her in West Philadelphia.
She was also an organizer. In a 2007 blog post, former ACORN chief organizer Wade Rathke described how Streich-Kest, then a college student, had set up a meeting between then-Senator Barack Obama and ACORN officials while volunteering with the Obama campaign in New York.
“Having overheard at home that ACORN’s leaders were having trouble getting a meeting with the Senator finally put together, she saw the opportunity and seized it, raising the point with the NY campaign manager,” Rathke wrote. “Jesse re-teaches us all a simple organizing lesson. It’s not just a matter of being at the right place at the right time. It really is knowing to seize that time!”
Friends are taking donations to make a gift to an animal rescue shelter in her memory.
In a blog post, New York City Councilman Brad Lander wrote that he had known Streich-Kest through her political work.
“[S]he was energetic and tireless and a lot of fun,” Lander wrote. “And she followed up to lobby our office (very persistently) on the cause of animal rights, something she felt very passionately about.”
Vogelman, a graduate of SUNY Buffalo, was a student in a masters’ program at Brooklyn College. His mother Marcia Sikowitz is a housing court judge in Brooklyn, his father an attorney and former law professor.
“I keep expecting him just to walk through the door,” Sikowitz told the Daily Beast. Sikowitz learned of her son’s death when she called his cell phone on Tuesday morning and an NYPD detective answered.
Vogelman grew up at Congregation Beth Elohim, a Reform synagogue in Park Slope. Rabbi Andy Bachman, that synagogue’s spiritual leader, will conduct his funeral.
Vogelman’s family has asked for donations in his name to be made to Learning Ally, an organization that provides services to dyslexic children.
Childhood Friends Die Together in Sandy
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.