Through Laughter and Tears
It was 1951. I was among a handful of Midwest representatives attending NFTY's fourth annual leadership institute on the campus of Haverford College, in Haverford, Pennsylvania. We were joined by the first representative from NFTY's Southern region: SOFTY President Sandra Jacobs.
The boys lived in a dorm at one side of the campus and the girls in a group of cabins across the quad. As is often the case at teen camps, boys and girls would pair up for each evening program. After a few days it became clear that the "in" girls occupied one cabin…and I had paired up with five out of the eight. I decided it would be a real coup to date all eight. By the end of the week, only one girl had eluded me-Sandy Jacobs-and she would have nothing to do with me. At my wits' end, I told her if she didn't date me, I'd jump out of her window. She said "NO!"…and I jumped. (The window was on the first floor.) Somehow that stunt convinced her to join me for the evening program, and once we spent time together, we found out we really liked each other.
This was the last night of camp, and the counselors thought it would be fun to hold a mock wedding ceremony symbolizing NFTY's new national structure. They invited Sandy to represent the South and me to represent the North. That evening, Sandy called home and in the course of the conversation introduced me to her parents as her "husband for the day."
The next day we kissed goodbye, promised to write, and I took the train back to Milwaukee. When I got home I thought it would be clever to send her a telegram that said: "Arrived home safely; hope you are well. Your loving husband, Steve." What I didn't know was that Sandy, who'd just been elected a NFTY vice president, had gone to Ontario to attend a regional convention and from there to a regional convention in New York, and then on to another convention in Philadelphia. As she left each convention she sent a postcard home but never mentioned where she was headed. After two weeks, her family finally caught up with her through an aunt in Philadelphia and demanded that she come home immediately. They thought she was on a honeymoon with her "new husband." It took Sandy more than a year to convince her father that she had not secretly married me.
Shortly thereafter, Sandy entered Sophie Newcomb College (now part of Tulane) and I began my undergraduate studies at Cornell University on a Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship. We continued corresponding by letter. Only much later did we discover that both of us had saved all our romantic letters-an indication, even then, that our relationship was special. We called often and talked for hours about our lives and dreams. I spent much of my limited budget on phone bills, both because long distance communication was expensive in those days and because Sandy had to repeat everything she said at least twice before I could interpret her Southern drawl.
Each summer I served as a midshipman on a Navy ship. I could only see Sandy during winter and spring breaks. Over the course of four years I must have hitchhiked 10,000 miles to be with her. On one such occasion I decided to surprise her, only to find out after hitching 1550 miles to New Orleans that she'd gone to my family's home in Miami to surprise me! So I got back on the road and hitched to Miami. With each visit our affection grew. Our romance was blossoming into love.
Sandy and I were total opposites. She, the ultimate extrovert, loved people and was impulsive. I, an introverted nerd, loved school and was a well-organized planner. She was intuitive; I was analytical. Our natures and personalities complemented each other and drew us together, like opposite poles of a magnet. By our junior year I knew I was in love and wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. Sandy completed me! I could not even imagine life without her.
In 1955, as soon as both of us finished school, we became husband and wife, married at Temple Sinai in New Orleans. We had the distinction of being the very first NFTY couple to wed. Since then, many others have followed in our footsteps.
Our first years were a combination of continuing courtship, learning about each other, and discovering the depths of our love. After three years, while stationed in Jacksonville, we had our first child. Jeanne was deaf, had kidney problems, and required heart surgery, all as a result of medication prescribed during Sandy's pregnancy. The stress of such a situation could either tear up the fabric of a family or strengthen its bonds. In our case, Jeanne added a new relationship and strength to our marriage. Though only 24 years of age, we became an unbeatable team, organizing a support group for parents of deaf children in Jacksonville, where we received as much help as we gave.
Shortly thereafter, with Sandy once again pregnant, I completed my military service and GE hired me as a nuclear engineer. We moved to Cincinnati where our son, David, was born. Here, as in Jacksonville, no support group existed for parents of deaf children, so we organized one. We also wanted to join a Reform congregation, but couldn't afford the dues (leaving the military resulted in a 35% pay cut), so we became youth group advisors at Temple Sholom, receiving in turn the perk of free membership.
After three years my GE job ended. We moved to Washington D.C., where I workedat the Atomic Energy Commission and served as youth director at Washington Hebrew Congregation-again offering volunteer time in lieu of dues. Sandy reorganized and expanded a local support group for parents of the deaf, but after four years we concluded that the best school for Jeanne was in New York City. As the Lexington School for the Deaf tuition was prohibitive unless we resided in New York State, I found a new job-director of Nuclear Technology for the New York State Atomic and Space Development Authority-and we moved to New City, New York, where we joined Temple Beth Sholom. We became very active with the youth group and also held a number of temple leadership positions. Sandy began a new career as well, working as a volunteer and then a full-time teacher of physically and mentally challenged children.
In 1969, shortly before her 12th birthday, Jeanne died of kidney failure. Even though it was expected, her death was a major trauma to our family, and especially to her younger brother, David. After Jeanne's death, we learned that our active, popular boy who excelled at school and athletics (I'd coached both his touch football and his basketball teams, and was on the board of his Little League) had long felt overshadowed because of the attention we showered on his older sister. We were not aware that was the case, but we understood that his perception was his reality, and that we would need to make amends.
We moved back to Washington and took on new jobs. I joined a consulting company and Sandy worked at a special high school administering diagnostic tests to problem teenagers. One of the high school students, Paul, was a Jewish boy who had been a ward of the court since age two and now, at 17, was almost the same age as Jeanne would have been. He became our first foster child. Before Paul moved in, however, we told David that any time he felt the situation had become too difficult, he could blow the whistle and Paul would have to go. Paul challenged each of us, but mostly David, to prove that our love and support were not transitory and that he was "worthy" of love. After almost a year, David blew the whistle, but said that he would be the one to tell Paul. That night after dinner the two boys went to the basement to talk. For five hours we heard nothing…and then two guitars started playing. We never learned any details about that conversation, but Paul stayed, and Paul and David became inseparable brothers. Over the next several years, Paul grew from a high school graduate with a fourth grade education to become the youngest vice president of Viacom Radio.
In 1978 my consulting company asked me to open a new division in the South. Paul was on his own and David in college, so we moved to Houston, where we became active members of Congregation Beth Israel, and Sandy started a new career as a paralegal at a major law firm. Five years later I established my own consulting service, and Sandy decided I was having too much fun and followed suit, creating her own paralegal firm. After a few years she sold her share of the business to her partner and began her next career…as a clown. She persuaded me to join her, and we shared a new adventure as Peanuts and Popcorn. Together we visited the cancer wards at Houston's Children's Hospital and entertained at charity events. Sandy observed that when I was in clown costume, my personality changed; I became an extrovert and related totally differently to others. With each adventure we grew closer.
We continued to "parent" troubled teenagers, bringing about 20 into our home over the years. While Paul had come to us through the foster care system, all the others arrived informally-some at the request of their parents, some at the suggestion of kids who had lived with us. Sandy and I shared the parenting: She dealt with the emotional, social, and psychological issues, and I dealt with academic and life skills (such as money management). Parenting these young adults provided new and different avenue for us to share our lives and to keep our relationship…our love…fresh and growing.
We were in our mid-60s when we retired. Sandy continued to clown and volunteer with organizations that assisted children with special challenges. I served in leadership roles in a number of organizations, among them the World Union for Progressive Judaism, Men of Reform Judaism, the Houston Jewish Federation, ARZA, and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. As my partner, advisor, and cheerleader, Sandy helped transform me from an introverted nerd to a human being who could connect with my peers.
Around the time we reached 75, our lives changed dramatically. Sandy was diagnosed with lung cancer and underwent surgery and chemotherapy. I became the nurturer and caregiver, both previously Sandy's domain. Roles also reversed with our foster children: Decades earlier we had no thought other than to help these troubled kids become whole; now many of them offered their love and support, becoming a blessing to us when we most needed it.
Sandy died on July 9, 2010. Our amazing 55-year partnership has defined who I am today…and who I will be tomorrow. She had always been the "go to" person in both of our extended families whenever a cousin or niece wanted advice. Now that role has fallen to me. Her voice and her thoughts are always with me, guiding me. And the memory of her love is a constant source of strength.
Stephen Breslauer has served as president of Men of Reform Judaism as well as a member of the URJ Executive Board and the Union's Southwest Council Regional Board, among other organizations. The URJ's Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi is named in honor of Sandy's father. Watch "A Tribute to Sandy Breslauer," Stephen and Sandy's love story on video.