Early this morning the incredible Sylvia Lask passed away. It still has not hit me since, like everyone, I assumed she would live another twenty years.
She was one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. Her constant energy, her tireless advocacy and passion for helping people with mental health issues was unsurpassed. Growing up in the Zionist movement taught her that advocacy was all encompassing and that you were never satisfied with half a loaf…And one other thing, you never stop fighting and you don’t care who you anger if you know you are in the right. All of us who knew Sylvia could share stories about her gentle coaxing (alright I mean screaming) at elected officials and policy makers who didn’t agree with her. She was never shy about her principles and where she stood on issues.
She also knew everyone. Walking the hall of the LOB and Capitol with her was like walking with the President. She knew everyone and they all deeply respected her especially every politician from the Bronx. Though her closest political friends were Congressman Engel and Assemblyman Dinowitz, she really had great things to say about almost all of the other Bronx officials as well. Though she was incredibly partisan in her beliefs, she also respected individuals and would cross the aisle if she thought highly of someone from the other party.
Her accomplishments as an advocate could fill a book. Timothy’s Law, Reinvestment, Adult Homes, Suicide Prevention, Conditions in the Psychiatric Hospitals (she was a long time member of the Board of Visitors) and one of her proudest legacies—Mental Health in Schools. She was the engine that could—she thought that everyone in school should be taught about mental health. Like the dog with a bone, she never gave up on that notion for years until it became reality. Without her leadership, I frankly don’t know if New York would have been the first State in the nation to have mental health instruction in school. What an incredible legacy.
Sylvia loved MHANYS and was our biggest cheer leader. Everywhere she went, she sang our praises. In her three year tenure as board chair, we traveled to every corner of the State to meet with our affiliates. She knew that the affiliates were the lifeblood of our organizations and loved to sit down and find out about their issues and how we could help respond to their needs. She loved the organization and telling folks what an incredible board and staff we had at MHANYS.
She just loved people and craved the interactions. I think her favorite thing was sitting with people, eating meals at the Concierge Room at the Marriot and telling stories about her incredible life. Our deputy director Melissa said it well when she said that Sylvia treats everyone like they are in a kibbutz.—the notion of a collective community where everyone was treated with respect and equality. No one was too important to wash the dishes or clean the tables (which she did after every board meeting). The central theme of the kibbutz was that everyone was family and that is exactly what she thought about people. She knew everything about people’s lives and cared so deeply about their families. We have all been on the receiving end of her cards, rugalach and gift certificates.
The part that is hardest for me is the personal part. We knew each other before I started at MHANYS but we didn’t really know each other well. I thought she didn’t like me because she yelled at me when I was director of NAMI for holding an event during Passover week. Little did I know was that was just Sylvia being Sylvia. We have all been on the other side of that but it was also part of her charm. When I became director of MHANYS eighteen years ago, she became a dear friend.
Outside of my wife and son, I spent more time with her than anyone else. Hours in the car going to our affiliates, meals on the road, time with our families—all were precious and endearing. My family became her family and vice versa. She was a major part of my son’s Bar Mitzvah and at every family event we ever had. He became her nephew She came out of the hospital just to come to my son’s one year anniversary of his clean date. She considered my wife Kathy like a younger sister—they developed a bond and friendship that will last forever.
I know we were hardly alone. She was like that with other people as well. She gave of herself and her heart and soul to everyone (except those who crossed her—that’s a story for another day). Many were mispacha to her.
Besides leaving countless friends, she also leaves behind three wonderful people—her daughter Vicki, her son Mark and her grandson Ron. Over the years we have come to know them well. They are all people of great heart like their mother/grandmother. For several years, Ron would come with his grandmother to Albany and spend time with us. We have watched a young boy turn into a wonderful young man.
I think one of our board members Michael Townsend said it best when saying that he was a better person just for knowing Sylvia. I couldn’t agree more. In the Jewish tradition, may her wonderful memory be a blessing to us all.
Zay Gezunt my dear friend. I will miss you more than you will possibly know.
194 Washington Avenue, Suite 415
Albany, N.Y. 12210