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Monday, September 25, 2017

Bernie and Bracha Graber in Portofino, Italy, in April 2015. (photo courtesy of the Graber family)

Teaneck—“Bracha lived more in 68 years than most people live in 120,” her husband, Bernie Graber, told me. I can’t help but agree. Anyone who ever met Bracha knows that she lived life to its fullest, had no regrets and traversed the earth with an air of youth and a spring in her step.

Bracha Friedman Graber, wife of Bernie, mother to Michael of Teaneck, New Jersey, and Daniel of Hartsdale, New York, passed away last Wednesday of complications from lung cancer. But her joie de vivre, her love of life; her love for her sons; daughters-in-law Caren and Lani; and grandchildren Talia, Arielle, Noah, Benjamin and Max, were obvious to all who knew her. Bracha is also survived by a brother, Avi Friedman of Cedarhurst, and a sister, Tova Friedman of Manhattan.

She didn’t just touch friends’ lives; she swept them up and brought them along on her journeys and made us part of her life. She was a role model for a life well lived, always positive, joyous and aware of her blessings. Though I am closer in age to her children than to Bracha herself, I considered her more a friend than a mentor or surrogate parent; she had a young soul.

Bracha’s generosity of spirit and selflessness were never more apparent than in her fierce love for her family. She spoke to her sons and their wives frequently, weighing in on everything from work dilemmas to childcare arrangements and everything else, from recipes to vacations to car purchases. Even though she lived in Los Angeles, Bracha was always willing to fly in on a moment’s notice to babysit. “Who else has a mother-in-law who insists on flying across the country to babysit so Michael and I can take a trip?” Caren asked.

I first met Bracha Graber in Spain in April 2006. I was still single at the time, and I was traveling with my similarly single friend Cathy. We had, adventurously, joined a Pesach program at Costa Brava. Bracha was sitting at a table with Bernie, and new friends she had just met—Gary, a British widower, with his then 18-year-old son, Joshua—and she invited us to join them. The six of us then spent the rest of the trip enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of Catalonia and Girona together.

I spent a memorable day in Barcelona with Bracha, visiting strange and wonderful haunts, including an old mikvah that could be accessed only by entering a candle store and inquiring to see the “antiquities” in the basement, and shopping for handmade espadrilles at a store famous for its celebrity client, the Pope, who always stopped in for a pair before his summer holidays. These offbeat places in exotic locales were the kinds of things Bracha knew about and took great pleasure in, everywhere she went.

The camaraderie and friendship we began that Pesach didn’t end with the trip, because we all danced together the following January at the wedding of Cathy and Gary, who this year celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary. “Each one of us had reasons we almost didn’t go to that Pesach program, and we all felt that it was truly bashert that we found each other,” said Cathy.

I remember meeting Bracha once with Cathy at the now-closed Nargila Grill on West 72nd Street, and hearing Bracha exchange a comment with her soon-to-be daughter-in-law, Lani, about “the lawsuit.” What was this, I asked? “Oh, I don’t really want to talk about it. I’m a private person. If you really want to know, Google my name and The New York Times when you get home,” she suggested. (At that same dinner, Lani recalled, we were having such a wonderful time that another table’s occupants nearby asked us to stop laughing so loudly.)

When I got home I did an internet search and then called Cathy. “Bracha was a whistleblower in a $49 million lawsuit brought by the federal government against the New York City and State Child Welfare Agency. She won. She got $4.9 million as her award under the whistleblower law,” I told Cathy. We were both astonished, since the Bracha we knew was an enthusiastic bargain hunter who frequently shared news of her amazing finds at both Costco and small boutiques in far-flung countries.

We learned later that the windfall mostly went to lawyers and a foundation that Bracha set up to provide supplemental music and art lessons for children in the foster system; whatever was left over went to financing her sons’ educations.

The lawsuit, we noted with surprise (and no small measure of pride), had a major impact on New York City and caused a complete overhaul of the foster care system. Bracha had charged that New York fraudulently collected hundreds of millions of dollars between 1990 and 1994 for foster care services that were not provided. A true Sabra, born in Israel in December 1948, Bracha had the requisite moxie to do her job without forgetting the children at stake behind the maze of bureaucracy that was the New York foster system of the early 1990s. She had worked in the foster care system for 28 years, and managed to keep her job even after her lawsuit, though she and Bernie decamped from Riverdale to Sherman Oaks, California, 18 years ago.

For much of the last two decades they were on the road, with Bracha joining Bernie as he worked on multiple continents in retail restructurings. It would not be unreasonable to say that Bracha made lifelong friends “in every port-of-call” along the way; I can only be glad to have been one of them.

Bracha also shared her love of travel, and adventure, with her family. She always made sure to be in New Jersey for school grandparents days and for birthday celebrations. Bracha loved taking her grandchildren to Broadway shows and, less than two months ago, was on the Great White Way with Noah, 6, for his first show. Michael and Caren and their family often visited Bernie and Bracha in Los Angeles; every time, Bracha would take the kids to Disneyland, including one visit where she spent four days on a Disney marathon with granddaughters Talia, 13, and Arielle, 11. While waiting for Ben, 4, and Max, almost 2, to be old enough for one of her beloved Broadway shows, she sang showtunes with them, took them to playgrounds and put together endless puzzles.

“She won every battle, but lost the war,” Bernie told me. While she had survived breast cancer 20 years ago and had scans every six months, the doctors discovered she had stage 3 lung cancer last year. Bracha and Bernie traveled the world again, this time seeking new therapies and working with the best doctors they could find, to determine the right protocols. “The trouble was, the tumor did not adhere to protocol,” Bernie said. “She was truly an Eishes Chayil. She fought cancer and would not let the damned thing win.” Almost immediately after finishing a brutal round of six chemotherapy and 30 radiation treatments, Bracha took off for Moscow and then Israel, where she joined the Yom Yerushalayim celebrations, with Michael and Daniel.

By Elizabeth Kratz

 Bernie has put plans into place to work on behalf of the Lung Cancer Foundation of America, and focus on early detection. To make a donation on behalf of Bracha Graber, z”l, please visit http://lcfamerica.org/. Baruch Dayan Emet.