While his job was covert, his faith was overt. Remembering Dr. Sheldon Meth
his is the hardest Schmooze we’ve ever written.
It’s a mere few months since the petirah of Reb Shlomo Zalman ben Reb Yitzchak Isaac, Dr. Sheldon Meth a”h. Our Sheldon: Marcia’s husband for close to half a century. Beloved husband, father and father-in-law, brother and brother-in-law, uncle, and, of course, Zeidy to all his adoring grandchildren.
How could we write about Sheldon, we wondered, when our Schmoozes are usually lighthearted, with even the serious ones leavened with a generous dose of humor?
But how could we not write about him?
It’s impossible to capture in a few pages the many facets of this brilliant and much-hailed scientist whose emunah could be seen in his every action. What we can share, though, are some memories. They're written in tears, but also with the occasional smile — because Sheldon could be a really funny guy.
They're written with sadness at a life ended so early and with pride at a life lived so well.
They're written with love.
Riding on Bitachon
He’d survived so many things. The kidney disease. The transplant. The kidney’s eventual rejection. The home dialysis, the heart attack, the cardiac issues that wouldn’t go away.
Surely Sheldon — the man who faced his daunting health challenges with quiet calm rooted in profound faith — would survive this blow, too.
But he didn’t. It was his time to return his soul to the One Who’d been with him through all his many accomplishments, through all his pain.
Sheldon had been a part of our lives since Emmy and I were giggly pre-teens. Brought up in a sisterly environment, he was the first brother figure we’d ever had. It was Sheldon who tried to interest us in that new phenomenon, personal computers, giving us his much-thumbed copy of a guide to “Fortran with Watfor,” the computer geek language of the 1970s. (We preferred novels; the guidebook went unopened.)
Sheldon brought his rare and valuable laser home from Columbia University’s labs and thrilled us by pointing it at the Manhattan skyline. When he completed his doctoral thesis, he gave it to us to read; I couldn’t even understand the title, though I was proud to see his name on it. Years later, he drove me to Newark Airport from Silver Spring, and I spent a fascinating few hours learning all about how GPS systems worked, as we sped down I-95 in his car.
Ahh, that car. Toyota Prius is a popular model, and you see lots of them on the highways. But you could spot Sheldon’s in a millisecond. It was the only Toyota in Maryland, and perhaps the entire country, that sported his license plate.
Because more than a man of science, Sheldon was a man of faith.
His license plate? It contained one word.
Bitachon was there, when, newly-graduated and searching for a job in a tough market, Sheldon insisted on wearing his yarmulke to interviews, though many advised him not to. It was there at a family Seder when, sitting near him, I overheard him ignoring the hubbub that characterizes our family gatherings and quietly giving over the mesorah of emunah in Hashem to his youngest daughter, Leah. It was there on Friday evenings, when he’d quietly excuse himself to plug himself into his home dialysis equipment, with nary a kvetch or complaint.
Sheldon’s “bitachon” Prius was a hybrid, running on electricity and gasoline; Sheldon’s bitachon ran on Torah. His kvius itim l’Torah was classic Sheldon: done responsibly, seriously, consistently, and with all his strength. His car served as a beis medrash: During his commute from Silver Spring to northern Virginia and back, a three-hour round trip, he learned his daf yomi.
For 42 years, he was co-leader of a Shabbos learning group that delved deeply into the Gemara, and his Wednesday nights were spent on a conference call, teaching two baalei teshuvah Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.
Yes, Torah was at the center of his life — and it accompanied him through his last moments on earth. His brother Reb Chaim Mateh told this story during his hesped:
Sheldon’s nephew, Rabbi Shlomo Mateh, runs a Motzaei Shabbos kollel in Neve Yaakov. On winter Shabbosim, more than 30 avreichim learn there from after Havdalah through midnight. Quietly, with almost no one knowing about it, Sheldon was one of the kollel’s main supporters.
Sheldon’s family in Eretz Yisrael went into that final Shabbos knowing his hours were numbered. When Rabbi Shlomo heard about the situation, he told his wife with firm certainty that his uncle would not be niftar before 5 p.m. in Baltimore, where Sheldon lay hospitalized. Five p.m. in the United States is midnight in Yerushalayim. “He won’t die while he has the zechus of all the learning,” he said.
That Motzaei Shabbos, construction delayed the avreichim for a few minutes. Instead of leaving at midnight, they made up the time and learned until 12:15 a.m. — 5:15 p.m. Eastern Standard Time
Sheldon — Shlomo Zalman ben Yitzchak Isaac — was niftar at 5:20.
I know it’s silly, but occasionally I imagine a neshamah riding up to Shamayim in a white Toyota Prius.
On its celestial license plate is one word:
Emmy Leah ponders…
The Brachah of Physics
“So what exactly do you do for a living?” the uninitiated would ask Sheldon. To which he would invariably answer: “I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you….”
Sheldon’s work as a physicist in defense was top secret, and he was super-discreet about it. He never mentioned a word or dropped a hint to any of us. But every now and then, when his work was declassified, we caught a glimpse of what he did.
His work never killed anybody. But it did save lives. Jewish lives.
And it all started with two brachos…
First brachah: The Late 70s. After nine years studying physics at Columbia University, Sheldon was getting discouraged. He’d finished his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, but his doctoral studies seemed never-ending. Sheldon’s father suggested he visit the Bobover Rebbe, Rav Shlomo Halberstam ztz”l, for guidance.
The Rebbe looked at Sheldon and said: “Du zolst matzliach zein — you should be successful.” The very next day, Sheldon’s advisor told him he’d reached the point where he could start writing his thesis: Six months later, he was Dr. Sheldon Meth, ready to start his career.
Second brachah: The Mid-80s. Years later, Sheldon returned to the Bobover Rebbe for a brachah for his bechor, about to become bar mitzvah. After talking with young Avi, the Rebbe turned to Sheldon and said “Du zolts mashpi’ah zein — you should influence others.” A short time later, Sheldon “happened” to meet a US Air Force Colonel, project manager of a US-Israeli joint ballistic missile defense project. Sheldon mentioned that he was very familiar with Israeli language and culture.
That conversation led to ten years of work on the Arrow missile defense system that protects Israel from attack by its enemies today.
The brachah gets personal: Sometime in the 2000s. For the first time, during the recent Tzuk Eitan war (Operation Protective Edge), Israeli tanks were protected by the Trophy defense system. If a missile was aimed at a tank, Trophy sent a defensive missile to head it off. What’s more, Trophy identified the enemy fire source and shot a missile to take out the threat.
Tzuk Eitan happened years after Sheldon worked on developing Trophy. At that point, Sheldon was able to reveal his role in creating the system. He described his joy over helping save lives of tank crews, Jewish lives.
He then added something personal: While working on Trophy, he’d pushed himself by picturing a specific tank driver he hoped to protect with his efforts. The driver? His nephew — my son — Nachum, who was driving a tank back when Sheldon was helping create the armor to protect him and other young Israeli soldiers like him.
Brachah and Hashgachah: The 90s. Sheldon was fascinated by the physical world, and he saw Yad Hashem in everything. He often described a symposium held after the First Gulf War. One general spoke about a ground-based system used during the war to help warn Israelis where and when incoming Scuds would land. The system was based on something built many years earlier. At that time, engineers randomly chose between two sites, a few kilometers apart, for its final location. It turns out, the location they did not pick would have been useless in protecting Israel so many years later.
“What a coincidence,” said the general.
“What hashgachah!” said Sheldon.
Back to the first brachah. After receiving his doctorate, Sheldon returned to the Bobover Rebbe to thank him. The Rebbe asked him to explain his work. In his basic Yiddish, Sheldon described his research about lasers, a form of intense light whose practical possibilities were just beginning to be explored. The Rebbe discussed the mystical idea of light, speaking of the light of good and the light of evil.
Sheldon used his own gifts — a brilliant mind, a deep understanding of the mysteries of the physical universe — to protect His land and His people. He shared his blessings with Hashem’s people, and he brought the light of good to our world.
Marcia’s memories take flight…
Not Remembering Sheldon
April 1. United #91, Tel Aviv to Newark. In the darkness somewhere over the Atlantic, I wonder if it was all a bad dream. When I get home, I’ll wake up and find him still there, waiting for me.
Of course, I know it’s real. He’s gone from this life. Sheldon’s joined his holy ancestors.
I think about his mother, Rose Meth a”h, and her oft-repeated mantra: “I’m so proud we were able to rebuild from the Holocaust ashes, to raise children and grandchildren who all remain shomrei Torah u’mitzvos. We built an empire.”
I think of our own beautiful children and grandchildren. I’m comforted that Sheldon left this world knowing he’d played his part in continuing that strong, unbroken legacy.
I’m also strangely comforted by memories of his last days. Watching him lie peacefully supported by machines gave so many of us — wife, children, grandchildren, brother — a chance to say goodbye, each in our own way.
April 28. Southwest #4758, Ft. Lauderdale to Washington Dulles. It’s the day after Pesach, and we’re returning from Boca, from the home of my oldest son and his beautiful family. Sitting across the aisle from my youngest daughter, her husband, and baby, I reflect on the most special Pesach I’ve ever experienced. I was surrounded — no, enveloped — by the love of all my children and grandchildren. Perfect, except for one thing: Sheldon wasn’t there.
And yet he was.
His presence was felt in every devar Torah at the Yom Tov or Shabbos table, every kid’s question at the Seder, every tefillah in shul, every Chol Hamoed activity. Even in those solitary moments sitting in an isolated part of the beach, contemplating the ocean’s vastness, the never-ending succession of waves forming, growing, crashing, dying.
But now I must emerge from the cocoon of my family’s love. The eye of the hurricane. Once the plane lands, I will have to deal with my stormy new reality.
May 21. Brussels Airlines #516 and #3289, Dulles to Tel Aviv via Brussels. Traveling alone, sleep eludes me. I try to summon happy memories to rock me to sleep. But the memories don’t come.
How is that possible? We were married nearly 48 years. Knew each other for more than half a century. Practically grew up together. Memories should be flooding over me. But there’s a dam in my heart keeping the floodwaters from reaching my brain.
Frustrated, I replay other people’s memories. Recollections shared at both levayos and both shivahs (in Maryland and Beit Shemesh), at the Seder table in Boca, at the siyum Mishnayos in our Silver Spring shul.
Family, friends, rebbeim, and non-Jewish colleagues — all told stories with common themes. Brilliance. Blended Completeness. Bitachon.
Brilliance. You could ask him anything, from Gemara to physics, from simple to complex. He’d have the answer at his fingertips, gauging his audience and explaining it at their level. Without condescension. Without judgment.
The completely blended package. He didn’t just balance science and Torah. He didn’t just juggle his secular and his religious life. It was all one to him. No dichotomies. Like his inscription inside the cover of every college science notebook, physics textbook, and sefer: La’Hashem ha-aretz u’meloah. Or, as his father, Yitzchak Isaac Meth a”h, instilled into him: “Der Eibeshter feert de velt.” It’s all part of G-d’s plan.
Bitochn — the license plate on his Prius. Evident in every intonation, every heartfelt cry in his voice as he led our kehillah at Ne’ilah each Yom Kippur. Even when his physical strength was waning, his bitachon propelled koach from within.
But those are everyone else’s memories… Where are my own?
May 27. High on a Har Nof mirpeset, overlooking the beautiful hills of Yerushalayim. Memory flashes start. Little things. The goofy t-shirts and hats he’d wear on vacations. The reveling in his “cool nerdiness.” The emails we’d shoot each other across the room. The unfailing mess ups to my grocery list when shopping.
But what about the big stuff?
In just a few days I hope to swim a two-kilometer marathon in the Kinneret alongside my sisters and two nieces. Will the healing waters unlock my dammed-up memories?
And when they come, will anyone above water hear my wailing from below?
(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 646)
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