Neighbors

Remembering Jessie Streich-Kest: A Young Woman Rising to the Challenges She Faced

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Max, a big Pit Bull and Shepherd mix, jumped into the pond at Prospect Park chasing ducks, an adventure countless dogs have gone on before him. In his excitement, he swam out too far. Jessie Streich-Kest knew it and, without hesitation, jumped in after him. She picked the big wet dog up and carried him back to safety on shore. Soon, Max jumped in again and required saving once more, this time by a stranger passing by who saw that Jessie couldn’t reach him in time.

Max ended up smelling about as good as all wet dogs do, but he was healthy and happy. Jessie was soaked but smiling, glad that her dog made it through one of the stranger and scarier episodes of his life up to that point. When Jessie got home that day, still dripping wet, she went into the bathroom to change. A couple of fish fell out of her sopping clothes.

“She really loved Max,” said Barbara Gross, a family friend who knew Jessie for her entire life. “They went everywhere together.”

Jessie, who, along with Jacob Vogelman, was killed while walking her dog during Hurricane Sandy on Monday night, had a passion for all animals.

“I have lots of memories of her with her pets,” said Eric Zachary, another longtime family friend. “Parakeets, turtles, dogs, rabbits. She had a real connection and commitment to animals.”

Her passion extended into activism. She showed up in the news last year as she fought against the treatment of horses in Central Park. As an activist, she’s also worked for the Obama campaign, taught in Western Philadelphia and worked for ACORN with unions, candidates and elections.

“She was a fighter,” said Steve Kest, her uncle. “Any time she saw something unjust, she wanted to right that wrong.”

“What stands out for me about Jessie is that she lived her values,” said Eric. “I’ve been thinking about her a lot these past few days. She lived with a lot of integrity. She lived by what she believed in. She was never seduced by popular fads and materialism.”

As news of her passing spread, hundreds of tributes have been written about her by friends and family around the world.

One friend who attended the University of Pennsylvania with her told a story about how Jessie changed his life. As a gay teenager entering college, he had trouble coming out. When he met Jessie, he found the courage to do so.

“There really is no word to accurately describe how I felt when I met her than the word ‘safe,’” wrote the friend. “Jessie made me feel safe, because she was unequivocally accepting of people, no matter their sexuality, socioeconomic class, color, ethnicity, or any other perceivable (or unperceivable) difference. She was an absolute warrior for tolerance. She emanated acceptance. That first day with Jessie at Penn, the words that were so hard to say to everyone else simply rolled off my tongue without so much a stutter.”

Sara Al Khalufi met Jessie at the Global Young Leaders Conference several years ago. Sara, a Muslim from Abu Dhabi, and Jessie, a Jew from Brooklyn, became close immediately.

“On the first night in our dorm, I was a bit worried of your reaction as I began to pray,” wrote Sara, “but you watched me silently and respectfully, and even asked what it meant to be a Muslim. That was meaningful, and so humble of you to express interest and share your thoughts.”

“There are hundreds of tributes on Facebook that are stunning,” said Barbara Gross. “They’re all about what an amazing friend she was, what an anchor, the support she gave that changed people’s lives. She was totally committed to a better world. Everything she did was to help people and animals.”

Jessie fell in love with teaching when she attended Edward R. Murrow High School.

“She loved the school, teachers and principal,” said her uncle Steve, “and they all loved her. She wanted to teach history to convey that love of learning and history to students the way she experienced it at Murrow.”

Jessie took part in NYC Teaching Fellows, a program designed to help prepare teachers for work based on the medical education model of internships. She had just finished last year and her first job started in September at Bushwick High School for Social Justice, a school consisting almost entirely of low-income and immigrant students. Jessie was a 10th grade special education teacher.

“A lot of young people are idealistic about teaching,” said Matt MacLean, a former teacher of Jessie’s at Murrow and her friend ever since. “Usually I council people to temper down their expectations to something that the education system can live up to. Jessie wouldn’t have it. She was the most passionate person I’ve ever seen about it.”

Jessie had recently shared a video with Matt of her sitting one-on-one with a student, patiently teaching him how to read.

“The last I spoke to Jessie was two weeks ago,” said Tom Salgo, a friend from high school. “We talked for 20 minutes on the phone about her kids at school. It’s difficult, but she was enjoying it.”

Jessie’s social justice streak and work in education was passed down to her from her parents, who live in Prospect Park South.

Her mother Fran has worked for ACORN and the United Federation of Teachers for many years, first doing teacher and parent organizing in Brooklyn and then Manhattan. Her father, Jon, was a lead organizer for New York ACORN and more recently for New York Communities for Change, organizing low-income people to build power and make concrete change.

“Fran has tremendous pride in Jessie,” said Leonie Haimson, a colleague and friend.

“The principal of Bushwick High School came by to speak to the family,” said Eric Zachary. “That was incredibly poignant. I’ve been around public education for 30 years, and the way in which the principal talked about Jessie seemed incredibly genuine. Jessie had risen to the challenge at a very early stage in her career. She was really nervous before school started, but her confidence grew immensely in the short period of two months. She was in a great situation. She was a young person finding her way in the world.”

Jessie had many strong relationships in her life. Her father was diagnosed with cancer this summer, and so, as she visited him regularly, she had seen other family friends recently. She visited her father on Monday, and then called one of her closest friends, Jacob Vogelman, to see if he would keep her company during a difficult time.

“When Jake told me he was going to Jessie’s house, I wasn’t happy about it,” said Jacob’s mother to the BBC. “I said the storm is coming and you should stay home. Jake being Jake, who is always thinking about other people and taking care of people and is just a very sweet, optimistic, caring person … For him, his friend needed him. The only thing he was thinking about was being there for his friend, so he went over to her house.”

When Jacob and Jessie were in her Ditmas Park apartment, it would have looked like it always did: Pictures of her family decorating the walls next to calendars for school, piles of books all around, a doggy lock to keep Max out of the garbage.

The friends went out with Max that night, and were found by neighbors the next morning below a great mass of trees on Ditmas Avenue.

“There’s been an awful lot of crying,” said Eric Zachary, “and a sense of disbelief. Now we’re beginning the sharing of stories about Jessie.”

“My heart goes out to Fran and Jon,” said Leonie Haimson. “I can’t imagine what it’d be like. I have a daughter the same age. It’s mind boggling. It feels so terrible.”

“The suddenness of it. Her vitality,” said Barbara Gross. “It’s been really hard to deal with. It’s hard to believe it. She was 24 years old, and she was just coming into her own as a young adult person with her job and her apartment and Max.”

Many neighbors have emailed and called to find out how Max is doing and several donated to help out with veterinary costs.

“Max was touch and go and is doing much better now,” said Barbara, “and we’re hopeful. He had head trauma, so they were worried, but he seems to have really come around.”

“Jessie cared a lot,” continued Eric. “She gave a lot, expected a lot and stood up for people. There was nothing she wouldn’t do for friends, animals and people in need. She had great generosity of heart and great generosity of action.”

“I’ve been looking at Facebook a lot since it happened,” said Matt MacLean. “Her classmates from Murrow have been writing a lot on her wall. One of them wrote something that I remember: ‘Even if you don’t have money, if you can’t contribute, just get out there and help someone. That’s what Jessie would have wanted.'”

Honey, Dear performed at Lark last night. All proceeds went to the Jessie Streich-Kest fund.

We wish Jessie’s, and Jacob’s, family and friends our deepest condolences. Services for Jessie will be held on Sunday at 1pm at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, and the family will sit Shiva at the home of Jon Kest and Fran Streich, 99 Argyle Road, on Sunday from 7-9pm and Monday 6-9pm. Donations are currently being accepted in Jessie’s name to support Sean Casey Animal Rescue.

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