Jewish Journal

Torah, Prayer Then Death From the Air

by Julie G Fax

Posted on Jun. 12, 2003 at 8:00 pm

The night before he died, 78-year-old Tibor Reis stayed up until 2 a.m. studying Torah. When he awoke early the next morning, he went to the mikvah (ritual bath) and then to pray at Young Israel of Los Angeles, where he had been a member for more than 30 years.

After shul last Friday, Reis went home to rest. At 4 p.m., a small plane plummeted out of the sky and crashed into his second-floor apartment at the corner of Spaulding Avenue and Clinton Street in the Fairfax area, killing him.

Although Reis' body was too charred for the ritual pre-burial washing to be performed, Young Israel President Joseph Mizrahi found some consolation in the fact that Reis had just been to the mikvah that morning and that his last hours were spent in Torah study and prayer.

"He lived a righteous life and died as a tzadik [righteous one]," Mizrahi said.

"He was a pleasure -- a wonderful, beautiful, smiley person," said Rabbi Shalom Rubanowitz of Young Israel.

The other victims of the crash, all aboard the plane, were Marina del Rey residents Tony Vinatieri, 42, and Bonnie Vinatieri, 41, who had joined the flight to Sun Valley, Idaho, to see houses built by contractor Jeffrey T. Siegel, 50, the pilot.

Siegel, who was born in Beverly Hills, and his wife, Judy, had joined Wilshire Boulevard Temple two years ago. They were involved in the religious school, where their sons, Jason, 10, and Steven, 8, attend. Rabbi Neal Weinberg, head of the Introduction to Judaism Department at the University of Judiasm, met the Siegels when the two took classes prior to Judy's conversion.

Weinberg, who will officiate at the funeral at Hollywood Forever Beth Olam cemetery on Monday, said that Judy described her husband as an energetic, athletic and passionate man who loved people -- most especially his sons, to whom he was extremely dedicated. Siegel is also survived by his mother and stepfather, Cyrelle and Lee Siegel, and his sister, Renee, mother of Jennifer Kaplan, who also died in the crash.

At 24, Kaplan was an accomplished screenwriter. She emerged as something of a Hollywood wunderkind at the age of 17, after selling her screenplay, "Powers That Be," for a reported $150,000 to New Line Cinema, while still a student at Crossroads School in Santa Monica.

Kaplan's screenplay has been retitled "Havoc" and is in preproduction. Producer John Morrissey said of Kaplan, "She was a magnificent person. She was a person of quick instincts and a depth of insight.... She, without question, would have been a substantial contributor to the American culture."

Kaplan and her family belong to Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, where a memorial service will be held Friday at 3 p.m.

The 14-unit building struck by the plane was built in the early 1950s by Mae and Edward Zipperstein, who still own it. They named it The Sharon for their daughter.

Mae Zipperstein's stream-of-conscience Borscht Belt banter has landed her on the "Tonight Show" with Jay Leno five times, after a chance encounter with Leno.

"But I don't want to joke when people are suffering," she said on the phone this week. "I kid around, but my heart is bleeding."

Reis, who never married, was a fixture at Young Israel of Los Angeles, where he prayed three times a day, always staying to schmooze.

Rubanowitz said Reis had hidden stores of knowledge, always interrupting his classes to add more points or to ask insightful questions.

"It's like taking the aron [the Holy Ark] out of our shul," Rubanowitz said of Reis' death.

Reis, who had a booth in the downtown Jewelry District, where he repaired watches and jewelry, was also somewhat of an institution on Fairfax Avenue, where he went shopping every day. Many on Fairfax recognized the round little man carrying heavy bags and often gave him a ride home, during which they were treated to his friendly banter.

Reis, who was reared in Slovakia, was liberated from Matthausen concentration camp, where he helped his father survive, according to Rubanowitz, who spoke this week with one of Reis's brothers. His mother and two brothers perished, while two other brothers, one now living in New York, the other in Israel, survived. Soon after the war, Reis was sent to a Soviet prison for smuggling Jews over the border.

After spending a few years in New York, he moved to Los Angeles.

When fire marshals cleaned out his apartment after the plane crash, they said everything was charred. They were able to rescue three items: a kitel (the white coat worn on Yom Kippur and at a seder) and two tallises (prayer shawls). The garments are also traditionally used for burial.

Tibor Reis will be buried in those garments later this week in Israel.

Donations in Tibor Reis' memory can be sent to the Tibor Reis Memorial Fund, care of Young Israel of Los Angeles, 660 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90036.

Staff Writer Michael Aushenker contributed to this story.

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