JCC Bookfair Honors Life and Lessons of Gordon Zacks

When accomplished author, businessman, and pivotal leader Gordon Zacks (z’’l) received the news from his doctor in December 2013 that, due to a fast-spreading cancer, he had just weeks to live, rather than despair, he got busy writing his second and final book. The life-affirming process enabled him to focus on the positive and turned the last days of his life into a celebration. That celebration resulted in Redefining Moments: End of Life Stories for Better Living. His eldest daughter, Catherine Zacks Gildenhorn, will return to the Jewish Community Center at 7 pm on October 29 to discuss the book and her father for the Columbus Jewish Bookfair’s concluding event.

“The beauty of all this was it prevented me from being paralyzed by grief and sadness. We were all so busy living and doing and leading such a loving existence,” said Zacks Gildenhorn of the weeks before her father’s passing. During that time, the family hosted several “Celebration of Life” events which brought family, friends, and associates of her father’s from around the globe to his Columbus home.

The final moments of Gordon Zacks’ life were spent surrounded by those who knew him best, sharing stories, laughter, and gratitude for life. The loving celebrations provided closure, his daughter explained. And, for Zacks Gildenhorn, they provided another opportunity to learn from the man she called her greatest mentor and teacher, and to share what she learned from her father with others.

“Dad was a mentor, friend, and confidante to so many. Constantly, I am surrounded by people who feel his loss. Whether he was mentoring leaders or young kids, he was so respected in his opinion because he had a way of not being judgmental, of just finding opportunity,” said Zacks Gildenhorn. Her father even saw opportunity in end-of-life, and chose to use his final days to create a lasting project designed to help others find meaning and hope during their final days, just as he did.

From 2002 until his passing in 2014, Gordon served as Chairman of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School. The Mini Schools, founded by Gordon’s beloved mother, Florence Zacks Melton (z”l), provide high-quality pluralistic adult Jewish education in over 60 cities in four countries. The JCC, a pilot site for Melton classes, is now enrolling for these educational offerings over 20 years after initiating this family vision for the community. To sign up for Melton classes, contact Melanie Butter at mbutter@columbusjcc.org.

It is fitting that one of the book tour’s first stops will be where it all started, at the JCC of Greater Columbus. “It will always be my home,” said Zacks Gildenhorn. “I’ll always have a tremendous connection to Columbus. I couldn’t see a book tour without it. I feel like the book is rooted in Columbus. That’s where it all happened.”

Fittingly, the book celebrating the conclusion of life will conclude the JCC’s Jewish Bookfair on October 29. Zacks Gildenhorn’s visit will include memories and more from her father’s life, as well as passages from his final book, showcasing his powerful insight about making the most of your days, whatever their length, and living life to the fullest with full dignity.

Zacks Gildenhorn will elaborate on her father’s key message that one must be flexible and adaptable, especially as the end-of-life approaches. “Your ability to modify the way you do things directly impacts the joy you feel in life,” she said, reading a passage: “You have to be prepared to do things in new ways. If an astronaut is prepared to wear a maximum absorbency garment, an intergalactic Depends on a long-distance space walk to his or her job, why shouldn’t you? Live life as it’s available to you and relish it.”

The book is filled with insights and with Zacks’ final, moving words. Because, as his daughter shared, “For Dad, [death] wasn’t an unwelcome guest. He felt he had lived such a life of purpose and passion that he was grateful and thankful for every minute of it. He felt like he was the luckiest guy on the planet.”

Zacks Gildenhorn was designated by her father as the book’s editor and spokeswoman. No stranger to public life, Zacks Gildenhorn currently serves on the Board and Executive Committee of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, The National Women’s Philanthropy Board and the Advisory Committees of Women in Film and Video and The Florence Melton Adult Mini School. Previously, she also worked as a news reporter and lawyer and served as Presidential Appointee to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.

She explained how the book was created in only 30 days. “Once Dad determined he would finish this book in 30 days, his collaborators and I dropped everything and stayed with him in his home for three weeks. He still had full ability but limited energy to connect and convey his message. So we all holed up and spent 8-10 hours a day on this. We worked each day to present Dad text to which he could add his vision and input.”

The gratifying result, for Zacks Gildenhorn, was seeing her father’s eyes light up when the final product was placed in his hands. “Watching his eyes and his face when he had the book and was holding it in his hands… it was extraordinary,” she said. Gordon Zacks, who worked closely with three American presidents, five Israeli prime ministers, and countless others, used his final days to share one last message with the world: that even during the end of life, one can still be productive, positive, and purposeful. Zacks’ first book, Defining Moments Stories of Character, Courage and Leadership is a collection of essays and first-hand accounts that describe his work with extraordinary leaders and the lessons learned.

Redefining Moments follows in that same spirit. For him, creating the book itself fulfilled this desire to be purposeful even as he was bedridden and unable to care for himself. And for his daughter, helping him as he dictated the words in the book to his collaborators was another way to follow her father’s advice. The process of creating and now promoting the book, she said, “Has kept me so busy living, because I have a mission. I feel my dad in everything I do and everything I say.”

The book has a very universal message to humanity, to embrace life and living. Zacks Gildenhorn elaborated: “Judaism was an essential part of dad’s life and love and heart. But being in this life, living every moment that we have purposefully and lovingly, that’s such a human message.”

Zacks believed in the power of positive thinking and wanted to start a new conversation about the end of life, his daughter explained, “to focus on living every moment so that end-of-life is not something that is shunned but embraced. Because ‘death will be no stranger to any of us,’ Dad said.”

Her father’s vision for the book was that it would carry on into people’s lives even after they had finished reading. To that end, with the guidance of the Jewish National Fund, Zacks Gildenhorn launched the website, www.Redefiningmoments.org, to build upon the book’s summer 2014 release. “Dad’s mission was really about changing people’s approach to end-of-life. We’re working to switch the conversation, so that folks start seeing it as just another part of living, like birth or anything else, just another part of the process.”

The book’s website and the Redefining Moments Facebook page are designed to do just that. “It’s just starting to take root. And over time, the website will offer even more to people, where they can share their experiences and tell their stories,” Zacks Gildenhorn added. Readers can further connect with Zacks’ message on his website where they can download a free sample, hear eulogies from esteemed leaders like Governor John Kasich, or learn more about Zacks’ life and philosophies. As with his first book, all profits from book sales will be donated to charitable causes.

Zacks Gildenhorn looks forward to returning to Columbus and sharing her father’s message with the Columbus Jewish community. She will discuss her inspiring father and the journey she shared with him during his final days. “I was extraordinarily close with my father. He was not only a terrific dad, but also my mentor, my teacher, my sounding board—every single day of my life. How lucky is that?”

Those looking forward to joining this new conversation about the opportunity the end of life presents will want to RSVP to Cheryl Dritz, Bookfair Coordinator, at cdritz@columbusjcc.org or by calling 614-231-2731.