Plane crash near Buffalo takes life of beloved cantor

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If you were sad, she’d cheer you up. If you were getting ready for your bar or bat mitzvah, she’d help train you. And when she found out about dying friends, Susan Wehle would go to their home or hospital bed and sing “The Angel Song.”

The idea, said friend Sharon Jacobs, was to surround people with angels as they passed from life to death.

When Wehle’s time came, there was no angel.

Headed home after a vacation in Costa Rica, the 55-year-old New Yorker died with 49 others when the commuter plane she was riding in Feb. 12 plunged into a house outside of Buffalo, N.Y.

Two Israelis — 52-year-old Ruth Harel-Katz, who lived in the United States, and 27-year old George Abu-Karem from Tiberias — were also killed in the crash of Continental Connection flight 3407.

 

Susan Wehle

Wehle’s friends and relatives were left mourning an exuberant life so quickly snuffed out.

 

Less than 24 hours after the crash, about 600 people crowded into Temple Beth Am in Williamsville, N.Y., on Feb. 13 to remember the vibrant woman with curly hair and an irrepressible smile, the loss so fresh that friends were still speaking of her in the present tense. A memorial service was held this week.

Among those attending the service was Cantor Linda Hirschhorn of Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro. In an e-mail to j., she wrote “while I thought of [Wehle] as a best friend, I imagine that so did many other people.”

Rabbi Jack Gabriel, from Congregation Shir Shalom in Sonoma, also crossed paths with Wehle some years ago, and also became a fast friend. “She was like a sister to me,” Gabriel wrote in a eulogy that Hirschhorn took to New York for the memorial.

Hirschhorn’s e-mail to j. explained how Wehle “radiated love and passion [and] loved singing and bringing music to others. She was perceptive, intuitive, non-judgmental with a big and joyous heart.

“We had a deep amazing friendship even over the long distance between us.”

At the two-hour service Feb. 13 punctuated by prayers, sermons and quiet sobs, Wehle was remembered as a ball of energy whose singing and theatrics lifted hearts.

“Susan taught us that a life lived in fear is not a life lived at all,” said Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld of Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo.

The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Wehle grew up in Brooklyn before attending the University of Buffalo, where she earned a degree in Judaic studies and later a drama degree. She went on to study acting, performing with theater companies in Buffalo, Chicago and New York. She also worked as a mime.

Divorced with two grown sons, Wehle worked with children, in musical and spiritual workshops, and youth and adult choirs.

“Susan’s reach was enormous,” said Jessica Kent, 21, of Williamsville, a Buffalo suburb. “She was involved in [the life of] every single person who is here tonight. She was in the kids’ lives, she was in the elders’ lives. She sang. With her not being here, we’re going to have to find a way to reinvest in ourselves.”

Richard Ellis, the administrator of Temple Beth Am, drove Wehle to the Buffalo-Niagara International Airport on Jan. 31 for the start of her vacation to Costa Rica. He planned to pick her up when she returned.

“She said the plane was going to be 40 minutes late and that I should stay home. She’d get a cab,” Ellis said. “I said no. She’d go out of her way in the same situation for me.”

Wehle’s survivors include her sons, Jacob and Jonah; two sisters, Eva Friedner and Dana Wehle; and a brother, John Wehle.

Ynetnews.com contributed to this report.