Eric Fomil with grandson Ilan Rosenbaum.
Eric Fomil with grandson Ilan Rosenbaum.

Our Pandemic Year: Lives lost and families changed forever

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Final part of OUR PANDEMIC YEAR, a week-long series examining how the Covid pandemic has changed our local Jewish world.

With more than a half-million American lives lost to Covid-19, it is easy to become numbed or overwhelmed by the sheer sense of loss. Here are a few families in our own Jewish community whose loved ones were lost to the disease in the past year.

Eric Fomil lived a full life. He loved playing tennis and attending 49ers games, traveling the world with his wife, Sharon, and spending time with his children, their spouses and grandchildren. Before retiring, he worked in the toy import business — which took him and Sharon to the Far East twice a year — though visiting Israel, she said, “was a highlight.”

Fomil, 83, of Hillsborough, died on Jan. 16. He’d been undergoing radiation treatment for melanoma, but it was Covid-19 that ended his life.

“He was weak — we thought it was radiation and a little bit of age,” Sharon recalled. “On Jan. 1, he felt rotten. And that was it. I never saw him again.”

He called from the hospital to say that he’d tested positive for Covid. From that point on, his condition deteriorated.

“We never saw him from the time he went in the ambulance,” Sharon said. While she understood why they couldn’t visit, “to me, it was so cruel. But there was nothing I could do.”

When Eric was alert and able, the family communicated via FaceTime. “The nurses were wonderful,” Sharon said.

There was a graveside service with the immediate family, followed by Zoom shivas for a week. “They were huge,” Sharon said of the virtual gatherings. “It was wonderful.”

Eric was born to Russian immigrant parents in Shanghai, though not in the Jewish ghetto. “He was not well-versed in Judaism, growing up in Shanghai,” Sharon said.

Nonetheless, after immigrating to the Bay Area with his parents and sister in 1954, Judaism became a constant in his life.

After marrying Sharon, a native San Franciscan whom he met through her older cousin, the couple settled in Burlingame and joined Peninsula Temple Sholom. He served on the board; the couple became active members and made lifelong friends through the Reform synagogue.

On Jan. 1, he felt rotten. And that was it. I never saw him again.

They also joined Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City, where their daughter, Jessica Rosenbaum, and her family belonged. “Jessica lives five minutes away,” Sharon said, adding that Eric actively and frequently engaged with grandchildren Lilah, Ilan and Sivana.

Their son Michael lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, but “he’s here a lot,” Sharon said. The entire family often got together for vacations, with Mexico a favorite.

The last few years were not especially kind to Eric. He had to stop playing tennis due to a foot problem, and two years ago underwent surgery and radiation for the melanoma. Then, “everything was great for a year and a half,” Sharon said, until a routine scan revealed new lesions.

Treatment followed, and then came Covid.

After Eric passed, Sharon got tested and learned that she, too, had Covid. She was asymptomatic.

“We went nowhere, we used hand sanitizer … you do the right thing,” she said. “We were really careful, but you know, it happens.”

Moisey Kundel considered himself a lucky man. “He was always grateful for everything he had,” said granddaughter Helen Cherkis of San Francisco.

He lived to age 96 before Covid took his life on Jan. 31. Moisey was among more than 150 residents of the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living infected with the virus. His wife, Rosa, also contracted the coronavirus but survived. They were married for 72 years.

Moisey spent much of his life in Ukraine before immigrating to the United States in 1988 at age 63. The extended family came, too, settling near relatives in San Francisco.

A World War II veteran, Moisey joined the Soviet army at 18 and suffered major injuries after a bomb exploded near his tent. He lost his speech and hearing, and spent a year in recovery before returning to Ukraine and resuming his education to become a teacher.

Both Moisey and Rosa taught at a school in Kiev for children with Down syndrome. They enjoyed teaching, but above all family came first.

“He was the connector of the family,” Helen said. As a father, “he would take my mother every Saturday morning to visit all the relatives,” she said. And as a grandfather, he would often care for Helen and her younger brother, Eddy.

Moisey and Rosa Kundel, married for 72 years, lived at the S.F. Campus for Jewish Living.
Moisey and Rosa Kundel, married for 72 years, lived at the S.F. Campus for Jewish Living.

Eddy Chernyak, just 3 when his family arrived in San Francisco, spent much of his time with his grandfather until starting school at the Hebrew Academy.

The Kundels lived in the Fillmore District, and Moisey would often walk down to the bay. He drove until he was 91.

Things took a turn for the worse two years ago. “We were all getting ready to go to Israel for my son’s bar mitzvah when my grandfather fell,” Helen said. He spent two weeks in the intensive care unit. Then her grandmother fell and broke her hip — ending up in the hospital a floor below Moisey.

Both recovered, and moved to the S.F. Campus for Jewish Living.

Then, just as Helen was preparing for her daughter’s bat mitzvah abroad, Covid shut everything down and the plans had to change.

“The last time we saw him was March 8 of last year,” Helen said, when her daughter had a small ceremony at the SFCJL. “That was the last time we were all together, and we were able to touch them and hug them.”

Among Helen’s cherished memories of her grandfather: his annual Thanksgiving toast at their large family gatherings.

“It was always ‘God bless America. I am a lucky man because I have this family.’ ”

Dr. George Kopiloff was 86 and still saw eight patients a day in his psychiatric practice. He seemed in perfect health.

So when his daughter, Araceli Kopiloff of Berkeley, phoned this past New Year’s Eve to wish him well, she was a little surprised when he didn’t pick up the landline. She tried his cellphone and he answered. “I’ve been on the ground for two hours. I fell,” he told her.

She wondered why he hadn’t called 911, and dialed it herself.

He fell again the next day. Turns out he was completely dehydrated and had fainted. He had Covid, but he expected to be up and running within a few weeks. He told his daughter not to bother visiting him in Loma Linda, the city in San Bernardino County where he lived.

He died on Jan. 14.

Araceli, the events/general manager of the Hillside Club in Berkeley, has been working remotely from Mexico for the past few months.

Losing her father was a huge blow, and then came the unthinkable: Just over a month after his death, she lost her son. Pablo Nalerio, 30, of Berkeley, died in February from complications of Covid.

Araceli Kopiloff (fourth from left) lost her father, Dr. George Kopiloff (second from left), and her son Pablo Nalerio (third from left) to Covid within weeks of each other.
Araceli Kopiloff (fourth from left) lost her father, Dr. George Kopiloff (second from left), and her son Pablo Nalerio (third from left) to Covid within weeks of each other.

She can’t even talk about her son’s death.

But she can share warm memories of her father, whose family fled the Nazis in Europe to safety in Argentina.

He was a philanthropic man, she said, who taught his children the value of giving to others.

“Every weekend we went to a poor village. He would take medicine and run his own clinic, and I would find things through the week to take with me — clothes, blankets — to give away. It gave me so much pleasure.”

When the political situation worsened in Argentina and opponents of the dictatorship began disappearing, George — then chief of staff in the emergency room and studying English at night — found an escape route. He signed up for a U.S. immigration program that placed doctors in underserved communities. The family immigrated in 1977. After completing the program, he moved the family to Southern California.

When the pandemic hit, her father “told everybody that it was basic science” to take it seriously, Araceli said.

“My father was a Republican — he loved Reagan and Bush, but he voted for Hillary [Clinton].” He was “very open-minded,” she added, even joining her in the Women’s March in Walnut Creek, despite recent knee surgery and having to use a walker.

He was incensed by President Trump and even kept a “box of lies” of his statements. “He’d cut out the Trump lies from newspapers,” she said, as a way to “process” the implausible.

She last saw her father in October 2020.

“He never smoked, he didn’t drink,” she said. “He was somebody who could have kept going for another 50 years.”

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.