My friend Pat Barr died this summer at the age of 52. I am writing about her a mere nine weeks after our last conversation. Her death is too recent—her absence too stark—for me to write about her as if she were a character from history, or someone whose telephone number I don't know by heart. Nor can I write easily, cheerfully, as if she were alive.
Instead, guided by a ceremony titled Kavod Ha-em: Honoring a Foremother that Pat wrote for Kolot with the help of Rabbi Freddi Cooper and Dr. Lori Lefkovitz, I write about her. In that ceremony Pat urged us to "Pause to honor the memory of someone important [to us]…by recalling her values and some of the details of her life." (Excerpts from the ceremony are in bold text.)
When I pause, I hear Pat's voice. Her laugh. Her intensity. Her conviction. Her generosity. I am not sure recording the "details of her life" alone does her justice—so I will rely heavily on her voice: her words, drawn from emails she sent me over the five years I knew her, as well as a book she created in honor of my 40th birthday with our friend, Joan Rachlin. (Pat's words are in italics.)
Born on August 26, 1950, Pat was the first-born of Marie and Stephen Barr. The oldest of three children, Pat graduated from Bennington College in 1971. Never one to do as everyone else does, Pat became a self-taught lawyer, clerking for other lawyers in Vermont, taking the bar exam—and achieving the highest score—without the benefit of a single law school class.
In 1979, seventeen days before turning 30, Pat married Rolf Sternberg, and together they built a law practice in Bennington—now known as Barr, Sternberg, Moss, Lawrence, Silver & Saltonstall, PC. They raised a family: Shira, born in 1982, (Shira Ariel—the song of the lion—because girls need big voices) and Tava, born in 1986, (Tava Yael—good mountain goat… the good was good in God's eyes and the mountain goat a very dexterous animal, able to manage in difficult terrain. Indeed, she has had to manage in the difficult terrain of her mother's illness all her life.)
When Tava was nine months old Pat was diagnosed with breast cancer. A massive tumor and 12 positive nodes. At that time a death sentence. Rolf was told it was unlikely I would live five years. At my request I was given no statistics and no prognosis. Rolf held his tongue and feelings for two years. An enormous act of generosity.
Pat lived 16 years after her diagnosis. An "out-liar," as an essay she showed me declared. I always have hope and I think of it as optimistic hope—that is that things will turn out as I hope them to—that I might live to an old age.
Yet what happens each day is I hope for that day and the next -and I hope that the drug I am taking will work longer rather than shorter. I do not believe it will last longer. I do not believe I will live to see old age—so perhaps I am not optimistic in that I don't think I know what will come—I am just hopeful—hoping it will be—and if what I hope for doesn't happen—then I hope I have made the best of my time.
So perhaps I can reduce my hope to the hope that I am living well, that I do more good than bad, that I bring joy to those who love me.
Tikkun Olam—Repair of the World. This Jewish idea presumes that each human action affects the state of the universe and that our world can be repaired through social action.
Pat firmly believed that each action she took—in the public realm and the private realm—affected the universe. Both her formal resume and a glimpse into one ordinary day reflect this:
Patricia A. Barr served as Chair of Americans for Peace Now from 1998-2002 and as Co-chair from 2002 until her death. At that time she was also serving on the Board and Executive Committee of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and helping to build The Institute for Medical Humanism, one of many organizations she was instrumental in founding. In addition, she was a past member of the Vermont Board of Education, and represented the Breast Cancer Network of Vermont on the Board of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, of which she was a founder and a past Director. Ms. Barr served as the Chair of the ethics subcommittee of the National Action Plan on Breast Cancer Task Force on Biological Resources, and from 1999-2002 on the Secretary's Advisory Committee on Genetic Testing, a federal committee that advised the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. She also served as President of her synagogue, Temple Beth El, in Bennington.
September 2002. Pat writes me before I visit her in Vermont. I have a call with Israel—you can listen. Then Tava has a field hockey game at the Mt. Anthony field at 4:30 in Bennington we'll go to. She usually needs my attention for homework about one hour after dinner. You and I or I will have to plan dinner, something on the grill or pesto/pasta is likely…The other caveat is I am a bit moody… and worn because of all the unknowns about this [medical] procedure. … And the down time price is pretty high—6 weeks.
Gemilut Hasadim - Acts of Kindness. This concept, different from but related to charity or giving to the needy, involves caring for others' needs through a generous sharing of oneself.
During my thirties I began my term on the Vermont State Board of Education, and in doing so, my career in public policy… I became a fundraiser and a supporter of Democratic candidates, something that has continued for twenty years. Howard Dean, Jim Jeffords, Bernie Sanders, Madeleine Kunin… Pat worked with each of these Vermont leaders. Indeed, she said to me, "If I hadn't gotten sick, I was planning to run for Senator of Vermont myself."
At Pat's funeral Senator Leahy recalled the day Pat first walked into his office to talk with him about breast cancer, and how she worked tirelessly to raise federal awareness and support over the next decade, pushing President Clinton to approve a national plan on breast cancer. "Enough work for a lifetime… but Pat didn't stop there. She became an unwavering voice on the Middle East, bringing reason, understanding and hope to Israelis and Palestinians." Identifying Pat as a valued counsel, Senator Leahy brought tears and smiles to the hundreds in attendance when he concluded with, "Pat always asked, but never for herself."
Tsedakah—Acts of Justice. It is the Jewish way of affirming that sharing material possessions corrects imbalances in society.
Pat and I spent many hours together thinking about how to be effective philanthropists. And Pat achieved it. Pat gave money only to organizations to which she also gave her time. "If I am committed, I am committed," she said, "and honestly, I want influence."
Pat learned lessons about giving from her parents and thought seriously about how to teach those lessons to her children—and others. My mom insists that the kids designate gifts, $500 when they are 12 or 13, and it jumps to $1500 and then $2500 every year. I hope they will learn the lessons—eventually you share your assets…Last year I managed to give away half my income – something my trustees were not happy about. I can't do that again – mostly because of my health and providing for my family – that is another issue, how much to provide for family members? These are my ideas of issues/questions to discuss with you.
And one of the projects I do hope we can do is a piece about women and money. I read Wealthy and Wise by Claude Rosenberg. It focuses on people with over $16 million in wealth -an amount I know some have -but I never will and most people I know never will. Nonetheless, the basic principle that private strategic giving could be a powerful force and that few of us give as much as we could makes a lot of sense.
Pat taught me about reaching high… and helped me do it better than I had ever done before. It is best exemplified in the following story:
September 1999. I sit alone with Pat, whom I don't know well, in a car near Lenox, Massachusetts. I ask her if Kolot may honor her for her achievements and her commitment to Judaism and feminism. "How much money have you raised at this event in the past?" she asks. "$10,000." I sheepishly reply. Without missing a beat, Pat rightfully responds, "It is not worth doing unless you raise $100,000."
I take a deep breath and promise "we can do that." Pat agrees to be our honoree.
We begin to create lists immediately, staying up late into the night. Pat recruits two Jewish women she counts among her friends, author Jamaica Kincaid and former Governor Madeleine Kunin, to speak at the event. We net $180,000 for Kolot and create the Pat Barr Fund.
Always generous, Pat surprises her mother at the event with a gift. She establishes The Marie Barr Fund, to be used to further Kolot's work to train the next generation of rabbinical students in Jewish women's and gender studies, in order to give life to the words which Marie and Stephen taught Pat, "Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof—Justice, Justice, You Shall Pursue."
Ahavah—Love. Love for humanity and/or love for God.
Pat was full of love. Not a gushy love, but a solid, matter-of-fact, and deeply felt love. Yet even as I write these words, I also recall her joyous, bubbly, happy-to-be-alive love.
After going to the theatre on one of her last trips to New York, Pat wrote: Vagina Monologues was a great treat and what better vagina to have next to mine than my daughter's.
Pat's love for God was about the miracle of life—and the wrestling with life. She could recall with vividness and clarity the times she was fortunate enough to experience transcendent moments—sitting in an old European concert hall listening to period music on period instruments was an example she shared, commenting how she simply began to cry at the beauty of this and all moments.
Pat also grappled with the Jewish God and being a "good Jew." I have an amazing set of cards she created one year for her seder. With her original drawings on one side, and incisive and creative questions she asked of guests on the other, these cards ask questions about God, history, and self. Still, before Kolot honored Pat she wrote: I feel I have no authority to address this group. A predominately Jewish group about how I have connected to Judaism. I will not be able to quote biblical reference. Is this how every woman feels when she faces speaking to the Jewish world? The tree of knowledge has only given us incomplete knowledge. A knowledge that has for centuries stressed my inadequacy and requires that I tremble because I am an ill-trained woman and therefore by Jewish standards a fraud. Believe me, I know this is irrational… this is what fundamental beliefs and myth can do. I actually have most of a rough draft done… I will send it to you to be sure I make no glaring errors.
We benefit and learn from her wisdom.
May she always be credited for the fruit of her labor and her achievements.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Patricia A. Barr, 1950 - 2003." (Viewed on December 4, 2023) <https://jwa.org/weremember/barr-patricia>.
Help us elevate the voices of Jewish women.
Get JWA in your inbox
Read the latest from JWA from your inbox.