Compiled by Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg from words of hespeid delivered by Roslyn Joffe, Sandor Joffe, Ilana Joffe Cohen, Dr. Robert Silverman, David Stetch, Rabbi Zavel Pearlman, and Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg
The interviewer from Harvard wanted Marshall Joffe’s family to know that Harvard would make the best intellectual home for him. After all, the young man had been accepted to Yale and Princeton, as well. “If he chooses Harvard, he won’t have to depend upon legacy (having a relative who preceded you there), as I did in my day. With his qualifications, he’s a shoo-in.” Marshall Joffe indeed chose Harvard, from which he graduated, summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. Imagine what the surprise of those in the hallowed Ivy League institution would have been, had they known that after a year of University of Maryland Medical School, he took a leave of absence to learn Torah in a West Bank settlement in Israel. The boy who, at age seven, gave his mother driving directions from Philadelphia to Washington, DC, from the back seat always knew the direction in which he wanted to go. Dr. Marshall Joffe z”l always had his priorities straight.
Blessed with incredible talents and broad interests, Marshall actualized the gifts G-d gave him in the worlds of Torah, academics, and the appreciation of the world around him. After accumulating an MD, master’s degree, and PhD in epidemiology and biostatistics from top tier schools, he served as fulltime faculty in the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and authored numerous medical research papers. He lectured around the world and received and reviewed grants for the NIH and other prestigious agencies. He didn’t just practice biostats and epidemiology – he invented and published methodologies to improve how clinical research is done.
Dr. Robert Silverman related: “I was working on a clinical drug trial with a large drug company, which had their own professional and highly competent statistical team, and we ran into some data analysis issues, and the statistical team claimed that an important analysis couldn’t be done. The statistician even consulted outside colleagues who also said that what we wanted couldn’t be done. I then received permission to speak with Marshall about the problem. After explaining the problem, there was a few-second pause, and then boom, just like that, Marshall said, ‘Oh, you need to do this and that and this.’ In no time, he distilled this complex solution into a few simple sentences. And I can remember, as Marshall was presenting his solution, my saying ‘Marshall, I am writing this down, please slow down, I can’t keep up with you.’ And long story short, his analysis was key and led to publication of findings.”
Marshall did not talk about his accomplishments. His sister Elana told of how the family found out about one of his awards. “My son Natan, then 7, decided to learn about the Marshall Islands and Googled Marshall. The page with the award popped up. We confronted Marshall with it (told him that he was busted by his nephew), and he simply looked embarrassed and said he hadn’t really been planning to tell us about it.”
Marshall brought the same brilliance and persistence to his Torah study, finishing Daf Yomi, Mishnah Yomis, and learning with numerous chavrusos in even the toughest of times. He was a masterful baal k’riah, reading regularly for the Talner Rebbe in his beis midrash in Boston, and, for many years, at Congregation Etz Chaim of Kew Gardens Hills.
Lest one think that Marshall’s towering talents left no room for humor, Stewart Weinberg related how even from his hospital or nursing home bed Marshall was known to joust verbally with his brother and a friend, both Yale graduates, the morning after the yearly, pre-Thanksgiving Harvard-Yale football game. Upon learning that his alma mater, Harvard, had won, he made sure to remind them that this was usually the case, and cast a few well-placed barbs in their direction. He had a very warm place in his heart for Gilligan’s Island and other classic TV reruns from his childhood. He responded with sharp wit when silliness was slung in his direction, and he could be very silly himself sometimes.
But Marshall Joffe’s defining trait was the courage he displayed in the face of increasingly debilitating multiple sclerosis. An avid hiker, skier, canoeist, and kayaker, he gradually lost his mobility. When he could no longer walk, he continued commuting daily to Philadelphia with the assistance of a motorized scooter from Machon Tzomet. Before using it in Shabbat mode, he delivered a shiur on the halachic issues involved. Even when walking was a struggle, he would sit on the floor on Tish’ah B’Av, dragging himself to his feet, when the service required it.
Eventually, the disease attacked his airways, leaving him vulnerable to repeated episodes of aspiration pneumonia. After brief stints in Margaret Tietz Nursing and Rehabilitation Center and periodic hospitalizations, Marshall ultimately spent the last years of his life at Tietz, where the administration and staff went out of their way to meet his unusual needs. “People went the extra mile for him,” Rabbi Zavel Pearlman explained, “because they saw in him an extraordinary human being who, despite the many difficulties he faced, never once failed to thank each person who walked into his room.” Marshall had incredible patience. He was patient with the body that had betrayed him. He was patient with the aides who had to dress him and wash him, and with those of us who should have called him and visited him more frequently. He was focused on Torah, plain and simple. If he was conscious, he was learning. You had to schedule a phone call with him so that it wouldn’t interrupt one of his chavrusos. From his bed, he researched and wrote a scholarly article that appeared in the most recent issue of Hakirah Journal. Even during his recent hospital stay, when he could not focus enough to actually hold up his end of a chavrusa, he asked people to simply read to him from a sefer so that he could hear and absorb Torah.
Marshall faced so many losses. He was denied Matir Asurim, Zokeif K’fufim, Roka HaAretz al HaMayim, HaMeichin Mitz’adei Gaver. (He could barely move, could not sit up himself or stand or walk.) He responded with the incredible bravery of Ozeir Yisrael biG’vurah. He was denied HaMotzi Lechem min HaAretz, (He’d had no food or drink orally for years), but responded with V’Torasecha b’soch me’ai, letting the Torah nourish him. The halakhic system was so much a part of him that he asked the sh’eilos that others would have been too embarrassed to raise, and was ready to accept the answers no matter what the personal cost.
Marshall’s brother Sandor recalled, “Marshall never complained about his disease. He took it in stride and kept fighting to make do as well as he could. He enjoyed hearing about my travels and living vicariously through them. And I never detected any jealousy from him.”
Without a doubt, Marshall’s wife, Lisa, prolonged his life with her love, care, and perpetual connection, through so many health crises. The two shared a bond of mutual respect and love. His mother, brother, and sister, though in Israel, kept his spirits high with frequent visits and constant calls. And the life-giving force of the many who learned Torah with him regularly helped give him the will to live.
Marshall Joffe was a role model for his chavrusos (as David Stetch emphasized at the funeral), and a rallying point for his shul and community. We envision him now in the World of Truth, chanting the Torah with unobstructed lungs, upon powerful limbs before the throne of the Almighty, Who will welcome his brave soul and look down favorably upon his loved ones.