Community Leaders Mourn Loss of Two Jewish-American Families in Costa Rica Plane Crash

Both the Steinberg family from New York and the Weiss family from Florida were deeply involved in Jewish life in their respective communities

Bruce and Irene Steinberg and their sons Matthew, William and Zachary.
Irene Steinberg's Facebook page

The Jewish-American community responded with shock and horror on Monday to news of the tragic death of two Jewish families in a plane crash in Costa Rica.

Both families – the Steinbergs from New York and the Weisses from Florida – were deeply involved in Jewish life in their respective communities.

Bruce and Irene Steinberg from Scarsdale were killed in the crash, along with their three sons, William, Matthew and Zachary. The other victims were Mitchell and Leslie Weiss from St. Petersburg, their daughter Hannah and son Ari. Both families were on vacation in Costa Rica.

Irene, 51, was among the organizers of the 2017 annual UJA-Federation of New York women’s fundraising event in Scarsdale. Originally from Potomac, Maryland, she was also a member of the board of directors of the American Jewish Committee in Westchester County.

In a statement, the UJA-Federation of New York said: “The family was generous, kind and loved being part of the Scarsdale and Jewish communities. Irene worked tirelessly on behalf of UJA, helping us support vulnerable New Yorkers and was an extraordinary person – devoted mother and wife and loyal friend. She and her family will be sorely missed.”

She and her husband, Bruce, 50, donated thousands of dollars over the past two years to Seeds of Peace, a U.S.-based peace-building and leadership development organization that fosters encounters between young Israelis and Palestinians. 

William Steinberg, 18, their middle son, was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. He had been active in Seeds of Peace, and according to a Facebook post written by his aunt, the organization had inspired him to consider pursuing a political career.

Zachary Steinberg, 19, their older son, was a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University. 

“This tragedy hits our community very hard,” said Rabbi Jonathan Blake of the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale s in a statement published on the congregation’s Facebook page. He said he would keep the congregation informed about any details regarding a memorial service. The Steinbergs, he noted, had been devoted members of the congregation since 2001.

Irene had also served on the board of directors of the American Jewish Committee in Westchester County for the past 10 years. Scott Richman, Director of American Jewish Committee Westchester/Fairfield Regional Office, said in a statement that the organization mourned the death of her and her family.

“She was particularly concerned about passing on this love of the Jewish people to the next generation,” the statement said. “As an active member of the College Campus Committee, she was a key leader in AJC's new Leaders for Tomorrow program inaugurated this fall in our region.  Her success shown through her son William who interned at our office this past spring.  We are deeply saddened by this immense tragedy.”

Originally from the Philadelphia area, Mitchell and Leslie Levin Weiss, both doctors, had relocated to St. Petersburg, Florida, about 12 years ago. Their 19-year-old daughter Hannah was a joint student at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, which is run by the Conservative movement. Their 16-year-old son Ari, a high school student, was also killed in the crash.

Hannah was active for many years in the Conservative movement. Two years ago, she was appointed vice president for social action and Tikkun Olam at its youth movement, United Synagogue Youth. Both Hannah and her younger brother had attended Ramah Darom in Georgia, part of a network of overnight camps run by the Conservative movement in North America. As a college student, she continued to intern for USY as well as for Hazon, an organization devoted to creating a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community.

“We in the Conservative movement are absolutely devastated,” Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive director of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, told Haaretz.

Wernick had served for the past few years as one of Hannah’s mentors.

 “Social action and Tikkun Olam were her essence,” he said. "I feel that we have lost one of the 36 righteous souls for whom God preserves the world. She was smart, she was sensitive, and she was caring. She was well known and well loved. She was really the best.”

Wernick said that news of her death broke just as a group of Camp Ramah alumni, many of them friends of hers, were celebrating the New Year at a reunion party.