hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

November 22, 2012

Giving thanks for life's many privileges

Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette

---- — On this Thanksgiving Day, Allan Press is a man steeped in gratitude.

For openers, he’s blessed with a wonderful and caring family. Next July will mark his 50th year with wife Julia. Together, they’ve had three beautiful children and four loving grandchildren, ages 8 months to 13 years.

The subject of children often ushers in a discussion filled with boundless joy and pride.

It’s a family that has sometimes looked adversity in the face and closed its eyes. Regardless of where they have lived, Thanksgiving has been a day that has shown no disruption or distance.

By the same token, it’s a day when he can look upon his 50 years as a rabbi and say, “Allan, job well done.”

It’s a mission that has taken him to six congregations, including Temple Emanu-El here in Haverhill, where he served five years before leaving in 1981 for a new role.

Over the next 28 years, his call was geared toward interfaith marriages — some 50 encounters a year — supporting people of different denominations.

As he puts it so aptly, “I was the one representing the Jewish faith at their wedding ceremonies. There’s more to life that unites us than divides us. We need to accept one another as God’s chosen people.”

His presence at these ceremonies manifested such values as care, compassion and love. In all those years, Allan Press never encountered a moment of ill repute.

For a spry 73-year-old, Allan Press enjoys his morning walks throughout the quiet neighborhood which has been his home in Danville, N.H. A conversation with Julia is one thing.

His bond with nature and the environment is another. If there’s a rose bush along his path, he’ll stop to admire its beauty.

His age carries no handicap into the racquetball court, where he continues to play a competitive game against players far younger than himself. Allan has been a YMCA member for the past 36 years and, no doubt, it’s been a panacea of sorts.

Over recent years, he’s taken it upon himself to volunteer his time at the Haverhill Council on Aging, where he’s led a support group dealing with the challenges of aging. By helping others enjoy their golden years, he’s also helped himself.

“We focus on the gifts people have, not what’s missing,” he tells you.

For seven years, Allan Press served as a hospice chaplain, much of it volunteer. In and out of homes and hospitals he has traveled, meeting with patients whose days were numbered. In some cases, he was the best friend they could have in a dire situation.

He thanks his lucky stars than he was on the caring end, not the recipient. In one case, a patient rose from his “death bed” and made a complete recovery. Divine intervention? Allan Press would rather prefer to call it an unexpected miracle from above.

It’s been a good life for a good friend who will soon depart his Haverhill community for Austin, Texas, to be closer to his daughter Tova, son-in-law Tim and granddaughter Ally. He’s looking upon the move as a new adventure.

Others around him may call it a celebration. In 2005, Allan Press was diagnosed with pituitary adenoma. A simpler explanation is that he had a growth on his pituitary gland which could raise havoc with the optic nerve.

One surgery led to another three years later, only for doctors to discover further growth this year. Five weeks of radiation therapy at Massachusetts General Hospital appears to have the tumor in remission.

One day recently, he asked me to take him into Boston for his treatment. The privilege of serving a dear friend was all mine. We joined at a convenient site and off we went for his appointment.

We arrived a bit earlier than expected and decided to go for a short walk before his proton blast. Throngs of people weaved in and out of traffic.

All of a sudden, I encountered an Armenian cleric I knew very well. He was accompanied by a Catholic priest. We exchanged greetings.

Upon learning that I had transported a friend for radiation treatment, they offered a prayer of healing, right there on a busy street corner with hundreds of people in transit.

The four of us held hands and bowed our heads as words of comfort filtered through the air. The gesture did more than any medicine could provide.

Allan Press took his treatment that morning with a deep sense of indebtedness, grateful that men of different faiths had become unified — and fortified — in a moment of need.

If there’s a little extra emotion in his prayer this Thanksgiving, it’s easy to see why.

“I’m blessed in many ways,” he rejoices.

Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.