Thank you to the State College Community, Penn State’s Department of Architectural Engineering and to the Jewish people

On this Sunday night, I am sitting in my apartment four blocks away by scooter to Penn State’s iconic Old Main.  You have seen it on television.

Penn_state_old_main_summerContemplating my forthcoming cancer surgery, I cannot help but express my gratitude.

My gratitude extends the length and breadth of the Borough of State College under the inspiration of our dynamo Mayor Elizabeth Goreham.

The Borough of State College includes all Downtown, which is at economic risk, suburban State College (but not suburban enough to collect the large revenues). and Penn State University.

We are all Penn State here.

First and foremost, I want to thank Elaine Meder-Wilgus.Next year, Webster’s proprietor Elaine Meder-Wilgus will be reading the role of the sensuous Molly Bloom whom Joyce deliberately paralleled to Homer’s Penelope.

Webster’s Bookstore and Cafe has immeasurably improved the quality of my life here. Book Store Duchess Anne and I contemplate Webster’s related activity, such as promoting the bookstore with a recreation of the Battle of Trafalgar. We require three floats such as are featured at the Rose Bowl, each retailing for $120,000.One ship on the converted float would be the one where Lord Nelson dies; there would be a French and Spanish ship as well. Of course, the helicopter with Elaine playing Lady Hamilton. Funding has been a problem.

Thank you employees and patrons of Webster’s Bookstore and Cafe. Thank you.


I thank my neighbors, friends, Cathy Fisher, Bryan and the excellent maintenance staff, and the owners and managers of my apartment building.


Other than names already mentioned, I will not use this space to express my appreciation of my family and friends–except when I get the urge.

This posting is intended to express appreciation for the environment where I reside. So, herein is the way I have arranged my thank you’s, including my thanks to:


I thank, of course, my dear friend Fire Chief Steve Bair.

I also thank Police Chief Tom Kane, who has been thoughtfully responsive to my emails–long as they are.

I also thank my assemblyman Scott Conklin. I especially like Scott–period. I am glad that he is a real union man.

I also thank my REPUBLICAN Congressman Glenn (“GT”) Thompson [Republican,. Fifth Congressional District of PA]. GT was a physical therapist before he was elected to Congress despite my active campaign against him on behalf of his Democratic challenger Mark McCracken.

GT met his wife while they were changing bedpans at the nursing home I will enter by default if anything happens to me. Since his election to  Congress, GT has displayed an admirable record regarding medical oxygen, wheel chairs, scooters, and power chairs–equipment that is indispensable to paraplegics such as myself and to others in the disability community. President Obama, despite his rhetoric–holding my nose voting for him this time around–having voted for candidate Obama in the PA primary and then worked for his first election insisting that Democratic headquarters pour new concrete for its broken down wheel chair access ramp.

Excuse the rant. The point is GT has been an inspiration to the durable medical equipment community even if he is a Republican.


Regarding health care gratitude, I do not know where to start. When I had pneumonia in November right before Thanksgiving, I felt like hell. I called 911. The ambulance was here in no time. I breezed through the Emergency Room and would up in a room with a view and I had a really great doctor–right down the road at Mt. Nittany Hospital where the food is good.

Let us start with Sapana Minali, my primary care physician at Geisinger Medical Center. When the excellent and gracious urologist Jennifer Simmons diagnosed that I had cancer, Dr. Simmons referred me to Sloan Kettering in New York for a surgical consultation….

When that happened, my primary care physician was informed that I was discharged from the hospital but with a kidney cancer diagnosis. Dr. Minali then directed her staff to call me and when that did not work after many un-returned calls, Dr. Minali called me herself.

Meanwhile, she directed that I receive social services available to someone in my situation, and the wonderful Doreen Moronski found me the Bob Perks Fund, which provides grants to individuals who have to travel for medical reasons. My grant pays my monthly rent every four months for a year, plus provides a $160 grocery store card every quarter.

Thank you Bob Perks.


Regarding the Jewish people: Words cannot describe my gratitude to Rabbi David Ostrich, who performed the State College memorial service for my mother Dr. Miriam P. Schmerler at my apartment building–where we had a minyan.

My attachment to the Jewish people is based on my strong belief in Zionism, my great love for the Hebrew language (the Bible is great stuff in the original), and my attachment to things Jewish. My spirituality has not been invoked by traditional Jewish practice. I have been strongly spiritual for as long as I can remember. I am very fond of the Wisdom of the East. Confucius’ Analects and the teachings of the Buddha have provided me with understanding. Rabbi Ostrich has been demonstrating to me the compatibility of Eastern teachings with an understanding of The Torah.


Congregation Brit Shalom and the Jewish Federation of Pennsylvania have provided me with the funding that made it possible to receive cancer treatment in New York City, 250 miles away from State College. For my June trip to Sloan Kettering, where Dr.Russo decided to operate, I received $1,500. It is astonishing how expensive is New York. After shopping around, I found a cheap garage that would let me park the car for $400 for the week I was there for tests and consultation.

Last week, Rabbi Ostrich met me at the PNC bank on College Avenue and provided me with an additional $1500 for this trip to New York for surgery and two weeks of recovery. This total of $3,000 exhausts the extent of generosity from a small congregation. Thank you, landsmen of my Congregation including the Bagel Boys.

Thanks to the Jewish people: I was raised by a single mother in the 1950s when that was no picnic. My mother supported us on her salary as a teacher of Hebrew school teacher, a Hebrew school principal, and an Educator. She liked it when people called her a theologian.

I remember first hearing the words of the Bible in Hebrew when I was five. From grades 1-8, the day began at the Hebrew Academy of Greater Miami with a pledge of allegiance to the U.S. flag and a singing of the anthem of the State of Israel–both flags displayed.

During those years, I read the Five Books of Moses in the original Hebrew in the mornings and studied English subjects in the afternoon. There was a lot to praying.

While I have rejected much, my love of the Hebrew language remains. My support for Israel as a safe, peaceful, Jewish entity is strong. “If I forget Jerusalem, let me forget how to use my right hand….”

What I have always found to my surprise and relief is the availability of Jewish Family Services and similar organizations to be there for me because that is what our people do. We care for each other.


Regarding work:

I may get emotional here, so forgive me in advance.

I have a strong feeling about my work.

I have spent years learning how to write.

Now, I know what to write about.

I write about how to overcome the limitations of a disability and live life to the full.


For the past four years, I have been working as a research assistant at Penn State’s Department of Architectural Engineering. Dr. John Messner hired me.

John is in charge of the Computer Integrated Construction (CIC group) and runs the Immersive Construction (ICon) Lab. Shown here is the ICon lab’s mascot:

Costa Rican Frog

Given the still recovering construction industry’s state, the building of hospitals and medical facilities–taking place at a rapid pace–has proven to be a great relief. The images projected on John’s three screens viewed with 3-D glasses are intended to help architects, engineers, and construction personnel conceptualize design and then make changes before construction begins.

John assigned me to work with now Dr. Sonali Kumar’s whose graduation I attended in May, one week before my daughter Joanna graduated with her usual honors from nursing school.


Sonali’s thesis is entitled, Experience-based design review of healthcare facilities using interactive virtual prototypes. 

Yes, I am in Sonali’s thesis. See below.

I was the model for her avatar for the independent living virtual reality module designed in Autodesk’s BIM-compliant Revit and imported into a Unity gaming engine.

Somewhere in my appreciation from the virtual reality lab, I became obsessed with McKeesport, a Pennsylvania Rust Belt town with high poverty, a lot of crime, and two gifted men the brilliant Robert Walters and the capable and enabling John Bertoty who created a Blueroof Research Experimental Cottage.


The cottage was constructed in a factory where sensors were placed in the walls. With digging the foundation, it took 3 days to assemble the structure. The cottage contains a living room, kitchen, bathroom, and  two bedrooms.


Cameras are available at the client’s option for monitoring. Motion detectors can tell whether a resident has fallen in the shower and communicate that information by voice simulation to 911 as a call for help. This is off the shelf technology.

This kind of low-cost housing for low-income individuals represents an understanding of how to design a residence for elderly and disabled individuals that helps them live their lives.

During a period when the largest generation in U.S. history is retiring–Baby Boomers retiring at the rate of 10,000 a day…. There is no way the housing stock in our country can support the demand.

Over 90 percent of U.S. housing is NOT wheel chair accessible.


Then, along came Dr. Richard Behr, Chair of the Center for Aging in Place at the Department of Architectural Engineering. (Why at the Department of Architectural Engineering? you may ask. Ask.)


Richard and I became planners. A Pittsburgh foundation had paid $50,000 to design a plan for downtown McKeesport. Richard and I wrote a grant proposal to the Ford Foundation for the funding to execute the plan. I plan to go back to the Ford Foundation for reconsideration.

Then, there would follow useful studies Penn State could perform, especially for my boss Dr. Ali Memari, Chair of the Pennsylvania Housing Research Center.


Dr. Memari and I are coauthoring a report entitled

Renovating Existing Housing to Provide Individuals with Mobility Disabilities the Opportunity to Live Independently

The book contains a lot of photographs of independent living facilities where design modifications should have been required. I will be submitting my work thus far to Dr. Memari by close of business on Thursday.



Gratitude is hard to express. Syrup often accompanies it. More of the gratitude I feel will be expressed as time goes by.


Joel Solkoff

Noisy Thanksgiving November 22, 2012

Copyright © 2013 by Joel Solkoff. All rights reserved. 









Self: Cultural identity Judaism

The following appeared in Brit Shalom of State College, PA’s quarterly publication The Center Scroll, January/February 2011

Teach It Diligently to Your Children

               I remember clearly that astonishing first visit to the obstetrician, the one where I saw for the first time a sonic image of my first child inside her mother’s womb and heard the heartbeat. This was over 26 years ago and I remember it as clearly as if it were happening right now between the strokes on my computer keyboard.
I brought a cassette tape recorder to the obstetrician’s office and from then until Joanna’s birth, I rode around Washington DC where I lived for 17 years and where I often drove with the kind of automatic pilot that comes with familiarity. While the automatic pilot was driving, the rest of me was listening to the sound of life, primitive and vital coursing through the internal consciousness of my mind.
The heartbeat sound was surprisingly fast. There were times I heard it and remembered with clarity the sonic image of a creature who swam and looked like a frog and who would shortly be my child—the person whose umbilical cord I would cut.
What could I teach such a person? How could I flaws and all (and I was often overwhelmed by the specificity of my flaws) be a father commanded to teach, commanded to teach it diligently, commanded to teach what? This much I knew. After years of repeating the phrase from the shima, in Hebrew and in English often-multiple-times-a-day that God was not simply commanding me simply to teach my children the story of the Exodus from Egypt–unless you regard the deliverance from slavery a story that transcends that specific historic occasion and becomes a story of the universal quest for freedom and holiness.
It is germane that I have always been perplexed by the words of the havdalla service at the end of the Sabbath, lighting the multi-wicked candle, smelling the fragrence, consuming the booze (my stepfather preferred substituting 120 proof slivovitch) and recognizing that we were marking the difference between the holiness of the Sabbath and ordinary quality of the rest of the week. “Hamavdeel bein kaddish lechol.” How can we make such a distinction? Isn’t everything holy? Is there really a dividing line?
Fortunately, I no longer have to worry about being a good father—not with the intensity that drove me to drive sometimes aimlessly through the streets of DC listening to the heart beat, wondering whether I would measure up to being a good father. It is not that Joanna is 26 and Amelia is 20. We parents know that there is no end to being a parent.
I am, of course, gratified that my daughters have read Hemingway, believe strongly in the majesty of the 14 amendment of the Constitution of the United States and of the promise The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. standing side by side with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Shmuel Yosef Agnon(a great theologian in a century of great theologians), gave us—a promise of equality and the perception that no one is free until all human beings are free.
But what about being Jewish? Did I teach Joanna and Amelia what it means to be a Jew? For me especially being Jewish has been very complicated. As I contemplate the recent death of my mother Miriam Pell Schmerler, who was a Hebrew educator, I understand that some Jewish issues have always been clear and simple (as clear and simple as it is possible for Jews to let things be):
1.      We Jews are a very old people. According to The New Oxford Annotated Bible, “Most scholars agree that the texts now found in Genesis began to be written down sometime after the establishment of the monarchy in Israel in the tenth century B.C.E.” These documents were part of an oral tradition that traces back farther than history itself. We are not only an old people; we are a clan; landsmen, people who have an obligation to each other and the world too often obscured by disagreements less important than they seem at the time.
2.      Theodore Herzl was divinely inspired when, after witnessing the Dreyfus trial in what was believed to be progressive France, Herzl concluded that our people require a Jewish state located in the holy land. Today’s Middle Eastern problems may seem insoluble, but in my lifetime I have seen the fall of the Berlin wall, majority rule in South Africa, and a palpable harmony in Northern Ireland to the point where Joanna spent her junior year abroad in Belfast and her parents did not fear for her safety.
3.      The revival of the Hebrew language was one of the great miracles of the 20 century, accomplished despite opposition by the Orthodox community which stoned Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and his children for speaking God’s language outside the synagogue. Not only is the majesty of the Hebrew language in the Bible—our book; we are the people of the book—better understood today than ever before. But a new, vital language has sprung up in Israeli soil. Nobel Prize committees sometimes err in their choices. The awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Shmuel Yosef Agnon for using the Hebrew language to demonstrate the human ability to communicate on the highest level can be compared equally to the award to William Faulkner, kindred souls despite worlds of difference.
4.      Being the “chosen people” means we have been chosen to have an often confusing relationship with God. I have been reading James L. Kugel’s brilliant How to Read the Bible. Kugel, a former Harvard professor of Hebrew, reconciles modern Biblical scholarship, which has done so much to make the Bible accessible, with traditional Midrashic interpretation, ending in about 200 AD.
Kugel says the following about God: “As for where He is normally, He is simply elsewhere, behind the curtain of everyday reality, but from time to time He crosses into the world.”
–Joel Solkoff
[Note: Congregation Brit Shalom is a reform synagogue. The article above appeared in slightly different form (ishorter than this blog posting). Material Copyright © by Joel Solkoff, 2011.