by Gregory Johnson

I remember that it was a sunny day on Friday, 24 March 2006. That was the day I’d planned to go on a road trip to visit Postville, Iowa. The weekend visit was organized and sponsored by the Blesofsky Family — they run our local Chabad House and associated website here in Iowa City.

My companion for the weekend visit to Postville was Michael Balch. We were assigned to stay with the same Jewish host family for the weekend. Michael graciously offered to drive his car. We left in the afternoon so as to arrive before the start of Shabbat.

I’d come to know Michael fairly well over five years through various local Jewish gatherings and events. He was usually present on Saturdays at the Hillel Jewish Student Center for Shabbat prayers and the lively Torah study that followed. Often after prayer (Davening) and Torah study, a small group of us would walk with Rabbi Blesofsky to the Chabad House for a Shabbat meal and good conversation. After the Shabbat gatherings, those in attendance would walk back to their respective homes. Several of us, including Michael, would walk together since we were heading in the same direction. During these walks, the conversations would continue. Sometimes I would walk a few blocks beyond where I needed to turn. Michael would say, “Isn’t this where you need to turn?” but I would just keep walking. The conversations were fascinating to me. We talked about religion, politics, health, ethics, society, and computers (we were both Apple computer users). Michael inspired me to greater acts of kindness and giving.

Michael always took time to listen to me and he showed genuine interest in what I was saying. Even if something I was saying were contrary to his views or positions, he would listen and really give it consideration. If we were to have labels, his might say “Conservative” and mine might say “Liberal.” Yet, there were many issues we agreed on. Despite any differences we might have had, our discussions were always respectful. It was as if we both had, ultimately, the same goals, values, and ethics at heart. I admired Michael for his support of and participation in diverse tangents of Jewish community. He seemed to have an interest in knitting the community together.

The weekend visit to Postville was really quite amazing. Friday night, our group from Iowa City attended the Synagogue. It was the first time I had an opportunity to join with with a room full of singing and dancing Rabbis. I learned a lot over the weekend about the history of the community. On Sunday, we went on a tour of the meat packing plant. As a vegetarian, I wrote an article about the tour from my perspective. Having the opportunity to visit with Michael that weekend made the trip a more interesting experience.

Over the past few years, outside the context of Jewish events, I’d see Michael out for a walk in Iowa City. I would be on my bike, or walking, and would take a moment to stop and visit. Michael always greeted me with a kind smile. He had sincere compassion and a genuine interest in how my life was going.

Yesterday was Michael’s funeral. News of his passing was a surprise to me. In the morning, two hours before the funeral, I read the e-mail announcement that had been sent the day before. A prompt burial is part of the Jewish custom.

I think I was a bit in shock yesterday. This morning around 4:30 AM, I woke with a desire to write down some thoughts and memories about Michael. I might add more thoughts to this writing, but wanted to at least put something down as a memorial.

I’ve enabled comments so visitors can add their own thoughts and memories here if they desire.

Links. Here are links to other pages and stories about Michael:

Student Comments. Here are selected student comments about Michael:

  • “Zekher tzadik levarecha, may the memory of the righteous be a blessing.” 1/29/08
  • “My favorite professor at the University. A brilliant man that really helped me, especially when I was having trouble.” 5/2/05
  • “Brilliant, open to other points of view.” 9/8/04
  • “If you go to class, take notes, and most importantly do and understand the homework, you will do well. If you get wasted the night before and spend the class staring at the ceiling of W10, however, you will do bad.” 4/25/03
  • “If you have a genuine interest in the course being offered, taking a small class with Dr. Blach is extremely rewarding. His teaching style is a little terse, but this aids in clarity.” 3/31/03