Halli James of Westfield and Ben Zukoff of Summit were inseparable almost from the day they met as high school seniors at a United Synagogue Youth board meeting. They were the kind of couple whose closeness was obvious to the people around them.
Two years later, in May 2012, Ben was diagnosed with desmoplastic small round cell tumors, a very rare cancer found most often in boys and young men. He was being treated at the Valerie Center at Morristown Medical Center and at Sloan-Kettering in New York City.
Halli, who by then was studying at the University of Maryland in College Park, transferred to Rutgers University in New Brunswick to be closer to him.
Ben died this past January, at the age of 20.
Now, in his memory and in keeping with her own commitment to social action, Halli is taking part in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life fund-raiser, in which participants run laps around a track throughout the night. It takes place at Rutgers on April 12 and 13. She is captaining a team from Alpha Zeta, a co-ed honors and service fraternity for people studying the environmental and biological sciences.
“They’ve really been so supportive and such a family for me since I got to Rutgers,” she said of Alpha Zeta.
Halli took part in the Relay for Life last year too, before it became quite this personal.
“They are always saying how cancer touches everyone, and that really applies to me,” she said. “I lost my grandfather to a brain tumor several years ago, but I never imagined anything like this could ever happen. This entire experience — dealing with Ben being sick and helping him through his treatment — was absolutely horrific, and I just really want to do whatever I can to keep this from happening to another family.”
She knows Ben would endorse her effort. “He was such a kind person who cared deeply about others,” she said, “and I know he would also want to do whatever possible to spare other people from this.”
At Ben’s funeral in January, Halli described their time together. The year after they met, she went to Israel to study and volunteer with the Nativ program run by United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. (See “Teen finds return from ‘dream trip’ a challenge,” NJJN, June 29, 2011.) Ben, who was a woodworking and furniture design major at Rochester Institute of Technology, took on some jobs to raise the money to go visit her.
“We spent a wonderful week together traveling, hiking, and camping in the Negev, and he even came to work in the dairy with me on my kibbutz,” Halli recalled. “Ben always made sure the people he was close to knew how much he cared about them.”
Ben’s parents, Mimi and Paul Zukoff, and brother Sam are members of the Summit Jewish Community Center, where Ben developed his passion for Judaism and Israel. He participated in Diller Teen Fellows, a teen leadership development program of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, and in March of the Living, a youth mission to Poland and Israel.
Halli is an animal science major, planning to work with service animals, particularly guide dogs for the blind. She also sings with Kol Halayla, Rutgers’ Jewish a cappella group.
She counts herself lucky to have experienced the kind of wholehearted, totally reciprocated love some people never find, but the loss is still very raw. She said, “I still can’t even believe this is real.”