To Know a Shooting Star 

It is a natural aspect of the human condition to find significance in anniversaries. We celebrate them, sometimes avoid them; they are so often anticipated in both positive and negative lights. Last year we celebrated 100 years of the JCC Denver and set the course for another century of creating connection and joy in this community. This year, there is another anniversary that many may be unaware of.  

The deck of the outdoor pool was host to countless visitors this summer, be it long-standing members, newcomers, and visitors. Aquafit classes and lap swim kept adults busy and fit, while swim lessons and pool parties kept youngsters cool and entertained. Whether you came to doze in the sun, watch your child play Marco Polo, or read that page-turner novel, your gaze will have inevitably fallen on a vibrant tile mural on the northern-most wall of the pool deck. It is this piece of artwork – and the boy for whom it memorializes – that we celebrate this October.  

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Eli Perlman was known around the J as “that smiling kid.” His mother describes him as being goofy and sunny, a jokester. “He was so bright – in intelligence, of course, but also in light. He shone.” He was passionate about helping orphans in Afghanistan and the homeless in Denver and insisted on raising money by running a lemonade stand – hot cocoa, in the wintertime.   

Eli’s family was deeply entrenched in the JCC community. His mother, Lili Zohar, grew up at the JCC herself when it was still located at East Colfax. She was part of the swim team and attended day camps, activities that her own children went on to partake in. “Eli went to after school care and day camps, and my two older children, Rosa and Henry Perlman, went to Ranch Camp. We have an incredibly long history at the J,” Lili recalls. 

In the winter of 2001, however, Lili began noticing differences in her youngest child. Eli was cranky, he frequently got lost and disoriented, his ears hurt. Not long after, the family received news of Eli’s fatal tumor. “I remember the doctor saying to me, ‘your kid has the worst tumor, in the worst place, with the worst prognosis.’”   

Eli battled this tumor for the next 13 months, although you wouldn’t have known it. His generosity and luminescence couldn’t be extinguished even by a fatal diagnosis. Always more concerned with the happiness of those around him, Eli insisted on dressing up like Santa Claus for his radiation appointments in the effort of cheering up the doctors and nurses. “He was enduring six weeks of torturous radiation therapy, but he was more worried about the morale of those who were giving him the drugs. That was my Eli,” says Lili. 

During his last year Eli and his family spent many memorable hours at the JCC, playing by the pool and enjoying time with friends. “During Eli’s last summer, we sort of lived at the JCC. Because of his tumor he wasn’t swimming as well, but he walked around with this massive grin on his face. People had no idea he had a fatal diagnosis.” 

It is because of these memories at the JCC that Lili and her family decided to make a dedication of a piece of artwork to the J, in memory of Eli. Using funds they had saved for his college tuition, the Perlman family commissioned Lonnie Hanzon, installation artist and storyteller, to create a mural to embody Eli’s spirit and light.  

“Lonnie is like a magician,” Lili states. “We showed him some poetry we wrote about Eli, we showed him a quilt his classmates made for him. We told him his classmates believed he had turned into a shooting star. And Lonnie created this masterpiece, so that Eli can live on in this community.”  

Eli was born on October 14, 1993, and the mural you can see outside the J was unveiled and dedicated on October 14, 2003. This month, Eli would be turning 30 years old. Although Eli didn’t get to have a bar-mitzvah, his joy and goodness lives on in the community. 

The JCC is blessed with a vibrant, bright, authentic representation of Eli’s spirit. Next time you’re heading for the lap lanes or cabana, take a look around for Eli’s mural. You’re guaranteed to feel the light emanating from its shooting star.  

*The art installation is currently in need of restoration. Time and weather have damaged parts of the artwork. If you are interested in donating to restoring the mural, please click here.

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Eli’s sister (Rosa, left) and his cousin (Amara, right) This picture was taken marking Eli’s 30th birthday, which would have been on October 14.