It’s unclear exactly what was going through Jenn Sherman’s mind that Sunday night as she lay on the cold concrete driveway leading up to her childhood home on Penshurst Drive in Beachwood.
Maybe it was the many times she tried to call her mom, Aliza, earlier that evening without ever getting hold of her – something completely out of character for the mother and daughter who were also best friends.
“I just had this gut feeling that something was very wrong. ... No matter where she was going or who she was with, she would answer the phone for me.”
Maybe it was the last communication she had with her mom, a text message Aliza sent to offer support to her daughter, who’d been cramming for an upcoming pharmacology exam as part of her family nurse practitioner program at Case Western Reserve University.
“She knew I was in study mode. I didn’t speak to her on the phone or see her (that day), but she sent me a text message at about 2:55 in the afternoon saying she was leaving to go to her attorney soon. ... She said, ‘Call grandma if you can. Hope you’re OK. Love you.’”
Maybe it was her frantic search for her mom that night that led her to drive around Cleveland’s East Side suburbs fruitlessly in an attempt to retrace Aliza’s steps – a search for which she departed so quickly she left her Solon home wearing pajamas and slippers, not befitting a day in which the high was only 35 degrees.
“I just got in my car and started driving. I don’t even know where I was going, I was just going to look for her because I knew this wasn’t like my mom.”
Or maybe it was the news she, her younger brother Jeremy and her then-boyfriend Kevin Rivchun waited 45 minutes in that driveway to hear. Cleveland police were en route to the house but wouldn’t provide the reason for their visit until they could do so in person.
“There was snow on the ground still. It probably was very cold, but I don’t remember. I was just lying there, this car showed up, and a man and woman came out of the car,” Sherman said of the officers. “I reached for her coat and brought her close to me and said, ‘Is my mother dead?’ And she said, ‘I’m sorry to say your mom was killed.’ And I kept saying to her, ‘Are you sure it was my mom? Maybe it was somebody who looked like her.’ I wanted there to be one small chance.”
When the officer replied by asking whether Sherman knew of anyone who might want to hurt her mother, she knew there was no chance.
“She said that based on the injuries, they knew it was a homicide. I just remember I was in shock. I couldn’t move,” Sherman said. “And then I had to call my brother, Jason, and tell him.”
In that moment, her life changed forever. She felt her “worst nightmare” had come true.
“I just couldn’t stop screaming. It’s such a numbness that takes over your entire body. Like, your body is very good at this protective mechanism, I guess, because I felt like a stone. I didn’t feel whether it was cold outside. I think someone could’ve ran over my foot and I’d never have felt it,” Sherman said. “Actually, Kevin’s father came, too, and I remember I couldn’t move. After I hung up with Jason, I couldn’t speak and they had to lift me into the car and take me home.”
That was March 24, less than 24 hours before Passover. In the six months that have passed since Aliza Sherman was brutally stabbed to death in downtown Cleveland, Jenn Sherman has bravely become the face of the quest to bring her mom’s killer to justice, no suspects have been publicly named and no closure has been brought to those most seeking it.
Sadness taints celebrations
Over the past six months, there have been several sorrowful firsts for Sherman, among them Aliza’s birthday and the High Holy Days – both of which she spent without her mom. More recently, Sherman felt Aliza’s absence during her own birthday.
“I usually spent the whole day with my mom for my birthday. It was a hard day to be without her,” said the 26-year-old, explaining that regardless of the day of the week, she and her mom would clear their schedules to spend their birthdays together. “Often we’d go out to dinner, or maybe get our nails done. We’d do things we wouldn’t normally do.”
This year, Sherman cleared her day to go visit her younger brothers, Jason, 23, and Jeremy, 18, both students at Ohio University in Athens, who live with Sherman in Solon when they’re home from school. The three met in Columbus on a Sunday for dinner and shopping.
“I bought them suits for my upcoming wedding,” she said. “They agreed to walk me down the aisle.”
Rivchun, a financial consultant who’s now Sherman’s fiancé, wasn’t part of the birthday rendezvous because he was at a family bar mitzvah in New York.
“We met on a full moon,” Sherman said, noting the exact date mutual friends brought her and her beau together: Sept. 3, 2009. “Ever since, we’ve been inseparable. He and my mom got along, so I knew he was a good guy. My mom, the first thing she said about Kevin is that he has a kind face.”
While exchanging vows had already been in the works, getting engaged and moving forward with those plans were put on hold in the aftermath of March 24. Recently, however, the timetable was moved up and the couple plan on holding their “traditional Jewish wedding” for only “very close family and friends.”
“The lack of time to stress and worry about things might be a good thing,” said Sherman, adding the date is so soon out of health concern for her maternal grandmother, who suffered congestive heart failure the very night her daughter was murdered.
“She’s pretty old and not doing very well, especially since the things with my mom. It’s taken a toll on her,” Sherman said of 87-year-old Doris Czinn, a Holocaust survivor and former Cleveland Heights resident who now lives in Florida. “She didn’t have the physical or emotional strength to come back to Cleveland. I think this wedding could be the only thing that could bring her back here.”
As is the case with her and her mother’s recent birthdays, Sherman is preparing to spend another milestone day – as well as all the planning and dress shopping that go along with it – without her best friend and closest confidante. Still, she’s buoyed by the belief that Aliza supports her decisions.
“This is something my mom was living for; she could not wait. As difficult as it’s going to be – and it will be such a terrible and devastating day and experience without her there physically – I know this is what she wants me to do,” Sherman said.
Rising from the ashes
In a sense, the evolution of Sherman’s wedding plans mirrors her metamorphosis as a public figure. Though efforts led by the “Justice for Aliza” advocacy group – including a march, public rallies and charity events – have been consistent since the murder, Sherman has evolved from shielding her identity with sunglasses and hats and allowing others to speak for her to being the one standing front and center.
“Everything that happened to my mom was so evil and brutal that initially I was just this scared, shaken person,” she said. “Over time, I got this desire to be her voice and speak out for her. It gives me strength. She is giving me strength to take the sunglasses off and to throw the hat to the side and say, ‘This is who I am, this is what happened to my mother, and I will never go away or stop fighting until justice is served.’”
Idleness, too, has become an enemy.
“I can’t survive sitting quietly and silently. I have to be out there. If I could have my face on every channel and speak all day long about it, I would. It’s the very least I can do for her,” she said. “I won’t say it’s easy to go and be on the news. A lot of times, I think I get that same sort of numbness back, where I stand like a stone. When I’m at my house and behind closed doors, I’m a mess. I’m crying constantly and devastated, but for her I pull myself together. I go out there and make sure that her voice and her story are heard.”
Sherman admits it’s “extremely frustrating” that no arrest has been made despite her and Justice for Aliza’s many efforts, including offering significant reward money – first $25,000 and now $50,000 – for information leading to a conviction.
“I know there is a lot of information out there. I know that I also would never want the police to do anything hastily or to compromise the investigation,” she acknowledged. “So while I try to remain hopeful and confident and continue to do whatever I can in my power to keep my mom’s story alive and at the forefront in the eyes of the public and police, I will say it’s very frustrating.”
Sherman also admitted that while she’s dedicated to the cause, the process has become exhausting – and understandably so. Not only has she been thrust into a motherly role for her younger brothers, she’s had to make adjustments to her own life, a busy mix of school and work even before March 24.
Inspired by her mother, who was an infertility nurse at Cleveland Clinic’s Beachwood Family Health and Surgery Center and “always said that the best exercise for the heart is bending down to lift somebody up,” Sherman worked for four years as a nurse in the cardiac intensive care unit at Cleveland Clinic’s main campus.
Two-and-a-half years into that career, she decided to go back to school to become a nurse practitioner – again inspired by her mother, who told Sherman she had a gift for that line of work.
“My mom said it was her dream to become a nurse practitioner. She always said she was too old and tired to do that, so she was going to live out her dreams through me,” said Sherman, smiling. “So, that has always had a really big impact on me because when all of this happened, I thought, ‘I can’t go back to school. I can’t do anything.’ But then there was this little voice in my head that reminded me that my mom is living out her dreams through me, and she had such faith in the change that I could make in people’s lives by becoming a nurse practitioner, so here I am.”
Sherman is scheduled to finish her CWRU program in August 2014. In the meantime, she had to make the “mature but difficult” decision to leave her job.
“It was hard. It was security, I had a way to make money and support myself, and I really enjoyed working and being a nurse, but right now, with the circumstances in my life, I had to resign,” she said, adding that “with everything that happened with my mom, I didn’t know whether I could bring myself back to such a challenging work environment, where you do see a lot of death.”
Tragedy changes perspective
As Sherman’s personal and professional obligations have shifted, so too has her sense of family.
Support hasn’t come from her father, Sanford, with whom Aliza was locked in a “two-year-long, contentious” divorce after 30 years of marriage, nor from her estranged older brother, 28-year-old Josh, she said. In fact, the night of the murder, Sherman spent those 45 long minutes waiting for police to arrive outside on the driveway because she didn’t want to step foot in what was once her home.
“That house where my mom and Sanford were living, and Jeremy, was an extremely hostile environment over the past two years – and somewhere I just avoided,” she said. “I liked to see my mom away from that house.”
While her three maternal uncles – in particular Edward Czinn, of Florida, whom Sherman said most reminds her of her mother – have played an important role over the last six months, Sherman said she’s also relied heavily on a more local, non-familial support network.
“I’ve learned that your family is not necessarily your blood. There are so many people we’ve reached out to – Jason, Jeremy and I – and they have become my family,” she said, explaining that on what would’ve been Aliza’s 54th birthday, about 30 strangers came together to celebrate. “None of these people really knew each other before. Even though she’s not here, she did this amazing thing where she brought people together.”
Another source of encouragement and support has been anti-violence advocate Yvonne Pointer, whose 14-year-old daughter Gloria was murdered in 1984 in Cleveland. Sherman heard Pointer speak on criminal justice matters in August at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, and since then, the two – once “perfect strangers” – have maintained a bond.
“She just opened her arms, and her friends and her community opened their arms to me and to some of my mom’s friends,” Sherman said of Pointer, an ordained minister. “She’ll call me still, on occasion, and just say that she’s thinking about me. It makes me believe that I still can have a little bit of faith in humanity.”
Support has also come from Aliza’s former patients, many of whom Sherman has never met. From the beginning, they’ve sent messages of support via Facebook, and as time has passed, Sherman has read more and more of them and started to write back.
“The stories they share are about how much of an impact my mom had during what was such a difficult time for them,” she said, referring to the in vitro fertilization process. “Many of them were so afraid. The interesting thing is that they all write almost the same thing: that my mom was kind, warm, compassionate and funny, and that she held their hand during such a difficult time. She spoke about her children and how much she loved them, and she always said to them – and a few different patients wrote me the same thing – she always said to them, ‘Things that usually start out the hardest end up being the best.’”
Six months after starting the hardest part of her life, even Sherman’s best-case scenario – that Aliza’s killer is found and convicted – is unlikely to return any sense of normalcy to her life. A self-professed “momma’s girl,” she spent as much free time with her mother as she could, and that’s something she no longer has the opportunity to enjoy.
“I have a hard time doing anything – which is a lot of things – I used to do with my mom,” she said. “If a friend offers to go shopping or do nails, I just can’t do it. It doesn’t have the same meaning anymore and brings back such painful memories.”
The silver lining, if it can be considered that, is that Sherman says she’s taken something from this painful experience, and on a certain level, that’s brought her even closer to her mom in the same way others her age often grow closer to their elders as they endure life’s lessons.
“If I had to say I’ve learned a lesson from this nightmare, I’ve learned something I think my mother knew all along: things don’t matter, and all the things and money in the world can’t buy you a truly happy life,” she said. “So, when I think about going back to doing these things, I think I have a changed attitude. While I avoid them because they’re painful, they don’t matter to me as much anymore.”
What does matter to Sherman, and what drives her, is Aliza’s memory. What also drives her is bringing to justice anyone responsible for leaving her mother in a pool of blood crying desperately for help – and for leaving her and her siblings without a mother, her uncles without a sister, and the community without an admired and loved friend and respected coworker.
“To me, it’ll never be enough. Somebody who could take away such a beautiful person – my mother – there’s nothing anyone can do that’ll ever be enough. But she deserves to at least have whoever did this held responsible,” Sherman said. “That is my No. 1 and only goal, to see whoever did this held accountable.”