Shul playground pays tribute to young pilot

In mid-April about 300 people gathered at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) for the dedication of Mark Air, a large, eye-catching structure in the nursery school play area. With its colorfully painted slides, tunnels and swings, its portholes and decorative elements, Mark Air is a multipurpose play apparatus that resembles an airplane.

The structure honors Mark Gabriel, a 23-year-old aviator who perished in an airplane accident four and a half years ago. Among those in attendance were Mark’s parents, Mary and Moneer Gabriel, their relatives and co-workers, as well as VBS nursery-school families, including toddlers who couldn’t wait to play in the brand-new structure.

At the dedication there were also many who know the Gabriels from having met them at their place of worship in Pico-Robertson: St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church.

Mary and Moneer Gabriel are not Jewish. They’re Christian, born in Egypt. In an interview, they talked about Mark, their middle child.

“With Mark, everything was so fast,” Mary Gabriel said, recalling the day of his birth: April 13, 1980. “Even his delivery was fast…. As he was growing up, he kept me on my toes all the time. Never a dull moment. He was very energetic.

“Mark was a free spirit. He wanted to do everything. The first time he drove a car he was 8 years old. At that age he got into Moneer’s Volkswagen and tried to drive it. With Mark everything was so quick, quick, quick … as if he knew….” Her eyes welled up. “He’d get bored with things: with school, with classes. He was smart, but he couldn’t sit still.”

In the 1990s, Mark Gabriel attended Alemany, a Catholic high school in Mission Hills, then went to CSUN, where he studied accounting and finance. After that, he worked in the insurance business. According to his parents, Mark was too adventurous and restless for a desk job, so one day he announced that he wanted to be an airplane pilot.

At pilot school in Florida, Mark Gabriel found something that he loved and had the craving to learn. After two years of study and training, he returned to Southern California, where he worked as a co-pilot for a charter jet company.

On Dec. 23, 2003, Mark Gabriel was co-pilot on a small business jet that took off from Chino Airport. Eleven minutes after take-off, the plane plummeted 20,000 feet into the Mojave Desert.

In the wake of this tragedy, Ron Braverman, Mary Gabriel’s work supervisor, helped the Gabriels start a foundation in Mark’s name.

“We started the Mark Moneer Gabriel Foundation,” Braverman said, “and we collected a nice sum of money. We went to Alemany, where Mark had gone to high school, and we met with their scholarship program. But somehow, it never fell into place.

“We wanted to use the money to keep Mark’s name and memory alive, and we wanted to do something that benefited other people, because Mark was very big on taking care of others. If he had a dollar in his pocket and you needed it, he’d give it to you.”

Another work colleague of Mary Gabriel’s, Shirley Lowy, also reached out to the Gabriels in their time of grief.

“Shirley is the connection to VBS,” Braverman said. “Along the way she brought Moneer into VBS, and he started attending lectures and classes about four years ago.”

“Shirley tried to bring me here so many times,” Mary Gabriel said, “but I wasn’t ready.”

In time, Mary also started coming to VBS, where she felt “comfortable.”

“I wanted to do something [to honor Mark],” Mary said, “and here at VBS they’re very warm.”

“We were open to everything,” Braverman said, “but because Mary and Moneer are not Jewish, I wanted to make sure. Did they want something here at VBS? Did they want to do something that was compatible with their church at the same time?”

Little by little, after talking with those at VBS who work in the playground, the idea for Mark Air took shape.

“We wanted it to have something to do with Mark,” Braverman said, “and the playground people came up with the concept. They told us their needs and came up with a design. Sometimes things just happen at the right time, and it all falls into place…. Long after we’re forgotten, Mark Air will be there for children to enjoy.”

On April 13, the day Mark Air was dedicated — the day that would have been Mark Gabriel’s 28th birthday — Moneer Gabriel cut the ribbon, and the children swarmed all over the structure, playing and jumping and having fun. It was a day of tears and joy.

“It couldn’t be more special,” Mary Gabriel said, her eyes welling up again. “The pain will never go away, of course. But seeing the children play, knowing that Mark’s name will live on this way, helps ease the feeling of loss.”