Terror Comes to Our Door

Pesukei d’zimra are not yet over, and I’m crying. Without my even realizing it, the tears have been welling up in my eyes and now they are coming down my cheeks. My first reaction is embarrassment. My second is to try to figure out exactly what I’m crying about. I wish I were crying for the ten Jews already known dead [it will later turn out to be 18], for ten Jews who went from life to death in less time than it takes to blow out a match. That, at least, would be a madrega.

But I’m not crying for them – at least I’m not crying for them alone. I’m crying for myself, for the knowledge that I will never again feel safe here, that I will never again be able to send my children on a bus or to school or Machane Yehudah without going through a hundred calculations first. (“Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” Jewish Observer, April 1996.)

Those words were written in the aftermath of the second straight early Sunday morning suicide bombing on Jerusalem’s No. 18 bus in Adar 5756 (February 1996). But I was wrong. I had underestimated the human power of forgetting. Eventually, we went back to riding the buses and traveling downtown without a second thought.

And then came the Second Intifada, in the wake of the failure of Camp David. In March 2002 alone, nearly 140 Israeli Jews died in terrorist attacks, including a Motzaei Shabbos suicide bombing in a park near Mirrer Yeshiva, where mothers pushing strollers and young children gathered to wait for their husbands and fathers to come home from Ma’ariv. Once again, we felt like ducks in a shooting gallery just waiting for the Palestinians to pick us off.

But Operation Defensive Shield and the building of a security fence followed, and for more than a decade the Jews of Jerusalem once again felt safe in their city.

Now that sense of security has ended. The Palestinians, many of them Israeli citizens or residents of Jerusalem, and thus able to travel freely throughout the country, have discovered a host of lethal new low-tech weapons – cars to ram into Jews at bus stops or hitching posts, rocks hurled at the Jerusalem light rail, axes, machetes, and easily concealed knives.

To say that Jerusalem’s chareidi population, or even the residents of Har Nof, felt themselves removed or somehow immunized from danger, as a BBC interviewer suggested to me the night of last week’s massacre, would be an exaggeration. We too have had to run to air raid shelters and worry about a nuclear Iran sworn to annihilate us. Most of the victims of the aforementioned suicide bombing near Mirrer Yeshiva and another on a No. 2 bus to the Kosel were chareidi. And just two weeks ago, Shalom Aharon Baadani, the 17-year-old grandson of the great scholar Rabbi Shimon Baadani was runover as he stood at a light rail stop on Shimon HaTzaddik Street.

After the spate of recent attacks at bus stops, my wife, who frequently rides buses and the light rail, expressed her desire to purchase some kind of pepper spray or mace for protection (not that it would be very effective against stones or a speeding car.)

But the murderous rampage on men in the middle of davening, wrapped in tallis and tefillin, brought the terror to our doorsteps, and revived memories of a millennia of European pograms against Jews. Our return to Eretz Yisrael has apparently brought no escape. Yesterday’s slaughter left 24 yesomim, and there are an almost equal number of children still davening fervently for fathers in critical condition.

Beyond the circle of those most immediately affected, how will the dozens of those in shul who escaped physically unscathed, even those who were in a minyan just beginning upstairs when the first shots rang out and were able to flee to the street above through a side exit, resume their normal lives? Every five-year-old in Har Nof knows what happened – my grandson has the son of one of the victims and the son of one of those in critical condition in his kindergarten. How will they avoid being traumatized by fears of “bad men” as they walk to school?

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller, who is a bulwark of strength for thousands of women around the globe through her teaching and writing, sent around an email describing how her 12-year-old grandson Mordechai, who was in shul with his father, Rabbi Shmuel Goldstein, summoned up the courage to drop his father’s hand and crawl towards the door before running out. His father Shmuel ran after him, and drew the attention of the murderers, one of whom chopped him with an axe in the back of the head and back. Fortunately, he managed to stumble out the door, and the last thing he heard before losing consciousness was that his son had escaped safely. Josh White, a student at Machon Shlomo, a local ba’al teshuva yeshiva, passing by on his bicycle, may have saved Rabbi Goldstein’s life, by alertly using his shirt to create a tourniquet and stop his bleeding.

Specialists in post-trauma insisted that Mordechai keep retelling what he had witnessed as a means of gaining control over the horror. He will not be the only one to need lots of post-trauma help.

One of the terrorists worked in a local food store, and suddenly we are noticing how many Arabs work in local stores, gas stations, car repair shops, and delivering our groceries. Who knows what thoughts they are thinking or whether one has been recently Islamized. In the new neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh-Gimmel, where one of my sons has recently moved with his family, almost all the men on the street during the day are Arab construction workers. And many of them sleep in unfinished buildings or ramshackle huts at night and over Shabbos.

Besides the numbers of Arabs in our midst, we have noticed something else as well: There are few guns in Har Nof and other chareidi communities. No one in shul yesterday had any means of defending himself, as would have been the case had the terrorists chosen Efrat instead.

Nor are police generally found in Har Nof. One of the blessings yesterday was that armed policemen arrived within seven minutes of the onset of the attack, and helped prevent the carnage from being worse – in the case of one Druze policeman at the cost of his own life. (Over one hundred Har Nof residents, led by Rabbi Yitzchak Mordechai Rubin, rav of Kehillat Bnei Torah, spontaneously made arrangements to attend his funeral in a village in the North the day following the massacre in Har Nof.)

On entering davening this morning, I found myself looking around to check out the exits and choosing my seat on that basis. I doubt I was the only one.

WHEN SOMEONE ANNOUNCES after Shachris yesterday that there has been a peguah (terrorist attack) at “Rabbi Rubin’s” shul and that we should recite Tehillim, I do not start crying, as I did in the same room nearly twenty years earlier. I’m too frightened to cry. My oldest son lives across the street from the shul, and I’m afraid that he might have been in the early minyan prior to taking his kids to gan.

I rush home after Tehillim to call his home and can breathe again when he answers. But the sense of foreboding is not stilled by relief from my worst fear. Kehillat Bnei Torah is the most centrally located shul in the neighborhood and one of the largest. Its downstairs social hall has been the home of many of our family smachotbrissim and shevah berachos. It is the closest thing to a central meeting spot for the neighborhood’s “yeshivish” crowd. And many of my friends daven there regularly.

The air in my morning shiur is somber, like a shiva house. There is little talking, as if each of us is afraid of saying something inappropriate. Again, just like a shiva house. The rav has been delayed because his street is blocked off by police, and one of the shiur members goes off to fetch him. The rest of us sit there quietly, each trying to absorb for himself what he has heard of the morning’s events. The victims’ names have still not been publicized.

Returning home after shiur, the first call comes in. It is from fellow writer Miriam Zakon. “Can you contact Yeshiva World News?” she wants to know. They have posted the wrong name for davening for Rebbetzin Heller’s son-in-law, and Rebbetzin Heller wants them to have the right name. At the end of the conversation, Mimi mentions that Rabbi Avraham Goldberg, who took over management of Targum Press after the passing of its founder, Rabbi Moshe Dombey, was in the minyan and has not returned from shul.

The first name of a confirmed victim comes in an email from my friend Moshe Smith in Lawrence, where it is 2:00 a.m: Rabbi Moshe Twersky, Rosh Kollel of Yeshivas Toras Moshe. He notes that his son Tzvi was a talmid of Rabbi Twersky and describes him as the “the greatest tzaddik I ever saw.”

Ironically, Rabbi Twersky is the only one of the victims with whom I never spoke. But everyone knows that he is one of the neighborhood’s crown jewels. He is the scion of Torah royalty on both sides – of the Brisker dynasty back to Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin on one side and the founder of the Chernobyl Chassidic dynasty on the other. In a hesped a few hours later, Rabbi Twersky’s cousin Rabbi Moshe Meiselman applies the Brisker Rav’s brief hesped for his older brother Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik to the latter’s great-grandson: He was “gaon and a tzaddik.”

And not just a “gaon and a tzaddik,” who fasted every sheini ve’chamishi, but beloved by all and available to anyone who sought his counsel. “He was a teacher to his sons and a father to his talmidim,” says Rabbi Meiselman. A talmid from remembers last year’s Chanukah party, at which Rabbi Twersky opened himself up to any question, in any area of Torah or chochmah, from fifty present and former talmidim, for three hours. “I never saw him waste a minute,” the former talmid writes. “He was either learning by himself, teaching, or discussing Torah topics with anyone who wished to speak to him”

Leaving the building, I run into my downstairs neighbor Rabbi Dovid Miller. He is visibly shaken. Rabbi Twersky was the oldest grandson of his great teacher Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, and he is close to the family. He also confirms the passing of Rabbi Goldberg, his mechutan’s afternoon chavrusah. (A few hours later, Rabbi Goldberg’s son-in-law will describe his incredible deveikus to talmidei chachamim, and how he would frequently recite almost word for word drashos he heard from the Poneveczher Rav and other gedolim as a young boy sixty years earlier in England.)

Walking up the hill to work, I meet another friend, who supplies the name of yet another martyr: Rabbi Kalman Levine. He takes my breath away. Reb Kalman’s wife is my sister-in-law’s best friend. Just a week ago, they were in Chicago running a women’s kiruv convention for the Wolfson-Horn Fund, and my wife was with them. For more than ten years, Reb Kalman has been a fixture at Rabbi Ariev Ozer’s weekly Shabbos shiur, always sitting at the same place a few feet to Rav Ozer’s right. For the entire nearly two-hour shiur, he sits at his shtender, a smile on his face and his head nodding enthusiastically up and down, like a young yeshiva bochur. Never once did I see his attention wane in the difficult shiur for even a moment.

His son describes his father eating only the briefest of meals before returning to his learning and how he consistently fell asleep over his Gemara in the small hours of the morning. When a family member would find him there and urge him to go to bed, he would instead revive and resume his learning.

Rabbi Daniel Travis, Rosh Kollel of the Kollel, in which Rabbi Levine taught, in an email a few days after the tragedy, defines his greatest attribute as his humility. The Chofetz Chaim writes that any kavod a person receives in this world negates that which he receives in the next world. If so, Rabbi Levine’s nephew told Rabbi Travis at the levaya, his reward will be fully intact, for despite his command of vast swaths of Torah, he was completely self-effacing. Rabbi Travis describes the tears that would pour down during his normal weekday davening (an average Ma’ariv lasted thirty minutes), his zrizus, his bubbling enthusiasm at a chasanah, the impossibility of extracting a word of lashon hara from him. On their nightly rides home from kollel over the last year, Rabbi Levine spoke almost constantly of how anyone with eyes can see today that we are on the threshold of Mashiach.

Rabbi Levine’s wife was not initially concerned about him personally when he failed to return from shul because she knew that he davened every morning in the haneitz minyan at Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch’s shul. On this particular morning, however, he went to a slightly later minyan so he could speak to Rabbi Yitzchak Mordechai Rubin, the rav of Kehillat Bnei Torah, about a question that had arisen in his learning.

I only learn the name of the fourth victim a few hours later at a meeting when one of the participants says she has to leave for the levaya of Rabbi Aryeh Kapinsky. Reb Aryeh and I learned together for several years by Rabbi Tzvi Kushelevsky, and he even helped us with Pesach cleaning one year when he was a bochur. We’ve only run into each other intermittently in recent years — unfortunately, the last time at the shiva house for his oldest daughter, who passed away in her sleep.

He is very tall and powerfully built. I guess, without knowing, that he would have fought the attackers. And I turn out to be right. He yelled out, “Run, I’ll fight,” with only a chair to defend against a gun and an axe. Who knows how many lives he saved by doing so. That is fully consistent with the “shtick chesed v’anivus” described by his brother in his hesped – someone constantly doing chesed for others, frequently without being asked or the recipients of his chesed even knowing what he had done for them.

THE INSTINCTIVE RESPONSE of the chareidi community to tragedy is to look inward, not to focus on political or security issues. That response comes even more naturally this time. The extremely elevated level of the four kedoshim makes it obvious to all that Hashem has plucked His choicest fruits, and that, as Rabbi Rubin says in his hesped, “The tragedy is not one of individuals, but of the entire community.”

Rabbi Levine’s brother-in-law mentions in his hesped that he recently began learning Zevachim dealing with the Temple sacrifices, and now he has become a korbon tzibbur himself. Not a single person at the levaya doubts that for a second. The same thought is going through every mind: What have we done wrong to merit such a tragedy being visited upon us?

Rabbi Rubin urges us to remain steadfast in our emunah, for the last test of the last generation before Mashiach is one of emunah that Hashem is without blemish or wrong. The stature of those who were lost makes it that much easier to know that the tragedy was not, chas ve’shalom, a coincidence, but rather a judgment on the entire kehillah.

One of my sons asks his Rosh Yeshiva at the levaya whether a communal or individual tikkun is needed. He replies that there is so much in need of tikkun communally he would not know where to begin. But each of knows in his heart where he or she has failed and what is required to repair the breach between him and Hashem.

While still in mourning, the four almonos and their children issue a plea to every individual in Klal Yisrael to increase love and comradery between each individual and each community, and to take on the coming Shabbat as a day of unconditional love, without words of gossip or slander. They express their hope that by doing so the souls of their husbands and fathers, who were slaughtered while sanctifying Hashem’s name, will be elevated and that Hashem will see our suffering, wipe away our tears, and that this horrible nightmare from which there is no awakening will become instead the harbinger of the coming of Mashiach, when all our questions will finally be answered.

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2 Responses

  1. Steve Brizel says:

    After reading this column , many others and listening to many hespedim, I was left in awe of the Avodas HaShem of the Arbaah kedoshim.The words that had the most impact on me were those of Rebbitzen Twersky who in a sense testified that R Moshe Twersky ZL, HaShem yimkam Damo and the other Kedoshim lived and were niftar Bkedusha and Taharah. We in Chutz LaAretz should try to emulate at least one of their midos in how the kedoshim lived their lives, and realize that our lives were and are like pygmies in comparison to their lives.

  2. Sam says:

    Unfortunately, what we forget is that we have to do Hishdadlus. Leaving the front door of a Beis Hamedrash open and unguarded is utter negligence.

    I recently went to a shul on a Tuesday morning. To get in, I had to e-mail in advance a scanned copy of my passport to my friend, which he took to shul. When I arrived at shul, the thick steel doors were locked. The guard asked me for my passport, which he compared to those he had on a clipboard. As mine matched he let me in.

    Too much effort? Think of the alternatives.

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