Michael's Missives

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Reflections for Yom HaZikaron 5767

Last night, I shared these remarks at a Yom HaZikaron event at Harvard Hillel...


In the summer of 2001, I moved to Israel on a Dorot Fellowship to study at the Pardes Institute. On the second day of classes at Pardes, I met Marla Ann Bennett. We began dating, fell in love, and by summer 2002 we were planning to get engaged. On July 31, 2002, Marla was murdered in the terrorist bombing at Hebrew University.

I want to share with you, first, some words that Marla wrote 6 years ago, and then some of my own writings from last summer.

'This Struggle Is Worthwhile' BY MARLA BENNETT

Each morning when I leave my apartment building, I have an important question to contemplate: Should I turn left or should I turn right?

This question may seem inconsequential, but the events of the past few months in Israel have led me to believe that each small decision I make—by which route to walk to school, whether to go out to dinner – may have life-threatening consequences.

I have been living in Israel for a year and a half; I arrived just a month before the current wave of violence and horror began. And for about that same period of time, I have been receiving calls each week from various friends and family members who subtly, or less than subtly, suggest I think about coming home. My friends and family talk about how dangerous it is here, and I have to agree with them. It is dangerous. But I remain unconvinced that the rest of the world is such a safe place.

At least if I am here I can take an active role in attempting to put back together all that has broken. I can volunteer in the homes of Israelis affected by terrorism, I can put food in collection baskets for Palestinian families, I can see what goes on each day with my own eyes instead of with the eyes of CNN. Beyond all of the brutality, in most places in Israel, life goes on.

My friends and family are right when they call and ask me to come home. It is dangerous here. I appreciate their concern. But there is nowhere else in the world I would rather be right now. I have a front-row seat for the history of the Jewish people. I am a part of the struggle for Israel's survival. Paying for my groceries is the same as contributing money to my favorite cause.

I know that this struggle is worthwhile.

Here are some of my own reflections, from last summer:

18 July 2006
Five years ago, I had just moved to Israel to begin my Dorot Fellowship.
Four years ago, it was Tisha b’Av, and disaster was two weeks away.
And now, once again, here I am. En route to Israel. Hineni.

21 July 2006, 1:03 a.m. ­ Yotam Gilboa z”l
Yotam Gilboa, from my Nesiya 2002 group, was killed on the border of Lebanon yesterday, one of two soldiers killed in a battle with Hezbollah.

Yotam Gilboa, kibbutznik, was the strong, silent type. He was a tremendously proud Israeli, a patriot - a worthy heir to the spirit of the pioneers of the early 20th century. Yotam Gilboa, age 21, of Kibbutz Maoz Chayim, is now Yotam Gilboa z”l (zichron livracha - may his memory be for a blessing).

Suddenly, a series of battles that seem close-yet-far-away have taken on a very personal resonance.

I’m saddened, shocked, but, strangely, not surprised. Not at all surprised that he was in an elite fighting unit. And not surprised that Yotam would be at the very front of the front lines.

The last time I saw Yotam was August 1, 2002: the day after the bombing, as I left my Nesiya group to return to the U.S. with Marla’s body. It was the only time Yotam ever let down his tough-guy guard in front of me. He embraced me, and looked at me with tears in his eyes, and said nothing – for what is there to say? In Yotam’s eyes, I think, I had suddenly become an Israeli.

25 July 2006, 5:25 p.m. - A Pilgrimage, of Sorts
I’m sitting EXACTLY where I was, 3 years and 359 days ago, when the bomb exploded at Hebrew University.

I can see Miriam on the phone, getting news from Gideon in the Nesiya office
that there had just been a bombing at Hebrew U.

I can remember hearing from a student, who had gotten the news from a friend or
family member via cellphone: the initial reports - 7 dead, many more wounded.

And I can remember my first of many unsuccessful calls ­to Marla.

And I can imagine ­what might’ve been. What if I had called her before I went with students for ice cream, and she had gone outside to take the call?

What if a four-year journey of pain and healing had been a four-year journey of
love and building a life together?

What if…?

I don’t allow myself to do this “What If?” much, anymore.
But I cannot sit in this little space under an archway at the Suzanne Dellal Center and not wonder, “What If…?”

31 July 2006
11:30 a.m.
Shir Ha-Ma’alot. A song of ascent.

I have ascended this morning, via Bus #4-aleph, to Har Ha-Tzofim. Mount Scopus.
To Hebrew University.

I’m sitting on the porch of the café where I used to meet with my Hebrew tutor,
from April ­- June 2002.

I’m sitting a few buildings over from the cafeteria where Marla and Ben and
seven others were killed, and Jamie Harris-Gershon and dozens of others were

The bells of noontime are pealing out upon the hills below.

At Hebrew University, I had to get an ishur (permit) to enter. The security
guard asked why I was here, and I told her I came to visit the monument to the
victims of the cafeteria bombing. “Stam (Just because)?” she asked. No. Not
stam. The woman I had planned to marry was killed there.

Not stam.

12:28 p.m.
Has it really been 4 years?


I’m now sitting in Café Sinatra, rebuilt after the bombing to look more or less
as it did before.

It’s warm outside, though not oppressively hot like it was on July 31, 2002.
Still…I can appreciate how cool it is inside here, with the A/C. I remember that Jamie told me that the A/C was one of the reasons they were here, eating. It was so hot outside. I know - it was stifling hot in Tel Aviv that day, and the whole country was experiencing a hamsin (heat wave). This cafeteria at Hebrew U. must have been packed.

I close my eyes and remember coming here the night after, on August 1, 2002, thirty-two hours after the bombing. The tables and chairs and bodies and blood and nails and spikes and flesh and hair and glass and everything else imaginable and unimaginable had been swept up and cleaned. Much of the structure remained intact. But…not the ceiling. Panels had fallen or had been blown off, wires exposed. The guts of this building itself were ripped open.

I wonder how many people in here, right now, know what happened here, exactly four years ago. Does anyone?

There’s a man right now reading the signs (about the bombing, in Hebrew) posted outside of the cafeteria.

He knows.

2:23 p.m. ­ At Tilted Tree
I created a ritual of sorts, to recite next to the Tilted Tree, the memorial here next to the café.

I sang Ana B’Koach. Recited Psalm 23. Sang Ha-malakh Ha-goel Oti.

But then I stopped, noticing that two girls and a boy (high school age or so), who had been walking around the plaza and kinda watching me. had left. I decided that I needed to know who they were ­ - no one else (besides me) was in the plaza today, and I wondered what their connection might be. I followed and caught up with
them, and asked one of the girls whether she had a connection to the memorial. And then, as she told me, I realized exactly who she was.

It was Rivka Blutstein, Ben’s sister, here with two of her friends from the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.


She is now 17 years old. She looks wonderful, poised, and ­- despite the difficulty of this moment and this place - happy. It was amazing and really moving to connect with her. She remembered me, and she seemed as glad to see me as I was to see her. Rivka told me that this was the first time that she had ever been up to Hebrew U, the first time she had seen the cafeteria and the memorial. I am honored to have been here during her first visit.

It’s quiet and, yes, peaceful up here, right now.

So interesting ­ how time, and space, can change things.

I finished my “ritual” ­ recited Psalm 121. Sang Tov L’Hodot Hashem (It is good to thank God). Without irony, anger, or anything else. Tov L’Hodot L’Hashem.

It is good to thank God.

Marla Ann Bennett. I love you and I miss you. And, even though you are gone -

Tov L’Hodot L’Hashem.


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