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Words of Comfort

Eytan Kobre

Bound together by unfathomable loss, having suffered the deaths of both parents in a single terrorist attack, Rabbi Yaakov Bender offers these Israeli heroes a dialogue of consolation

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

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NIGHTMARE Avigdor Gavish was a teenager when a Hamas terrorist infiltrated his home. He remembers his brother calling out to him, “What’s happening?” and answering, “Everyone’s dead.” Over the past 16 years, One Family’s dozens of full-time staff members and over 700 volunteers have helped nearly 3,400 families like Avigdors cope, persevere, and heal (Photos: Sarah Levin, Flash90)

T he all-important Jewish tenet of ahavas Yisrael sometimes seems to come in for the same treatment as inclement weather: Everyone talks about it, but too few people actually do something about it. Last week, however, New York’s mid-February weather was unseasonably beautiful, and so was the simple love of one Jew for another on display at a very special encounter in Manhattan, where Rabbi Yaakov Bender, dean of Yeshiva Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway, New York, met with a group of young Israelis there for a weeklong tour of the Big Apple.

The group’s members, all in their twenties and thirties, are bound together by tragedy and loss of an unfathomable magnitude. All of these young men and women have suffered the deaths of both parents in a single terrorist attack, and many of them lost siblings in those attacks as well. Since the beginning of the second intifada, the mothers and fathers of 16 families were murdered together, leaving 72 double-orphaned children, many of whom were witness to their parents’ gruesome deaths.

It’s not simple, say those who’ve seen the unthinkable, to enshrine their parents in their memories without the visions of terror overshadowing the good times. Naama HaLevi’s parents, Rafi and Elana HaLevi of Kedumim, were killed by a suicide bomber in April 2006. They picked up two hitchhikers on their way home, and generously squeezed a third one – the terrorist – into the car as well. Witnesses described a struggle inside the car, and how the terrorist blew up his prey just as Rafi managed to swerve away from the gas station at the entrance to the yishuv.

“We came as soon as we were notified,” says Naama, “and saw the car there, with the headlights still smoldering. They told us that when they found the bodies, my parents were holding each other’s hands. So that’s the image I’ve taken with me.”

Didi Dickstein was 15 when his parents, Rabbi Yosef Yaakov and Chanah Dickstein, were murdered in a drive-by shooting a few minutes before Shabbos in July 2002. His nine-year-old brother was also killed, and two other siblings were seriously injured; one of them was 12-year-old Shlomo, who took his father’s cell phone and called for help as his parents lay dying next to him.

Didi remembers that he didn’t even know about the attack until after Shabbos, when he was given some confusing details and called home, only to be told by his sister Ayelet, “What, you don’t know that Abba and Ima were killed?”

Ayelet, who was also in the car and found herself taking responsibility for six helpless siblings younger than herself, says she still feels a sense of detachment. “Most people have this string they’re attached to, which stays connected to them no matter where they are, like a balloon that can never fly too far away. My string was broken.”

Hodaya Ames, just nine years old when her parents, Yitzchak and Talia Ames, were murdered while driving from Kiryat Arba to their home in Beit Chagai on August 31, 2010, says she doesn’t even remember the string. “I was just a kid. I don’t know what it’s like to live with an abba and ima.”

Didi Dickstein didn’t even know about the attack until after Shabbos, when he called home, only to be told by Ayelet, “What, you don’t know that Abba and Ima were killed?”

But when Rabbi Bender entered the small private dining area at Colbeh restaurant in Midtown Manhattan where the group was seated, his own words helped soothe the pain that most of us will never know. He, in his rabbinic attire befitting a rosh yeshivah who heads an institution of 2,000 talmidim, and they, a diverse mix of Israeli young adults who’ve come of age earlier than most.

Rabbi Bender is well known as a tireless advocate for those among us who sometimes find themselves at the margins of communal life: the physically and developmentally disabled, the divorced and widowed, and singles still awaiting their life partners. And then there are the yesomim — orphans whose very own caring Father is He Who is the Father in Heaven of us all — who are so close to Rabbi Bender’s own heart.

Just recently in these pages, Rabbi Bender served as a voice of conscience bringing attention to the painful plight of yesomim who suffer neglect and, sadly, sometimes outright mistreatment at the hands of those whose calling is to be rachmanim bnei rachmanim.

And so, on this evening, all the supposed barriers, the perceived divisions of background and culture, melted away as his words, in English-inflected Ivrit, were spoken in his listeners’ language in more ways than one. As he often does, he began by reaching into his own experiences to make a heart-to-heart connection with his listeners. (excerpted)

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