Only the best go there

There are moments when half a world away seems right around the corner. At Young Israel of Century City (YICC) on Sunday afternoon, Israel’s pain at the
murder of eight young yeshiva students burned through the Los Angeles Jewish community, just as it has in Jerusalem, where the boys lived, and as it has through Jewish communities throughout the world. The death of eight innocent boys studying Torah at Yeshiva Mercaz Harav shrunk the world.

About 600 people packed every inch of YICC’s sanctuary for a rally and memorial service organized by the synagogue and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and several hundred more overflowed into adjacent rooms and halls. Men, women and children poured into the shul as if it were a holy day to share their grief and dismay, greeting one another with a solemnity that bespoke their communal sadness.

I came as a journalist, but I was feeling a bit raw myself.

Reports of rockets falling on Sderot, then Ashkelon, had filled the preceding week, so by the time of the yeshiva shooting, the impact of the news took a moment sink in. On top of the Qassams, on top of the suicide bombers, we now have gunmen to fear in Israel’s schools — in this case a gunman who intentionally targeted the observant. Soon after we learned of the tragedy at Mercaz Harav, cheers in the streets of Gaza reminded us of the stark difference between us and people who would celebrate such crimes.

I went to the lovely brick home of YICC hoping for comfort. I went to report on the event, but I also went for myself.

It was a spectacularly beautiful Sunday afternoon and hard to go inside. But the shul is also beautiful, with its simple wooden pews and white walls and some revealed brick. In this Orthodox place of worship, on this day everyone sat together to pay respects, without the gender divisions of a service.

The Wiesenthal Center’s associate dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper led the proceedings, reminding us of the rebbe who at the gravesite of one of the murdered students said the boys were “like the eight candles of Chanukah.” Cooper told us that the YICC’s own spiritual leader, Rabbi Elazar Muskin, would be leaving the next day for Israel for a 48-hour trip — to visit each boy’s family. And, as a gesture of support for the Jewish State, Cooper asked all those present who had spent a full year in Israel, or who had had families who’d done so, to stand. About 80 percent of the group rose.

Israel is a second home for this group, and what hits Israel hits home. As Israeli Consul General Yaakov Dayan spoke, it was clear he was moved by the kinship. Newly arrived in Los Angeles last fall, this career diplomat speaks with the clarity of a veteran soldier.

“With Purim just around the corner,” he said, “we are reminded that we have defeated the Haman of every one of our enemies…I know we will prevail.”

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, too, signaled his support: “In a city with the largest Israeli population outside Israel, we have a responsibility to stand up, to say that we stand with you,” he said.

Going further, Councilman Jack Weiss, who represents Pico-Robertson and who has long been a supporter of Israel, called Mercaz Harav “the purist representative not of what Israel is about, but what Judaism is about.”

“The impulse” to kill the students, Weiss said, “was not political. It was genocidal.”

Then the Wiesenthal’s founder, Rabbi Marvin Hier, rose to the podium. He said he had lived, some three decades ago, in the neighborhood of Mercaz Harav and once celebrated Purim at that very yeshiva.

His own granddaughter attends a high school just two buildings away from where the shooting took place and had left there just a couple of hours before the shooting.

But even as he spoke of the particulars, Hier moved to the global: “Just today,” he said, “some NGOs [non-governmental organizations] have charged Israel with creating the worst humanitarian crisis in Gaza, causing shortages of basic necessities. But whose fault is that?” Hier asked. “Hamas never has any shortage of money when it comes to smuggling in weapons, and no shortage in lobbing rockets at innocent civilians in Sderot. Whatever crisis there is in Gaza is because the Palestinians made the wrong decisions and chose the wrong leaders.”

In contrast, he said, “For thousands of years, Jews were the targets of oppression, pogroms, crusades, inquisitions and the Holocaust. You know what we did? We pulled ourselves up by the bootstraps, rebuilt our lives every time, worked hard, and never ever taught our sons and daughters to go out and murder students in schools.”

Hier said he has urged the United Nations to convene a special session on suicide terror, challenging them to do so even as they have done on apartheid, AIDS and global warming.

After all the powerful rhetoric of these speakers, five young men — living American equivalents of the slain boys — read psalms and led prayers, an echo of the shattered voices. Then we sang the “Hatikvah” together, an anthem whose themes of melancholy, struggle and hope perfectly suited the moment.

Before the speeches began, a woman sitting next to me called out to a friend: “I knew one of the boys.” So, when the official event ended, I turned to ask her about him.

Geula Dickerman, 52 and Israeli by birth, said she’d returned to Israel with her family from 1996 to 2001, during which time she lived in Efrat. Avraham David Moses, who was 16 when he died, was a young child there when she knew him.

“He was a blond, beautiful boy,” she remembered. She said that in Israel, it is considered a huge honor and accomplishment to attend Mercaz Harav, “only the best students go there, it’s very difficult to get in,” Dickerman said. Then she shook her head: “They were killed together, studying the Gemara!”