UCLA Hillel Mourns Victims

It was a postcard-perfect afternoon outside Kerckhoff Hall on UCLA’s campus on Tuesday, Aug. 6., but Debra Bach could not stop crying.

The day before, Bach had been in San Diego attending the funeral of her Hebrew University roommate, Marla Bennett. Now she stood among 150 people singing "Kaddish" for Bennett and six other victims of last week’s bombing of a Hebrew University cafeteria in Jerusalem.

"It’s a beautiful tribute to Marla that so many people who didn’t know her [attended her funeral] and were forever moved by her life and her love," Bach told the audience, before lighting a candle for Bennett, who was only 24. Amid a steady stream of tears, she spoke of Bennett’s generous spirit, of how the San Diego-raised aspiring educator always invited people to attend her Shabbat meals and crash at her apartment.

"We used to joke that our place was like a youth hostel," Bach said.

As the campus buzzed with its usual summer activity, the crowd participating in the emotional UCLA Hillel-organized memorial service recited prayers before pictures of Bennett and the other victims: Janis Coulter, 36, who ran Hebrew University’s foreign students department in New York; American students Benjamin Blutstein, 25, Dina Carter, 37, and David Gritz, 24; David Diego Landowski, 29, of Argentina; and Levina Shapira, 53, head of the Student Services Department at Hebrew University. Candles were lit for each victim, as friends of recalled their lives.

Bennett’s death touched many in Los Angeles, as she was closely connected to the community. She had attended Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, as a camper, CIT, counselor, unit head and last summer as the program director.

"It’s been devastating to the staff that knew her and grew up with her," Bill Kaplan, executive director of Shalom Institute, who had known Bennett for 12 years, later told The Journal. "This was the nicest person in the world. A mensch, mensch, mensch. She always went the extra mile."

Arriving from Israel only 90 minutes before the service, Peter Wilner, executive vice president of American Friends of Hebrew University spoke about his somber visit of the "burned and severely damaged" survivors of the bombing. He described his late colleague Coulter as "an individual who died simply because she was doing her job to take American students to Hebrew University." Right before the lunchtime bombing, Coulter, who had converted to Judaism after becoming interested in the Holocaust, had just returned from leading a visit to the Western Wall.

During the services, Cantor Avshalom Katz, of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, sang songs of solace, and Hillel Director Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, who organized the event, blasted the Hamas-sponsored act of terrorism that "cut them down in their youth when they were brimming with potential."

He described Hebrew University as "the home of dialogue and tolerance and the dream of mutual coexistence."

Meirav Elon-Shahar, Israeli consul for communications and public affairs, condemned the extremists who "consider it legitimate and holy to kill those who are innocent," she said.

Leah Buchwald, who knew Blutstein and Bennett, tearfully recalled spending Shabbat with Bennett and going to parties and weddings with Blutstein, a DJ who had dubbed himself "Benny the Bee."

"This past week has been a real nightmare," Buchwald said. "But if they were here, they would tell you not to stop believing in Israel," she said. "I don’t want them to die in vain."

After the service, the undergrads in attendance told The Journal that they were not only drawn to the memorial out of sadness for the victims, but also as a sign of support for Israel. They said that by bombing what should have been a "safe educational environment," Palestinian extremists have gone too far.

UCLA student Dana Nahoray said she didn’t know any of the victims personally. She came because "I have a connection with all Jewish people. It’s important to show support for Israel. That what happens to the people over there affects us here in L.A., in our community."

Jonathan Dekel, 23, came with his sister, Jennifer, and friend, Eugene Niamehr, 22. The bombing really hit home for Dekel and Niamehr. Both had studied at Hebrew University during the 1999-2000 school year.

"When we were in the Ulpan," Dekel said of the Hebrew program, "we ate at that cafeteria every day. That’s where we got to know each other and really bond."

Following word of the bombing, a friend traveling through Europe contacted Dekel at 5 a.m. to deliver the bad news.

"I’m very shook up, but I’m not surprised," he said, "because I knew that the terrorists were capable of this."

Jennifer Dekel’s frustration extended to the political isolation she feels Israel is going through. "I’m frustrated with the media biases against Israel," said the 20-something, who just came back from studying at Tel Aviv University. "I’m frustrated with the ignorance of the world to fact and truth about the Middle East conflict."

"There’s always going to be criticism of the Jewish people," Nahoray added. "But I don’t think any of the countries have the right to criticize. They don’t have suicide bombers coming into their universities and bombing them."

"Nothing’s sacred," her brother added. "Look at Sept. 11, and now this attack on a university campus. "

Mixed among the sadness and the anger, there was a sliver of optimism.

"She loved people. She loved Israel. She loved Jerusalem," Bach said of Bennett. "Marla gives me great hope for the Jewish people because she always gave beyond herself."