Death in the Hood

Laura Gitlin-Petlak was 48 when she died on Feb. 12 at her home in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

The next day, a few blocks from her house, a couple hundredpeople jammed the premises of Aish L.A., an Orthodox synagogue and outreach center, for her memorial service.

A neighbor suggested that I attend the service. I had never met Laura or any member of her family, but they were well-known in the community. The first time I heard her name was on Simchat Torah, when someone mentioned that a group of women from the community brought a sefer Torah to her bedside at her home, where she was recuperating from cancer surgery. In her presence, they sang songs and danced.

When Laura was in the hospital, she had insisted on long, personal visits. Her husband, Shmuel, made sure to schedule the visits so that there would be plenty of time for the kind of engaging talk his wife loved. Laura once noticed that a visitor was sniffling, and she asked if her friend had a cold. When she saw that they were sniffles of sadness, Laura blurted out: “Oh no, I’ll have none of that. Now tell me what’s going on in your life.”

Being a divorce attorney, Laura knew a lot about other people’s lives. In a profession where nasty confrontation is the norm, she fought for collaboration. Sometimes she even fought for peace.

At her memorial service, her husband told the story of a man who had “had it up to here” and wanted a divorce. After listening to his story, Laura calmly explained to the man that he should try to save his marriage by getting household help. It took some coaxing and convincing, but in the end, Laura helped save her client’s marriage.She nurtured her own marriage by working from home, which allowed her to be very involved with raising her two daughters, Alisa, 17, and Miriam, 9.

This is how Alisa describes her mother’s parenting style: “She never told us what to do, but she never allowed us to do the wrong thing.”It has been several days now since Laura’s memorial service, and I’m sharing my thoughts with you because, frankly, I can’t stop thinking about it.

The service was heartfelt, but it was also unsettling. There was a kind of emotional chaos in the air — almost a reluctance to accept that a beautiful life could be taken away from someone so God-fearing and life-giving.

Ever since I moved to this neighborhood, I’ve gotten used to seeing order and structure in the Orthodox community — a sense that life, with all its challenges and with God’s help, is unfolding as it should.

At Laura’s memorial service, you got a strange sense that life had stopped unfolding as it should.

To his credit, the head rabbi of Aish L.A., Rabbi Moshe Cohen, did not try to anaesthetize the pain. He spoke in a quivering, tear-choked voice. He talked about the only three instances in the code of Jewish law where the laws are considered “mitzvot gedolim” (great mitzvahs): To help someone who is destitute, to free a captive and to praise the departed.

He explained that what tied the three mitzvahs together was that they all covered people who couldn’t help themselves.

But it was clear that the rabbi couldn’t help himself either. Even though he ended on a brave note that touched on Laura’s legacy to the community, his body language was saying something else: “How could this be?”

Tragedy has a way of dulling the senses. Lost in a fog of grief, how can anyone see or understand anything? I wasn’t exactly lost, but all I could see was how wrong it was that Laura had died. That made me feel a little helpless, too.

Ironically, on a day when people felt somewhat helpless, they were honoring someone who was all about reaching out to those who needed help, or sometimes just a meal and company. As an example, Rabbi Cohen admitted how “most of us would prefer to choose our guests for Shabbat.” Then he recounted how, over the years, Laura and her family had welcomed hundreds of guests and strangers who didn’t have a place to eat on Shabbat.

Who would feel these strangers’ pain now and welcome them? How could a unique soul like Laura ever be replaced? How could a family’s pain ever heal?

As the rabbi spoke about Laura, I was thinking about how even a strong religious community has moments when it needs to be vulnerable and embrace its limitations. In our zeal to accept all challenges, perhaps the ultimate challenge is to accept that there are holes we can never fill and pains we can never heal.

We are grateful for our religious and communal rituals — the prayers, the sermons, the honoring of the departed, the community support — but deep down, the unspoken truth is that we’re still helpless. The pain of human loss is too deep (as I learned after losing my father).

Rituals can add comfort and legacies can be continued, but they won’t fill the hole or eliminate the pain.

This pain of loss belongs to no religion and no neighborhood.

It is a private, universal pain that speaks to the highest part of our Judaism, the one that cares about every soul in every hood.

Laura Gitlin-Petlak spent a lifetime caring about other people’s pain, and in her own way, she showed us that people can never be replaced, and that there is value in that.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at

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."