April 20, 2024
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Gap Year Students Memorialize Ezra Schwartz HY”D

In one word: Powerful.

Last Thursday night, hundreds of seminary and yeshiva students met in Beit Shemesh, Israel, for a memorial service for 18-year-old Ezra Schwartz, Hy”d, a yeshiva student killed in a terrorist attack just two weeks ago while on the way to do chesed for soldiers in Gush Etzion. Though I was not present in person, I was able to watch the entire two-hour presentation via livestream, which conveyed the array of emotions in the room and was, arguably, just as powerful. The messages presented on that night are well worth repeating and internalizing, particularly during this difficult time for Israel not just as a country, but as a people.

In his introduction, former MK Dov Lipman quoted singer Bob Marley in saying, “If a person lives for himself, he has lived in vain. If a person lives for others, he has lived forever.” These words are found on the tombstone of an American-born lone solider who died fighting for Israel just a few years ago, and quite an apropos preface for the many stories describing Ezra’s giving nature in the presentations yet to come.

Lipman pointed out that we in the audience, the majority of whom are seminary and yeshiva students, now have a name and story that hits close to home for ourselves, allowing us to fully understand the degree to which the terror and sorrow personally affects those in this country.

Rav Meir Lichtenstein of Beit Shemesh talked of both Ezra and Rav Yaakov Don of Alon Shvut, who was killed in the same attack as Ezra, and “who have the same story: the story of the Jewish people…of good fighting evil, of the Jews fighting terror in the world.” Rav Lichtenstein quoted his grandfather, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichik, who in the face of tragedy did not ask “lama” (why) but “li’ma” (for what); it is our choice whether to stay stagnant and simply go on, or to change something about ourselves and how we live our lives because of it, to ask ourselves, “What can we do better that we did not do until now?” In filling his life with deeds simply to make others happy, Ezra represented the small actions, what we as Jews are all about; it is the small actions we do that make the biggest difference and what ultimately become the actions of largest impact. Rav Lichtenstein left off with a message directed at the students here to study for a year, just as Ezra was: Though we may think that we belong to America and are here for “just one year,” we have a mission and a purpose while staying here; namely, to make ourselves a part of this country’s Jewish history throughout this year.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a video message, saying that Israel’s common goal is to “rebuild the life of the Jewish people and defend ourselves against our enemies…[despite] unfortunate tragedies, we will continue in this journey.”

Rabbi Akiva Naiman, Ezra’s rebbe in Yeshivat Ashreinu, noted how this one action “ripped through the soul of am Yisrael… Like a drop in a pond, its ripples affecting far beyond its immediate touch. The world felt the pain of this one act of hate.” Though this one act of hatred caused such an effect, the potential ripple effects of the flip side—one act of love—can certainly do the same, if not greater. As we are a people of action, core principle and purpose of the Torah and mitzvot, said Rabbi Naiman, it is our duty to move on from here in action.

Dan Shapiro, U.S. Ambassador to Israel, gave over a short message, followed by Rav Gotch Yudin, head of Yeshivat Ashreinu. Rav Yudin introduced the completion of all of Tanach that was to follow—a goal of Ezra’s for the year that will now be completed for him—and said, “To all terrorists out there: ‘It is not working!’ You are not stopping us from our avodat Hashem and are only making us have stronger convictions and attachment to our Judaism…”

For the following 20 minutes, everyone present learned a part of Tanach, the audience completing it all together during that time. A dvar Torah was given over live stream for all those viewing as well.

Moshe Abutbul, the mayor of Beit Shemesh, then said a few words, after which Ezra’s Ashreinu friends sang an original song about him. Atara Saltzman, a friend from their Sharon, Massachusetts, hometown, shared stories and thoughts about Ezra on behalf of his classmates in Maimonides School in Boston, and two boys from Ashreinu shared a few personal memories as well.

As a last word, Lipman added how incredible it is that many people in the audience, after the completion of the azkara, will be heading to the wedding of Sarah Litman, who after losing her father and brother called out to all of am Yisrael to join her at her wedding. These are the kind of people that we are.

Rabbi Eli Skaist from Yeshivat Ashreinu concluded with making the siyum on Tanach that was just completed, and Kaddish. The evening ended with dancing and singing in honor of the siyum and l’ilui nishmat Ezra’s neshamah.

“Not only was the program itself really meaningful, but being with so many yeshiva/seminary students, all in Ezra’s memory, was quite powerful,” said a friend of mine, who had the opportunity to be at the azkara in person.

Another friend added: “I was crying and everyone around me was crying, because even though we didn’t know him, we all knew someone who did, and in the back of our minds we were all thinking, “It could’ve been me.”

JLNJ correspondent and Teaneck native Aviva Jacobs is a graduate of Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey and Bruriah High School. She is currently in seminary at Michlalah Yerushalayim.

By Aviva Jacobs

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