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My Friend, My Cousin, Ari Zenilman, HY”D

Rabbi Avraham Wein (right) with Ari Zenilman, HY”D.

How could it be that the guy who brought us such joy and laughter was the one bringing us to such tears and sadness? This was my thought on Monday, December 11, the day it hit home.

Of course, prior to that date I had shed many tears and been in deep pain for my beloved brethren. But despite the deep connection to those in Israel, there wasn’t anyone I knew and was close with personally who had been killed. To an extent, there still was a tiny sliver of separation. But with the killing of my friend, and my “cousin” Ari Zenilman, it hit home in a new way.

To many, Ari will be remembered as a heroic soldier and warrior who lost his life in a courageous raid in Southern Gaza, defending his people and homeland. And he surely was. But for those who knew him outside of just his army service, it seems almost incongruous to think of him that way. In fact, this is far from the image we had of him. Allow me to explain.

My relationship with Ari began during my shana bet at Yeshivat Har Etzion (Gush). He was a fifth year Hesder student, having completed his army service in his third and fourth years. We lived literally next door to each other in Dormitory #7 (Pnimiyah Zayin) and were part of a very tight-knit group with an active WhatsApp chat till this day. Ari spoke perfect English (a great help to our relationship!), having made aliyah only after eighth grade. We were talmidim in the same shiur, and he was a great resource for clarifying topics I had not understood during shiur.

Ari and I had a running joke about being closely related. My sister married his second cousin at the beginning of the year, so we began to refer to each other as cousins. When I had the pleasure to spend Shabbat at his family’s home in Ma’ale Adumim on numerous occasions, his father would tell people that I’m simply a relative visiting them. Though a bit of a stretch, I was and will always remain quite proud of that association with the Zenilmans.

I, along with everyone else, adored Ari. He was simply the most lovable, unassuming guy. He always wore a smile. Ari possessed a quirky sense of humor that particularly clicked with me, and he would constantly crack me up with witty remarks and references to remarkably random pieces of information. His running commentaries during our dorm’s unofficial movie nights were especially hilarious and memorable. On another occasion, before traveling to a tekes (ceremony) celebrating the induction of two of our fellow dorm members (Yosef Brander and Raffi Wiesen) into the army, we were struggling to figure out what to put on a sign we planned on displaying for them. Ari came up with the brilliant idea of simply writing on it, “This Is a Sign for Yosef and Raffi,” which brought great joy to the new soldiers’ faces. At his wedding to his dear wife, Chava, the sign returned but now read, “This Is a Sign for Ari and Chava.”

He was beyond sweet and though he possessed a loud, booming voice, I never saw him stray from his calm, genial nature. The only times he would display his impressive vocal range was when leading humorous chants in the yeshiva’s lunch room or at friends’ weddings. His kind and friendly nature endeared him to all, and he was so fun to spend time with.

So we struggle with the incongruity: How could a man whose essence was so sweet, jovial and calm be eternally associated with war? How could his life have ended on a battlefield?

It strikes me that this is the challenge that, unfortunately, so many families and friends of those lost face at this moment: how to commemorate the unique lives and personalities of those beloved to them so that they aren’t just a picture and biographical stats on a website or poster.

Therefore, to the extent we can, it behooves us to learn their stories and remember them for more than their heroics or sacrifices. In this vein, I’d like to share a little more about my dear friend Ari. In many ways, I looked up to him. He was an extremely bright and gifted student. I was told that his bagruyot (matriculation exams) scores were incredibly impressive. He loved to read and was well acquainted with a wide range of disciplines. He was able to simultaneously study in the yeshiva’s top shiur with Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein while also learning Hilkhot Yoreh Deah for the Rabbanut exam, quite a difficult feat. Yet, despite all of his talents, one of his most remarkable qualities was his modesty. He did not take himself too seriously, and did not possess even an ounce of arrogance.

Ari Zenilman, HY”D

His commitment, appreciation and affection for Torah study were also inspiring. He was a true exemplar of hatmada—displaying great devotion and commitment to Talmud Torah. Due to his modest personality, Ari was not someone who would openly articulate these types of emotions, but his deep love for Torah and avodat Hashem was clear to all.

I will always remember the wonderful Shabbatot I spent at his house with his sweet and welcoming family. We sat behind the great R. Nachum Rabinovitch, zt’’l during tefillah, he showed me around Ma’ale Adumim, and we had deep conversations about the challenges and opportunities of aliyah, the army, and more. But most importantly, it was there I saw another side of his personality—his commitment and care for family. The jovial friendliness and unassuming nature was characteristic of his family, and it was clear to me how his siblings looked up to him as a role model.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I will always remember Ari’s excitement about meeting and marrying his wife, Chava. After completing my shana bet, I returned to Israel during winter break a number of times, and Ari and I would meet up. It brought me such joy to see him happily married and thriving as a loving husband. He was a true family man. It is indescribably devastating that his three children—including a 10-week-old daughter—will not be able to further experience that.

Ari, you will be sorely missed. We are heartbroken by your loss and you will never be forgotten. We will remember you for your heroics on the battlefield but also your lovable nature and your sterling personality. During our last text exchange I wished you the blessing of חזק ואמץ, to be strong and courageous. You fulfilled that charge admirably. May Hashem give that very same strength and courage to your entire family during this awful time. Farewell my cousin. Farewell my friend.

Rabbi Avraham Wein is the assistant rabbi at Keter Torah Synagogue in Teaneck.

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