Friday, June 23, 2006

Scenes from a life – the Sbarro Restaurant bombing, Jerusalem, August 9, 2001

Mordechai Schijveschuurder. Tzira Schijveschuurder. Tehilla Maoz. To you, these are probably just names, the names of people killed in the Sbarro terrorist attack in Jerusalem 5 years ago. I met these people during their final days on this earth, and I’d like to honor their memory by telling you something about them.

My family and I had just returned to Jerusalem from a year in America, and we were still living in a hotel until the tenants left our home. On our first Shabbat back in Israel, we traveled to the ultra-Orthodox town of Kiryat Sefer, to celebrate the Bar Mitzva of my nephew Yehuda. A childhood illness had left Yehuda totally deaf at age 3, and, for many years he had lived the solitary life of a deaf child, totally cut off from his parents and siblings. At age 9 Yehuda underwent a cochlear implant operation, and began the long process of learning how to hear electronically. Now, at age 13, the turnaround was remarkable. Instead of the angry, frustrated, non-communicative child I remembered, Yehuda was now a charming Bar Mitzva boy who could converse with relatives and say the prayers. He truly had received a “new soul” for his Bar Mitzva.

The Bar Mitzva celebration was an intimate affair, a Shabbat together with close family. I immediately noticed the only non-relatives who had been invited to spend Shabbat – Yehuda’s hearing therapist, Tzira Schijveschuurder, her husband Mordechai, and their small children. I quickly discovered that Mordechai and I had something in common – our older sons both studied in the same school, and we were both dissatisfied with the quality of education they were receiving. But, Mordechai had done more than just complain. He had decided that nothing was more important to him than his children’s education. So, he had left a profitable job in engineering to start a career in education. He was now running a school in his settlement, Talmon, to create an educational environment where his children would receive a Jewish education that would make them proud, knowledgeable Jews. I was amazed by his crystal-clear sense of priorities, and by his commitment to act on those priorities, even if it meant personal sacrifice. Looking at how he interacted with his small children, Avraham and Chemda, I could see that education was this man’s life.

I didn’t talk with Tzira very much – that’s not done in the ultra-Orthodox world. But, as speaker after speaker got up to talk about Yehuda, they all stressed the key role that Tzira had played in Yehuda’s re-entry into the world of the hearing. Her devotion, her patience, her kindness – without these, Yehuda would have been lost. When my turn came to give a sermon, I didn’t have any deep Jewish sources to quote – my library was packed away on a ship somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. So, I spoke in general terms about the parallels between Yehuda’s life and the book of Bamidbar. Like the Children of Israel, Yehuda had spent years wandering in a desert, a wasteland without sound. Like the Children of Israel, he had been blessed with a guide, Tzira, who helped him find the courage to cross the desert and arrive at the edge of the Promised Land. And, one day, perhaps, he would be able to look back at his years in the desert and understand how it had contributed to his character and helped purify him.

Shabbat ended, and we went back to our hotel. Over the next few days, our family children dined at many of Jerusalem’s family restaurants, since we had no way to cook meals. For Wednesday lunch, I agreed to take the family downtown to the Sbarro restaurant. I remember the long line – it took us 20 minutes to get to the counter where we could order. I remember that when I called out my daughter’s name, “Tehilla”, to ask her to speed up her selection, the cashier looked up. I saw that her name tag also said “Tehilla” and we smiled at each other. The scene was chaotic, my children changed their orders enough times to totally confuse the staff, and we ended up having to make several trips back and forth from our table to the counter to straighten things out. I remember that, all through this circus, the restaurant staff, including Tehilla, was courteous and helpful.

The next afternoon, the family was lounging around the hotel pool when we heard a boom. We went upstairs to our room, and watched as the television cameras focused on the Sbarro restaurant we had eaten at just the day before. Outside the window we could hear the sirens of ambulances and police cars heading downtown. We stayed there, the entire family, watching the television report for hours. At some point, one mf my children said, “Abba, you need to go to shul for mincha.” I was saying Kaddish for my father at the time, and I hadn’t missed a minyan yet. By the time I pulled myself away from the television, it was too late to find a minyan, and I davened alone, without the catharsis that comes from saying Kaddish for a departed relative.

The next day, the newspapers announced the names of the dead. Among the casualties: Mordechai and Tzira Schijveschuurder, along with 3 of their children, and Tehilla Maoz, the cashier at the restaurant. Mordechai was an educator to the end - according to eyewitness reports, Mordechai’s final action on this earth was to teach his son Avraham how to say the Sh’ma prayer before dying. Just as Moshe brought the Jews to the Promised Land but could not enter himself, Tzira brought Yehuda to the land of the hearing and then was taken away.

Five years have passed since then. My family moved back into our home and we have successfully re-integrated into Jerusalem life. Tehilla Maoz’s story has been co-opted by Breslav into a miracle story of rescue thanks to the teachings of Rabbi Nachman. The Schijveschuurder family is shattered – the remaining children couldn’t stand being in Israel anymore and moved to Holland. Yehuda’s brother tells me one of the older Schuyveschurder boys recently moved back to Israel and is searching for himself.

And I am left asking myself: Why did I meet these people so close to their end? Why them and not (G@d forbid) my family? What am I meant to do with these memories? I feel this places some responsibility on me, and I hope that by sharing their memory with you, I've discharged some small part of that responsibility.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Chabad Messianism: "We Need the Eggs"

When I read anti-Chabad articles, I'm reminded of the Woody Allen joke about the man who tells the psychiatrist, "My brother thinks he's a chicken." The psychiatrist responds, "Bring him in and I'm sure I can cure him." To which the man responds, "I would, but we need the eggs."

1. Does Judaism include the possibility of a dead Messiah? Looking at Chabad's sources (Gemara Perek Chelek, Abarbanel, S'de Chemed), I'd have to say yes, there is such a possibility, although it is extremely marginal within Judaism. (This proves that, thanks to the computer, it is now possible to find almost anything in Jewish sources)

2. Could such a view be harmful to Judaism in the long run? Yes, because it opens the door for Christian missionaries to sell their favorite candidate for dead Messiah to uninformed Jews.

3. In the meanwhile, Chabad is a tremendously vital force in promoting and preserving Judaism, e.g., Chabad houses in the furthest corners of the earth. And, let's face it, such an operation could only be caried out by people who believe they serve in the army of a Rebbe who is the leading candidate to be Mashiach. Otherwise, most of them would pack up and move back to the comforts of Crown Heights.

So, if there were another, non-Messianic Jewish group that was willing to step up to the plate and do what Chabad does for Judaism - I'd endorse them wholeheartedly, and send Chabad to the shrink for treatment. But, there isn't such an alternative, and "we need the eggs", we need what Chabad does for Jews around the world.