By Larry Gordon
For the families, the pain of the loss lingers and may never subside. For those on the outside, it is a matter of one terror-attack victim being supplanted by another. It’s a delicate and unpleasant balance but one that as a community we nevertheless are forced to deal with.
Not to minimize anyone else’s losses or tragedies, but there was something additionally unconscionable about the murder of the four men who were brutally killed by Arab terrorists as they stood in shul and davened in Har Nof just three weeks ago.
Different people grappled with the crisis in different ways. In Rabbi Aryeh Young’s 10th-grade Gemara class at Rambam Mesivta in Lawrence, that morning there were expressions of pain and anguish along with an immediate call to action.
“We were in class that morning for less than three minutes and a website to help the Har Nof families was already in motion,” Rabbi Young said this week. “Kids were shouting out suggestions from all corners of the classroom, and by the end of that period, 22 students had worked together to come up with a final concept.”
By the end of the first day, over $10,000 was raised, and a few days later, when they joined with a larger community effort to financially secure these families for the future, they had raised more than $30,000, which was matched by philanthropist Ira Zlotowitz of Lakewood, N.J. and which served as the catalyst of an effort that has to date produced $2.4 million for the Har Nof families.
Rambam Mesivta roshyeshiva, Rabbi Zev Friedman, is in Israel this week to visit his students who are studying in Israeli yeshivas this year. The rabbi’s visit is an annual event that because of the Har Nof tragedy of a few weeks ago was now jam-packed with extraordinary meaning. I talked with Rabbi Friedman several times through the week about his impressions of what he saw, experienced, and was now feeling as a result.
The door and some of the walls of the shul, the site of the attack in Har Nof in Jerusalem, still carry the scars of bullet holes that are continuing signs of that awful and deadly attack. He described how the chevrakadisha had to cut away a part of one wood door to bury with the victims because the door was so soaked with blood.
And then there was the visit to the homes and the attempt to commiserate with and comfort the widows and the orphans. The rabbi says he observed two things: first, the feelings of sadness and shock at what had happened, but also a deep and penetrating emunah and acceptance. At one home in particular, he said, the sefarim of the husband and father who perished in the attack were still on a nearby table, the same place he left them before leaving to shul that fateful morning.
Though more than $2 million was raised—perhaps in an unprecedented way and with unusual alacrity—the effort was not really about the money. Certainly, knowing that these resources are there for them lifts a burden of one sort from the family’s shoulders, but no money in the world can stand in for their losses.
In discussing the issue with Rabbi Friedman, we identified what it was that the collection and the distribution of the money is really about. “It communicates to the families that they are not alone, that people who do not even know them care deeply about them,” he says. “This brings to them enormous comfort and that is so very important for them during these difficult days.”
Mr. Zlotowitz, the businessman from Lakewood, sprang into action on his own with a few colleagues the day after the murders. The immediate objective was to connect with the families on a communal basis and, as Rabbi Friedman articulated earlier, let them know that we are with them in their pain and in their sorrow—not just in a rhetorical or poetic sense, but in a way that translates into action and sustains them in what has become their redefined lives.
For Mr. Zlotowitz, the son of Mesorah Publications founder Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, the energy and passion to get this done can be heard in the enthusiasm he displayed as we spoke on the phone the other night. After his class went into action, Rabbi Young at Rambam contacted Zlotowitz when he learned of the offer he was coordinating to match all funds raised through a number of smaller efforts by people around the Jewish world.
The mechanics of getting this going and then getting it done are fascinating in their own right. Ira Zlotowitz acknowledges that the teenage students at Rambam played a huge and inspirational part in the effort. That Friday morning, Zlotowitz traveled from Lakewood to Lawrence to meet with the students, announce the matching-funds offer, and spur the boys and others to further action.
Zlotowitz explained that to date over 10,000 people have donated to the Har Nof Fund, with over 80 percent of the donations under $250, with many thousands of donors adding $100 or less. As far as he knows, there was one donation of $100,000 and one of $50,000, with the rest coming from small gifts. “It is a wonderful and moving illustration of a community in action,” he says. He points out that as a result of the murders, there are now 24 new orphans and that this translates into future support of $100,000 per child.
How and when and in what format the money will be distributed is still being formulated, Zlotowitz says. He is coordinating the effort with Rabbi Nissin Kaplan of the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem who is well acquainted with each of the families and their economic needs.
Tenth-grade Rambam student Gabriel Greenbaum of Woodmere was one of the leaders to get the Facebook page and website functioning so that people could begin to donate. He is animated about the effort and speaks glowingly of Mr. Zlotowitz, whom he refers to as Ira. “I’m in touch with Ira,” he says, “and we speak about the project as it moves forward.”
An additional aspect of the campaign is the recent effort to raise additional funds for the family of the Druze police officer who was also killed by the terrorists. Mr. Zlotowitz says that at first the family of the officer refused any financial support from the group. He explained that their refusal and reluctance was a result of their lack of familiarity with accepting funds as a result of such largesse. “They just did not know how this works and did not understand that if they accept money from us nothing is expected from them in return.” The young Mr. Greenbaum set up a separate website for support of the police officer’s family—he left behind his wife and one child—and over the last few days over $15,000 has been raised.
Over the next few days, Rabbi Friedman will return from Israel and will have an assembly with his students to share his experiences of this past week. The little bits and pieces he shared with me over the phone were riveting and filled with emotion.
“I try to instill in my talmidim that we do not just sit around as spectators when Klal Yisrael is suffering,” Rabbi Young said. “Today it is all too easy to get caught up watching real-time, minute-by-minute updates on all our devices, but we must always ask ourselves, ‘what can we do about it?’ It is incredible how these 15- and 16-year-old kids were the first to rise to the occasion and initiate an active response.”