This past Sunday was the last day of my annual trip to Israel and my son and I were driving from Yad Vashem to visit with a friend in the Talpiyot neighborhood of Jerusalem. It was mid-afternoon and I no longer had access to cell phone service. I was observing the fast of the 10th of Tevet, and my increasing hunger was exacerbating my frustration over the amount of traffic on the way. I also noticed a heightened police presence as we drove into Talpiyot.
When I finally reached my friend’s apartment, I apologized for being late due to the traffic and he informed me that a terrorist attack on soldiers took place not long before my arrival just a few blocks away. Having just come from the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial into the hustle and bustle of vibrant Jerusalem, I was thrown back into a deep sadness as the news that four soldiers were murdered at the Jerusalem promenade sunk in. Only when I arrived back in Boston did I discover that one of those soldiers who died in the attack was Shira Tzur, a 20 year old soldier who hosted and befriended high school students from our Hebrew College Prozdor program during the 2010-11 academic year.
As I settled in, the news hit close to home. Not only was Shira Tzur a participant in Prozdor’s exchange program with the Reali high school in Haifa, Israel, but I also have a 20 year old daughter named Shira. We had considered making Aliyah to Israel when our children were younger, so it could have been our daughter Shira who was struck down at such a young and tender age. Our daughter Shira had been in Jerusalem just the week before this incident visiting her Israeli friends who are in the IDF and studying at the Hartman Institute where she had spent a year after high school in the Hevruta gap-year program. She had just returned to her college campus to start the year’s second semester. I kept thinking of the contrast between our Shira’s experience as a 20 year old college student and Shira Tzur’s experience as 20 year old Israeli soldier. Shira Tzur’s parents were also Americans who moved to Israel and I can’t begin to imagine the pain they feel at this tragic loss of their beloved daughter.
A few days before the attack I taught and conversed with students learning in Hevruta, the gap-year program co-sponsored by Hebrew College and the Shalom Hartman Institute. The 40 North American and Israeli post-high school students in the program are learning, living and volunteering together in Jerusalem as part of a nine-month program designed to develop deep relationships and lifelong collaborations between future North American and Israeli Jewish leaders. The Hevruta students form a tight bond with each other and gain powerful insights into the Jewish values, ideas and texts that animate both the Israeli and north American Jewish communities. They explore the challenges and opportunities that exist in each setting and the unique set of Jewish possibilities that emerge from each community. They become one, inter-dependent community, but after their time together in the program, they transition into very different life experiences. Our hope is that despite these differences, they stay connected in ways that can serve to build bridges between the two largest and most creative Jewish communities in today’s world. Israeli and American Jewish life have fundamental differences, including the need to send young Israelis to defend the State of Israel against its enemies. The sacrifice made in Israel to protect the Jewish people can often seem so distant from our Jewish reality in North America. This week it felt close and personal.
Rabbi Daniel L. Lehmann is the president of Hebrew College, where he also serves as professor of pluralism and Jewish education.