What I never thought I'd learn in Israel

I met a man on the worst day of his life.

Of all the ways I imagined starting my blog post reflecting on my second-ever trip to Israel, this was not one of them. Now, it's the only way I can start it.

I would've rather focused on my premeditated idea of describing what it's like to see and experience Israel for the first time beyond the tinted windows of a Birthright coach bus. I thought I'd urge all of you to experience Israel through a lens of your own. That, or I had an idea to write about forming a charitable connection to Israel, which came to me the day before my trip when Aaron Cohen handed me a dollar and kindly insisted I give it to someone in the Holy Land who was clearly in need. I could blog about my quest to find the ideal recipient for this dollar, I thought, and come to some epiphany about giving.

But I can't earnestly blog about any of these things now.

I met JJ the morning of Friday, December 27, 2013, the second-to-last day of my trip. My girlfriend has been lucky to have many adult mentors in her life with who she maintains a close relationship. JJ is one of them. Mollie has made it a point to see him every time she is in Israel, so she wanted me to come with.

We met JJ at a café in Jerusalem, where we connected over some muesli and shakshuka, looked at recent pictures of his quickly growing children and even discussed the state of affairs in Israel. It was a pleasant and ordinary beginning to our Yom Shishi (Friday).

That afternoon we shopped at the shuk (market) for fruits and vegetables for Shabbat dinner, showered, and stowed our phones and laptops to enjoy our last Shabbat in Israel with Mollie's siblings and some friends. It was shaping up to be the relaxing end to our trip that we needed.

Right before we were ready to call it a night, we saw the news on Facebook. There had been a tragic accident that afternoon. JJ's youngest son, Roee, had died. He had been struck by a car. We had seen pictures of him that morning, playing in the snow that covered Jerusalem a not long before we arrived. He was not even two years old. The funeral would be held late Saturday night.

We sat awake into the early Saturday morning hours, stunned into silence. Shabbat afternoon we distracted ourselves and then made plans to get to the cemetery. We had no idea what to expect when we got there.

A cab dropped us off at Givat Shaul, where we waited in the chilly night air outside the chapel for some kind of cue. When the time came, we gathered shoulder-to-shoulder in the chapel, all of us wearing coats and jeans as if we were just stopping by, the crowd extending well beyond the chapel doors. When JJ's family entered, it was as if we were watching a film. The reality of the situation was impossible to grasp. His wife was convulsing, weeping; she and the other women of the family wailed something I could only describe as a soul tearing at the seams. They cried out in Hebrew, and through their weeping, the one word I could make out was "Lamah? Lamah!?" - "Why? Why!?"

The service was short. Psalms were chanted; JJ recited Kaddish through his tears; the family wept and hugged loved ones. No words were shared. What do you say about a two-year-old boy inexplicably torn from his family? That he was loved? That he should've lived a full life? These words offer little solace.

We walked down a long hill in darkness to the burial site, droves of sad and silent friends and family flooding the graveyard, wedging themselves between the raised stone tombs to surround the mourners. After a final Kaddish, we took a cab back to Jerusalem, still bustling on Motzei Shabbat. Hungry and chilled, we grabbed some food and hot drinks before packing for our flight the next morning.

I hoped my trip would strengthen my connection to Israel and clarify why I felt that connection. Now, I understand that the Talmudic phrase kol Yisrael aravim zeh bazeh (all Jews are responsible for one another) is not so much an instruction of an obligation to Israel and Jews everywhere, but a recognition of the abiding kinship we share from which that obligation stems. On Friday morning, JJ was a stranger; on Saturday night, I grieved for his family as I would for a close friend. Our connection to each other seems tenuous, but we both know what it means to say the words of kaddish, the feeling of sadness and anguish, the power of the words sanctifying God's name.

As Mollie and I headed to the airport early that morning, I remembered the dollar Aaron gave me, which was still in my wallet, forgotten in the whirlwind of the last couple days. Then I had an idea.

If I scrounged up another $17, I would have enough to do the one Jewish act I always found a bit cliché - plant a tree in Israel. What better way to memorialize Roee than to give life to something when it was unfairly taken away? And with Tu B'shevat, the "birthday" of trees, just around the corner, it could not be more fitting. I know a tree cannot fill the void JJ and his family have in their lives - nothing can. But if the worst day of a man's life can be a seed for anything good, even just a tree, it's something - something good where before there was only pain.

I hope Roee's tree will have the long and beautiful life that he could not. I hope it will stand for the endurance of creation and for life's bounty, even in the toughest of times. I hope it, and Roee's memory, will serve as reminders of the tough but moving words of Psalm 23: "Adonai Roee, lo echsar" - "God is my shepherd, I lack for nothing."

Reflections from your editor, Cindy Sher, on people living their Jewish lives each day. ... Read More

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