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Remembering an American-Israeli terrorism victim on Yom Hazikaron

Golan Ben David was 2 years old in 1974 when his mother, Esther, was killed by a Syrian shell.

Esther Ben David image
Esther Ben David’s sons Ariel (far left), Amir (orange cap), and Golan (blue shirt), and their father Benny (plaid coat), at a graveside service marking 45 years since Esther was killed by a Syrian shell. Photo credit: Hillel Kuttler.

As a child, Golan Ben David asked his father, Benny, and stepmother, Ruth, what would happen when the Messiah came and deceased people are resurrected: "Who will be my mother?"

Golan's confusion was understandable. He was two years old in 1974 when his mother, Esther Ben David, 25, was killed by a Syrian shell fired at Ramat Magshimim, the moshav (communal farm) on the Golan Heights where the family lived. Golan's older brother Ariel was five, and Amir wasn't quite four.

A year later, Benny met and married Ruth, and the quintet moved to Jerusalem. It was Ruth, not Benny, who prepared the boys for each yahrzeit (Hebrew anniversary of one's death) of the woman she's always respectfully called Ima (Mother) Esti.

Now, Golan, a 47-year-old school principal living in the northern town of Nazareth Illit, arranges each yahrzeit , the 19th of Shevat.

So, on a sun-dappled, late-January morning in Jerusalem, Benny, the three sons, and eight of the sons' sons assembled in a parking lot outside a Mount of Olives cemetery and walked to Esther's grave.

The gathering marked 45 years since the death of Esther, a New York City native who was a teacher, a ballet dancer, and a passionate Zionist. Every yahrzeit is marked in two ways: The family visits her grave, and a memorial address is presented at Ramat Magshimim. This year's topic was the ways women connect with God.

As each lecture begins, "We state how many years she's not with us," said Esther's friend, Deena Moses, a fellow immigrant from New York who settled in a house opposite the Ben Davids on Ramat Magshimim and still lives there. "She's floating above us. She was here a short time, then she disappeared. She wasn't supposed to get killed."

Early on, Ramat Magshimim friends attended the annual graveside services. But Benny considered the long drive an imposition on them, so he eventually stopped sending notifications. That meant the loss of a 10-man quorum for reciting the Kaddish prayer, a situation reversed when Esther's grandsons reached bar mitzvah age.  

Israel's Memorial Day (observed this year beginning the evening of May 7) honors the 23,645 soldiers and civilians killed in military service and in terrorist attacks, including Esther.

Golan's bond with the moshav persists beyond being named for the region where his parents settled.

Entering high school, Golan dreamt of returning home, and persuaded Benny to let him study at a yeshiva in Hispin, a moshav across from Ramat Magshimim. Like Benny with Ruth, Golan met his future wife, Yael, on Ramat Magshimim. Golan and Yael visit often to see her parents. They go to the spot where his mother was killed, and Golan recites a prayer thanking God "for performing a miracle for me right here." The missile struck as Esther brought Golan home from the clinic where he received injections. Esther covered him while falling. She asked the first responder how Golan was. She died in an ambulance headed to Poriah, near Tiberias.

The Golan Heights didn't have a hospital then. It lacked a cemetery, too. Esther was buried in Jerusalem because a neighbor, Shmaya Hershkovitz, had an uncle whose connections secured a plot in a venerated section of the Mount of Olives. It's steps from the graves of some historic figures: Prime Minister Menachem Begin; Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who revived the Hebrew language; and British Mandate-era independence fighters. Penina Spector outlived her daughter by 24 years and was reinterred five rows away, and Esther's brother, Marty, will be buried there, too.

At this winter's service, the family recited psalms 33, 17, 62, 91, 104, and 130, followed by 11 sections of Psalm 119 whose first letters in Hebrew spelled Esther Leah Neshama to signify her first and middle names, and the Hebrew word for soul . Two of Esther's grandsons read from one smartphone, and three grandsons from another. Benny shared a siddur with Golan's son Ori, dressed in the black garb of a Sanz Hasid. Esther's sons recited Kaddish (prayer for the dead). Amir and Golan placed stones upon the grave, as Ariel recited its inscription: Esther Leah, daughter of Moshe and Penina, may God avenge her blood . He urged them to donate charity in her memory.

The men and boys -- Esther didn't live to see her 22 grandchildren, including three girls named for her, and one great-granddaughter -- returned to their cars and drove to Amir's home in Modiin. In his backyard, they munched on popcorn and dried fruit while again following the Esther Leah Neshama format in studying Mishna sections. Ori, 21, told a visitor that while his grandmother can't perform mitzvot anymore, the family's gathering on this day represented a good deed performed in her merit.

"I'm happy that [each yahrzeit ] connects them," Golan said later. "When you see the kids at my mother's grave, you think, 'Thank God, they feel a belonging to the past generations. We're all part of the puzzle.' " 

Hillel Kuttler, an Israel-based writer, has written for The New York Times , Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post

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