On the flight back from a recent trip to Israel, my wife Rosalyn reminded me that Purim was six weeks away. Jews, my wife included, seem to mark many things by their proximity to holidays.
Yet, while Rosalyn was talking about Purim, I thought of the next holiday, Passover, and the yahrtzeit of our daughter Alisa on the 10th of Nisan, which precedes it by a few days.
It was in April 1995 that Alisa, 20 years old, on leave of absence from Brandeis University and studying at Nishmat in Jerusalem, boarded a bus that would take her and two companions to the seaside in Gush Katif. This resort was particularly popular with the religious community in Israel and thousands had vacationed there before Alisa.
Alisa would not reach her goal, as she told me on the day before the terror attack, “of spending a few days in the sun before Pesach,” because outside the gates of the Jewish community of Kfar Darom a van was waiting. The driver saw the approaching bus, jammed his foot on the gas pedal, rammed the side of the bus, and detonated a bomb that took eight lives and injured more than 40.
Getting news of the attack by telephone, I was urged by physicians at Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva to come to Israel to be with my daughter. I arrived on a sunny Monday morning to be at her bedside and hold her hand. Thirty minutes later I was told that she was dead; her brain was not functioning, and she could not breathe on her own.
In the midst of our shock, we were given the opportunity to turn her death into a celebration of life by donating her organs for transplant. Terrorists might have taken hers, but Alisa’s final act of hesed was to give life and sight to others.
A non-Jewish friend recently asked me, “How can you go on?”
My answer was, “How can you not?” And on a recent trip to Israel, he found out for himself what I meant when he encountered many Israelis who had been personally affected by the Holocaust, war, and terror. Despite their loss, he realized, they raised families and built a country.
The outreach to my family by Israelis following Alisa’s murder was considerable. Not just in personal terms but tangible ones, too. A rose garden in her name in Rishon Letzion’s Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood was planted to give Israel’s newest residents a place to sit after dinner, on Shabbat, or to enjoy a concert.
In Gedera, a 120-year-old community, a resident then living in West Orange brought word that the city wished to erect a memorial to Alisa. And in the city of Ra’anana, the secular high school, Mor/MetroWest, planted trees and dedicated a new Jewish studies section of its library in Alisa’s memory.
In turn, we thought it important that our family not be silent. Alisa’s sisters did year-long programs in Israel and have visited several times since. Our son outdid them by moving to Israel, working on a kibbutz, becoming a citizen, serving in the army, and marrying an olah from Pittsburgh. They’ve given us our first Israeli grandchild and the third granddaughter to carry Alisa’s name.
Recognizing what a Jewish education did for our family, we try to assist young men and women who wish to take on a full-year religious study program in Israel. The Alisa Flatow Memorial Scholarship Fund has done just that by providing more than 120 scholarships since 1996. These Flatow Scholars, as we call them, come from all backgrounds. Some did not know they were Jewish until recently, others are “frum from birth.” They attend Orthodox yeshivot and seminaries, the Conservative yeshiva, and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Jerusalem campus. Alisa believed that learning was a two-way street — you learn from others by their example and teach others by your example. There is no better place to do that than in Israel.
Women’s study programs are especially dear to us. The Alisa Flatow Overseas Student Year Program was established at Nishmat in Jerusalem in order to give women from all over the world the opportunity for intensive Judaic studies.
Now we are about to embark on a new project, one we believe would have made Alisa proud — the dedication of a beit midrash, a place for the study of religious texts, in Mor/MetroWest High School.
Upon hearing that the secular school was acquiring a Torah scroll — not a very popular idea in some segments of the community — we challenged the school to come up with a plan that would allow students to study Jewish texts in an appropriate environment. Our proposal is that the introduction to religious texts should take place in a location imbued with sanctity. We believe introduction to the constitution of our faith is a matter of identity and of worth of self. These teens will soon be donning military uniforms and carrying weapons. They know they have to protect their state but many have to learn its foundations go back to ideas propounded and written thousands of years ago.
It is those foundations that allow us to survive calamity, no matter where it comes from. They allowed our people to survive as Jews in faraway corners of the world after expulsion from the land of Israel 2,000 years ago, and now that we have returned to the land, give us a reason to stay.
“This,” I would say to my questioning friend, “is how we go on.”