Once upon a time, a beautiful little Jewish girl was enrolled in a local New Jersey synagogue nursery school. When it came time for kindergarten, most of her classmates were going to enroll in the local Orthodox day school. The little girl’s parents were very Jewishly oriented, but not Orthodox. The little girl was very sad. She wanted to be with her friends. Being good parents who wanted to see their daughter happy, they made an appointment to meet with the principal. The school made a very positive impression on the parents as far as the education piece was concerned, but they worried about potential conflicts that might arise between what their daughter would learn in school and what the family did at home.
This issue was not at all new to the principal, so he essentially lied, and told them that their lives would not change, nor would the school force anything on them. The principal knew that, in fact, their lives would change.
The principal’s effective sales pitch, the quality of the education, and the happiness of their child convinced the parents to enroll their daughter. As has happened many times before and since, this bright, inquisitive child took to her studies with great alacrity. She embraced the Jewish component, presented free of compulsion with love, kindness, and patience by talented teachers. It made her so happy. Gradually, and over some time, her parents also embraced an Orthodox lifestyle. All of their other children attended the same day school, they joined an Orthodox synagogue, and eventually founded a new Orthodox synagogue close to their home.
Fast forward about 15 years. It is now 1995. The little girl is now a 20-year-old young woman. Instead of spending her gap year in Israel she chose to spend a semester studying in Israel during her junior year in college. On April 9, the 10th of Nisan, at 12:07 p.m. Israel time, she and two friends were on their way to the beach in Gush Katif when a terrorist homicide bomber plowed his car into the public bus they rode on. Seven Israeli soldiers, all under the age of 21, and this American student from New Jersey were killed. When she succumbed to fatal head wounds at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheva, the family consulted with rabbis and donated her organs to save the lives of others. Her heart was successfully transplanted to a 56-year-old man who had been waiting more than a year for one; her liver was donated to a 23-year-old man; and her lungs, pancreas, and kidneys to four different patients. Her corneas were donated to an eye bank.
This is the story of Alisa Flatow, HY”D.
The funeral attracted thousands of people, many more than the shul could hold. Police had to do crowd control on the Flatow’s street during the week of shiva.
To be sure, many who came to console the family were outraged at the murder of an American citizen by an Iranian-backed terrorist. But most came because Alisa, during her brief life, made an impact on her friends, teachers, and classmates at Hebrew Youth Academy (now Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy), The Frisch School, Bat Torah, Brandeis University, Nishmat, and the West Orange community.
Alisa’s life was an inspiration to many. In death, her impact continues, beyond the obvious tangible benefits of her organ donations. Her death caused her normally gregarious father, Stephen, to become a polished and sought-after speaker and writer, to get involved with his synagogue, and chair the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. An amendment to the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, which enabled him to successfully sue Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism, is named after him (“The Flatow Amendment”). Since 2006, he has helped the U.S. government identify parties illegally processing financial transactions for Iran, and a movie about him is in the works.
Memorials to Alisa exist in many communities and schools in the United States and in Israel. Schools and programs are named after her, as well. Alisa’s parents established The Alisa Flatow Memorial Scholarship Fund. Over the past 21 years, more than 200 young men and women studying in Israeli yeshivot and seminaries received support from this fund, l’zekher nishmat Chana Michal bat Shmuel Mordecai (in memory of Alisa).
For 21 years, contributions have flowed into the donor-advised fund, which is administered by the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ. Some donors were moved by a speech or an article written by Stephen, and others simply wanted to support Torah learning in Israel in Alisa’s memory. Truth be told, the Jewish Community Foundation never expected this fund to survive beyond a year or so. But survive it did, due to the indomitable and indefatigable schedule of Stephen’s speaking engagements, and the many lives touched by Alisa. Her mother, much more private than her husband, was an active participant as well, and organized scholarship applications, coordinated the schedule of volunteer evaluators, and hosted the annual dinner meeting where the siblings, their spouses, and a few close family friends would select each year’s winners.
It is unfortunate that more resources are not available for deserving young men and women to study in a yeshiva or seminary in Israel. It is a sad reality that since Alisa’s death, there have been many more killings of innocent men, women, and children. Many more memorials and funds have been created. A horrific event that took place over two decades ago is constantly being eclipsed by new tragedies. On her yahrtzeit, the 10th of Nisan (which, this year, falls on Thursday, April 6, the same publication date as this paper), let us pause and reflect on all those lives cut short by hatred and violence.