Stephen Odzer’s first reaction on an overcast autumn day four years ago, when his pager beeped and a call home informed him that a kidnapped Israeli soldier had been killed by Palestinian captors, was to make a small blessing.
"Baruch Dayan Ha-emes," he recited. Blessed is the True Judge: the words traditional Jews say when told of a death.
The soldier was Odzer’s first cousin, Cpl. Nachshon Waxman. Odzer, a Woodmere businessman, had stopped in Borough Park, Brooklyn, for a blessing from a rabbi for Waxman’s on the way to a Shabbat with relatives in Flatbush when he received the tragic news.
"We had asked Hashem for Nachshon’s safe release from his captors," Odzer said. "Hashem said no.
"On a bright autumn afternoon, Odzer and his wife, Shani, honored his cousin’s memory Sunday surrounded by some 400 members of Woodmere’s Jewish community. The recently renovated sanctuary of Odzer’s synagogue, Congregation Bais Tefilah, a converted one-story house, was dedicated in Waxman’s name in an open-air ceremony attended by a score of local and visiting relatives and an equal number of area politicians.
"Clearly God has blessed this day," Nassau County Executive Thomas Gulotta said, referring to the unusually warm December weather that permitted the outdoor ceremony without coats or umbrellas. "God has blessed this occasion."
Other speakers, standing between an American and Israeli flag on the synagogue lawn under the nearly bare branches of looming oak trees, spoke of Waxman’s life and death, of Arab terrorism and the Middle East process.
Waxman "was killed by those who wanted to split Jerusalem," said that city’s mayor, Ehud Olmert, a reference to the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas group whose members took the soldier hostage and remain steadfastly opposed to the PLO’s participation in the peace process.
"These are going to be difficult days," Olmert said of President Bill Clinton’s upcoming visit to Israel and of pending final-status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Gulotta, who called Waxman "an American citizen" (born to a former Brooklynite mother who made aliyah) and "an Israeli soldier," said, "in naming a sanctuary for this young man, we give his life meaning. In every aspect he is part of every member of this congregation."
Waxman was "a holy martyr," said Rabbi Shaya Richmond of Bais Tefilah. "The martyrs of Israel enjoy an exalted position in heaven."
Odzer, who recalled that Israelis of many backgrounds prayed and lit Shabbat candles on Waxman’s behalf, earlier had a synagogue in Flatbush named for his cousin.
"Everybody prayed for him" in October 1994, Odzer said. "Nachshon’s kidnapping united klal Yisroel [the Jewish people] in tefilah [prayer]."Now Nachshon’s killing [again] can unite klal Yisroel in tefilah. We wanted to dedicate as many houses of prayer as possible."
A plaque unveiled this week at the entrance to the Woodmere sanctuary says, in part, "In life he protected his country. In death he united his people."
Waxman, a member of the elite Golani brigade, was taken hostage while hitchhiking on a Sunday near Ben-Gurion Airport. The Hamas members in the car were disguised as Orthodox Jews wearing kipas.
Waxman, 19, was taken to a house in the West Bank near Jerusalem. Hamas demanded that Israel free some 200 Arab prisoners in return for his release.
Israeli intelligence authorities located the house, and attempted a rescue six days after the kidnapping. Hamas killed Waxman. Two Israeli soldiers also died in the mission.
Odzer, who had exchanged family visits with his cousin for 10 years ("We were buddies") sponsors a kiddush at Bais Tefilah annually on Waxman’s yahrzeit. Odzer named his now-3-year-old son Nachshon, and two children born in the last four years to Waxman’s siblings in Israel now bear the name: plus a Hebrew middle name.
"In Israel you can’t name a son [just] Nachshon Waxman," Odzer said. "It’s too painful."
Four Torah scrolls, including one at a Golani base, were written in Israel in Waxman’s name. An educational center in Jerusalem and a facility for special-needs children (one of Nachshon’s six brothers has Down syndrome) also are named for him.
Waxman’s mother, Esther, who came to Woodmere for the dedication ceremony, said her son "has become a symbol for everyone’s brother, sister, friend."
She says the continual ceremonies and physical reminders of Nachshon "make my son’s life and death meaningful."
"It gives me strength and a lot of comfort," she said. "My son will have no descendants. It is these life-giving endeavors that perpetuate his memory."
Esther Waxman offered her own blessing at the sanctuary’s dedication: "That the building become a mishkon, a dwelling, a place where people feel at home, as well as the place where God’s shechinah [presence] is always with you.
"My parents [Holocaust survivors] would have been so proud, would have taken so much nachat from this event, despite the tragedy that brought it about," she said. "We can control our destiny, how we choose to react, how we choose to cope with what fate has thrown our way."
After the chanting of Kel Moleh Rachimim, members of the community hugged Esther Waxman. And the ceremony ended with a prayer: mincha in the sanctuary newly named for a holy martyr.