‘Now you have been found and we are lost.” With those words, spoken just steps from her son’s casket, Gitty Bender encapsulated the ambiguity surrounding the death of her son, Joshua.
The 19-year-old Yeshiva University sophomore was found in the Hudson River on Sunday, almost two weeks after he vanished, without a clue, from his Washington Heights dorm room.Bender was buried the next day, a rainy Memorial Day, in Saddle Brook, N.J., not far from his parents’ home in Fair Lawn. A spokesman for the New York Police Department said the death was either an accident or suicide. The medical examiner’s X-rays and external examination showed no signs of trauma or criminal injury. An autopsy was waived in deference to the family’s request, on religious grounds.
Bender’s body was discovered at 5 a.m. Sunday by a couple passing by the Hudson at West 157th Street. They then called the police on a cellular phone. Bender was pulled from the river near West 138th Street, still dressed in the button-down plaid shirt, jeans and shoes he was wearing when last seen May 12 in Yeshiva’s Rubin Hall studying for his final exam in finance. His wallet and credit cards were in his pocket. Bender was an honors student in the Sy Syms School of Business.More than 1,000 mourners overflowed the Robert Schoem Memorial Chapel in Paramus, N.J., from the chapel and into the hallways and parking lot, as Yeshiva University president Norman Lamm asked in his eulogy, “How can one speak about a tragedy that is fundamentally and literally unspeakable?“Some lives, most lives, end in a period,” he said, “but there are some lives that end with a question mark. And we can only stare wordlessly into the gaping mystery of it all. Why did it happen? Why Josh? Why now? Why so young?”Lamm added, “He will always remain the way he was when he was last seen: an honors student, but never arrogant; modest, never overbearing; sensitive, never callous; a baal midos, a young man of character with his own special dignity, not yet hardened by life’s combativeness.Lamm said Bender “was liked by his classmates, liked by his teachers.
”Gitty Bender, who entered the chapel in heaving tears for “my baby,” her clothes ripped in the traditional kriah, eulogized her son in a whisper of a voice as someone who was “never really a child. He was born a baal midos,” a person of impeccable character.She recalled that over the 12-day vigil, “people reminded us of all the chesed Joshie did for them.” She described him as a selfless fount of kindness and good deeds, a “role model” for not only his younger brother Noah, 15, but for his parents.
She described Josh’s painful surgery some four years ago for scoliosis, but “he never once complained.” Following his recuperation, he joined the Fair Lawn Ambulance Corps. Thirty of his fellow volunteers sat in the chapel in their white uniforms, a black band pinned to epaulets.During the service, Benjamin Yudin, the Benders’ rabbi, said that one of Joshua’s last phone calls on the Tuesday he disappeared was to arrange his duty with the ambulance corps on the following Thursday night.“In his shtilla [quiet] way he loved life,” Gitty Bender told the mourners. Speaking to her son, she added softly, “You were born a malach [an angel]. You lived as a malach. Now you are with Hashem. … Our only solace is that you left this world as you came — unblemished.”She expressed appreciation for the solidarity and support that came to the family from across the Jewish community, “hundreds of Jews of every type, from Satmar and Lubavitch chasidim to Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, irrreligious,” joining together to search just because “a Yiddishe neshama [soul] was lost.”“Now you have been found and we are lost. But one thing we should keep in our minds is the achdus, the unity of the whole Jewish community coming together,” she said.Bender’s disappearance gripped Jewish communities, with prayer and Psalm vigils around the world, discussions on the Internet and flyers posted everywhere from New York to Jerusalem, where Bender spent his freshman year studying in yeshiva. Hundreds of students, police and well-wishers joined search parties that combed the New Jersey Palisades and Highbridge Park, between Yeshiva and the Harlem River. Hundreds more, including Bender’s parents, were planning to search Fort Tryon Park, in Washington Heights near Yeshiva, on Sunday morning when it was announced that the body had been found.Deborah Smith of Bergenfield, N.J., a friend of the Benders, told The Jewish Week outside the chapel that “when Satmar community leader Rabbi Leibel Glantz was contacted for help with the search, he simply replied, ‘A Yiddishe neshama.’ ”And with that, Satmar children left school, businesspeople left work and they searched; Lubavitch also. Everyone was saying Tehillim, it became a movement. A fast day was declared in Fair Lawn.“My daughter goes to Lubavitch of the Palisades in Tenafly,” Smith said, “and they said Tehillim every day. They were taught that we, the Jewish people, are a body. If a part of our body is missing, then we are not complete. And that’s how they presented it to 4-year-olds. They accepted it. It made them feel important.”Smith remembered the time she was weakened by cardiac catheterization: “I had absolutely no strength. I have very little children and it was Purim. He [Bender] helped me into the back of the car, took my children in costume, and drove them from house to house.“My son had one Russian Jewish boy in his class who lived way out beyond most of the Jewish community. We wanted to bring shalach manos to Boris, but we couldn’t find the house. Josh drove round and round for 40 minutes, determined to find the house. That was Joshie. That said it all.
”During the service, Rabbi Yudin, a teacher at Yeshiva University, recalled Bender as a youth leader on Shabbat mornings. In a voice choked with tears, he read a letter to Bender from Noah.“Dear Josh, I don’t know why this happened. I don’t know why Hashem sent this disaster to our family. But I do know that Hashem had a reason that is being incorporated into his master plan. I’ll just have to cope with your death and start to look at it in the best way possible.“As a brother, you were always there for me. You were my ally … I always hoped that when I’d grow up and be an adult, I would follow in your footsteps, and be a successful businessman like you are and would have become. Since you are gone, I will have to look at life on my own. Although it will be tough. I will still have you as a role model.“Anything you put your mind to, you achieved. … The ambulance corps; Kol Torah [Josh edited the weekly d’var Torah publication at his high school, the Torah Academy of Bergen County]; your summer job at the equity company; and you managed to find a way to sell those phone cards over the Internet with almost no work.“I will never forget what a good brother you were to me. I love you, Josh.”Bender was to have worked in the fall as an intern with Prudential Securities. Although his parents reportedly advised him to “take it easy” this summer, he was looking for a summer job with a major financial firm. Gitty Bender told a press conference last week that her last conversation with her son, while he was studying that Tuesday for his finance exam, was regarding a letter to a firm with which he had interviewed.
Outside the chapel, Brooklyn City Councilman Noach Dear, who had befriended the Benders during the anxious days of the search and who worked with the medical examiner and police, expressed gratitude for the sensitivity of the media and said “the New York City Police, as well as the Bergen County Police, were A-1. “They responded with such respect and dignity.”Dear cited Inspector Joseph Reznick, who was in charge of the investigation, noting that as the father of a 19-year-old himself, the police official took the case personally and attended the funeral.But the mystery endured. Rabbi Yudin said, “We believe that nothing in this world happens by chance, and certainly nothing as significant as this.”