I never met Ariel Sharon personally, but I feel like I have lost a close friend.
In August 2004, Israeli Prime Minister Sharon had stated his intention to evacuate the Gaza Strip. The decision elicited strong reactions from across the Israeli and American Jewish political spectrums.
A few months later, I sat exhilarated in the front of a packed auditorium at Baruch College as Sharon addressed a crowd of more than 1,000 Jewish leaders, strongly extolling his country’s unbreakable connection with America. As he began to discuss his plan to disengage from Gaza, a woman suddenly stood up, revealing her bright orange shirt (the official color of the anti-disengagement movement), and yelled out “Jews don’t expel other Jews!” She was only the first of many to interrupt the PM’s speech. Only 12 years old, I was afraid the protestors might turn violent.
One thing seemed clear: Prime Minister Sharon was pained and torn up inside by this difficult decision. After all, he knew better than anyone the amount of Jewish blood that had been spilled securing this land in five wars in which he had led. He also knew better than anyone the risks involved in unilaterally withdrawing from it.
When my father and I left the assembly, thousands of protestors had gathered on the streets, most of them bused in. As we exited the building and walked down the adjoining streets, we were verbally abused by the crowd. They screamed things like “Nazi,” “traitor,” and “Kapo.” I couldn’t understand where their intense anger was coming from.
Shortly after, Sharon suffered the first of two serious strokes. One of my rabbis at the Ramaz Middle School suggested that we include the prime minister’s Hebrew name, Ariel ben Vera, in our tefillot (prayers) each of the three times a day that we recited the Amidah silently.
I started praying for Ariel ben Vera’s recovery on that day, and since then, I have included him in my Amidah every time I prayed. That could be something like 5,000 times that I have thought about him, and prayed for him, over the past eight years.
When I davened Maariv (evening prayers) last Shabbat, having just heard the news of his passing, my prayers seemed incomplete, like I had lost a friend. Every Amidah that I have recited since Saturday seems awkward, accidentally beginning to mention his name for a recovery, and having to stop myself.
Having spent the past two years in Israel, and having spent some of that time in bomb shelters, I now think the disengagement from Gaza was a mistake. But I believe that the Jewish people have lost one of our great heroes of the past century. Even though I never met Ariel ben Vera personally, I have kept him close to my heart every day for the last eight years. And I cannot help but feel like I have lost a close friend.
Jason Eisner is a graduate of Ramaz and is a freshman at Columbia University.