Once a week for three years, Mickey Lebovic, now 25, sat at a small table with Rabbi Moshe Twersky during lunch and learned Ethics of the Fathers, a part of the Talmud that contains aphorisms about daily life.
“At yeshiva, we referred to him as ‘The Rebbe,’” said Lebovic, who was the only graduate of his Modern Orthodox high school in Baltimore to attend Rabbi Twersky’s yeshiva, Torat Moshe, in West Jerusalem. “It was a term of endearment and adoration. He was our teacher, our role model.”
On Tuesday morning, Lebovic, who studied at the yeshiva from 2007 through 2011, received an email from Torat Moshe. It contained two short lines, informing students and alumni about the murder of Rabbi Twersky, with details about the funeral.
“I just broke down,” said Lebovic. “I called into work and said I can’t come in today. My rebbe was murdered in a massacre.”
Rabbi Twersky, 59, was one of the four rabbis killed in a terror attack during morning prayer services at a synagogue and rabbinical seminary in the Har Nof neighborhood of West Jerusalem. Two Palestinian assailants entered Bnei Torah Kehillat Yaakov synagogue and attacked worshippers with a gun, axes and knives. Seven others were injured in the attack, some critically. Tuesday night a police officer from a gunshot wound suffered in a shootout after the attack during which both assailants were killed.
Rabbi Twersky, a dual citizen of the United States and Israel, was the son of rabbi and author Rabbi Isadore Twersky of Boston, grandson of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a leader of Modern Orthodoxy known as The Rav. His brother, Rabbi Mayer Twersky, is one of the leading rabbis at Yeshiva University and his sister, Tzipporah R. Rosenblatt, is a New York City-based attorney and the wife of Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt, the spiritual leader of Riverdale Jewish Center.
“I have never seen a human being more perfectly refined by Torah,” said Rabbi Rosenblatt, of his brother-in-law. “He was modest, gentle, kind, good-natured; he held himself to very precise standard of observance, greeting everyone with a loving heart. It didn’t matter what they were wearing on their head, what clothes they were wearing, what institutions they might have been attending, there was the same love, the same genial welcome for everyone.”
Yeshivat Torah Moshe, where Rabbi Twersky served as the dean, is an English-speaking charedi yeshiva. Founded in 1982, it was one of the first yeshivas established for American post-high school students. It has since graduated more than 1,000 students.
“We send several of our high school graduates to Torat Moshe every year,” said Rabbi Doniel Lander, chancellor of Touro College and dean of Yeshivas Ohr Hachaim, a rabbinical seminary in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens. The seminary operates in conjunction with two high schools, Mesivta Yesodei Yisroel in Monsey and Mesivta Yesodei Yeshurun in Queens.
“Torah Moshe is an elite yeshiva for our most motivated students,” said Rabbi Lander, who was himself a close friend of Rabbi Twersky’s for 40 years. “He was a guide and an inspiration to our students.”
Asked whether or not the attack might negatively affect attendance to Torat Moshe in coming years, Rabbi Lander responded, “We’re not yet thinking in those terms. We’re just mourning this loss.”
Rabbi Michael Taubes, head of school at Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy (MTA), Yeshiva University’s high school for boys, said MTA has sent many graduates to Torat Moshe in the past.
“In the long run, this probably won’t affect attendance,” said Rabbi Taubes, who knew Rabbi Twersky personally from his days as a student at Yeshiva University. “Despite past intifadas, people have still sent their children to Israel. There’s always the hope that things will get better,” he said. “At the end of the day, I don’t think an event even as horrific as this will have a major impact, though it may give some parents pause.”
Jonathan Benaim, 23, an alumnus of Torat Moshe Yeshiva from London and a student of Rabbi Twersky, was unsure of how the attack would affect the future of the yeshiva.
“I don’t know what will happen, but the yeshiva will never be the same place again. We’ve lost a role model,” he said.
Benaim, who attended the yeshiva from 2009 through 2011, was in Rabbi Twersky’s Talmud class during his second year. He additionally went to his house for Shabbat dinner several times and participated in Purim festivities hosted by Rabbi Twersky.
“Rav Twersky was an incredibly knowledgeable man, but even more exceptional was the way he interacted with others,” said Benaim, 23. “He always made time for his students, no matter how busy he was.”
Tal Scher, 25, another student of Rabbi Twersky from Chicago, recalled him as a “tremendous talmid chacham” (Torah scholar).
“I remember how Rabbi Twersky really made us think,” wrote Scher in an online correspondence. “He wanted us to figure out the answer as opposed to just giving it to us,” said Scher. “That’s the trait of an amazing rebbe.”
Responding to the attacks, a group of about 50 gathered outside of the Palestinian Mission to the United Nations on the Upper East Side on Tuesday afternoon to protest the act of terror. The group was headed by Rabbi Avi Weiss, who heads the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, along with Russian-American Jewish Experience (RAJE) and a number of other Jewish organizations.
“This act of terror against Jews who went to a synagogue for morning prayer is despicable and the world must stand against the incitement of the president of the Palestinian Authority, Abu Mazen whose words have lead to terror,” said Rabbi Weiss.
In the wake of the attacks, New York City has increased its police presence at synagogues.
“The NYPD is following developments in Jerusalem closely and working with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force to monitor any further developments,” the city’s police commissioner, Bill Bratton, said in a statement. “As of now, there is no specific credible threat to New York City.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio asked New Yorkers to “stay alert and report suspicious activity” in a written statement. He said that the NYPD is “in close contact with its liaison post in Israel.”
The FBI said in a statement that it is “aware of the situation” and was “working in close collaboration and cooperation with the appropriate Israeli allies and partners.”
In his statement, de Blasio said he was “horrified and heartbroken” by the attack. “New York City stands in solidarity with Israel at this difficult time, and we hope and pray for a peaceful and secure future for all of its people,” he said.
Mickey Lebovic, still reeling from shock, recalled one of the many lessons Rabbi Twersky had imparted to him.
“When I was in Israel, I had heart palpitations and had to go the hospital,” he said. “When I returned to yeshiva, I asked Rabbi Twersky how I should respond — maybe say extra tefillot [prayers] or something like that,” he said. “But Rabbi Twersky told me the only way to respond was to appreciate every heartbeat, every breath. Now, when I feel my heartbeat, I will always think of him.”