"It could have been me."
That is how many have responded to the murder of 18-year-old old Ezra Schwartz by Palestinian terrorists. As is now common among Jewish day school graduates, Ezra was experiencing his "year in Israel" rite of passage before matriculating to college. The tragedy hit home; we felt directly the pain, fear and anxiety tormenting the State of Israel and its citizens. Learning about Ezra’s life, there is the added recognition of the value he placed on chesed (kindness, but also, responsibility to the other), a quality that should be forefront in our response to this horrific crime. He was committed to helping others, had planned to study all of Tanach (the Hebrew Bible) and, along with several classmates, was tending to a garden in memory of the three young men kidnapped and murdered in June 2014 — at a spot near where he himself was killed.
I felt connected to Ezra. We both graduated from the Maimonides School of Brookline, Massachusetts, and sports was our shared major extracurricular activity. My nephew was Ezra’s classmate at Maimonides, where they were co-captains of the school’s baseball team. Ezra's community and synagogue are populated by my childhood friends. I know his world and I felt sick to my stomach when hearing of his brutal murder. It was not long before I learned that so many others spoke of their connections to Ezra and his family. Everyone seemed to know, or know of, them. It was as if we all saw this terrorist incident as a direct attack on us.
Thankfully, Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots football team, helped reorient us. He shifted the focus back to Ezra, celebrating life, not just focusing on death. He held a moment of silence in Ezra’s memory before Ezra’s favorite team, the New England Patriots, played in a nationally televised Monday Night Football game last week. A photo of a smiling Ezra sporting a Patriots’ jersey was on display on the scoreboard. And Mr. Kraft personally comforted Ezra’s family by paying a shiva call to their home the next morning. His acts of chesed reminded us that our responsibility is to continue promoting Ezra’s life rather than wallowing in his death.
Known for beneficence and philanthropy, Robert Kraft is admired throughout New England and beyond as a mensch, helping people of all backgrounds and faiths. He is also a major supporter of Jewish institutions in America and Israel. Mr. Kraft has frequently credited his own father, Harry Kraft, for transmitting these community values to him. Indeed, Harry Kraft, was the “ba’al habayit,” or major lay leader, of Congregation Kehillath Israel (KI), a traditional Conservative synagogue in Brookline where the older Mr. Kraft is fondly remembered until this day as a gomel chesed” (kind doer) who taught Torah and davening to so many of KI’s youth. Harry Kraft was part of a pioneering generation that facilitated a thriving Judaism in the Boston area. He played leading role in a number of Jewish organizations, serving, for example, as an officer of New England’s Religious Zionist organization, known as the Mizrachi.
Harry Kraft was also an original charter member of the Maimonides School that was founded and directed by Rabbi Dr. Joseph Soloveitchik, the leading figure of the Modern Orthodox movement. It was lay leaders like Harry Kraft who attended Rabbi Soloveitichik’s Boston area lectures that have now been published and popularized. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s closest relationships were often with these local Boston rabbis, small business owners, professionals and working men. His lectures were often intimate conversations with these individuals in which he schooled them in core principles for promoting observant Judaism in the modern world.
Foremost among Rabbi Soloveitchik’s teachings was the centrality of chesed responsibility. He defined chesed as “a spiritual attitude, a subjective experience that whatever I have . . . is too much for me. Whatever God gave me exceeds my capacity to utilize or store up.” Chesed, he added, is not limited to material or monetary giving but requires “man to open his mind, his heart, his experience.” More directly, “chesed means to merge with the other person, to identify with his pain, to feel responsible for his fate.” And “[t]he principle of chesed mandates [that] . . . [j]ust as we are duty bound to feed the poor and clothe the destitute, we are equally obligated to teach the ignorant, dispel prejudice and superstition and enlighten those who live in darkness.”
The ethic of chesed responsibility was also fundamental to the Rabbi Soloveitchik’s mission for Maimonides School and by extension Jewish day schools more generally. In 1971, Rabbi Soloveitchik delivered a speech summarizing his school’s “credo.” Above all else, Rabbi Soloveitchik emphasized that Maimonides’ graduates should lead a life of chesed. He stated:
[W]e believe that the Jew cannot live alone . . . [t]he password of the Jew is chesed – kindness, compassion – to his fellow Jews and to his fellow man. He shares in the travail of man in general and of his people. The Jew is a responsible being, he is responsible for society . . . . The Jew must share in the destiny of his people and be concerned with the destiny of mankind.
Ezra Schwartz died while performing an act of chesed. Perhaps the best and only response we can offer in the face of this tragedy is to redouble our commitment to acts of chesed.
Daniel D. Edelman, an attorney, lives in Teaneck, NJ.