The tragic death of Ezra Schwartz, the 18-year-old native of Sharon, Mass., who was spending his gap year at a yeshiva in Israel, hit about as close to home as possible in the Modern Orthodox community in the U.S.
Described as warm, witty and caring, he was all of our sons and daughters — the children we send off to Israel with a mix of great pride and profound anxiety.
Over the last several decades the post-high school year in Israel, with its emphasis on religious study for boys and girls, has become the norm for many in the Orthodox community.
As parents, our greatest hope is that the youngsters will not only increase their Torah knowledge but come to love and appreciate the land and people of Israel, find lasting mentors and friends and reach a higher level of maturity and responsibility.
Our darkest nightmare is that the violence that has pursued Israeli society for more than six decades will touch the lives of our children personally.
Why do we do it — send our children to live for a school year in one of the world’s most volatile regions? For many, it is a mixture of faith, love of Israel, commitment to Zionist ideals, a rationalization that harm can come to us anywhere, and an element of denial.
As a parent whose three children each spent a gap year at a yeshiva in Israel, I can still recall the tearful goodbyes at the airport, the efforts to keep in touch across the months and miles, and the pleasure in visiting and welcoming home a more mature teenager.
My older son was a classmate and friend at Brandeis University of Alisa Flatow, who was killed by a suicide bomber in April 1995 when she and two friends studying in Israel took a bus to the beach in Gush Katif. She was 20 years old.
My daughter was in Israel at that time and during a number of other suicide bombings.
My younger son, like Ezra Schwartz, studied at a yeshiva in Gush Etzion, a West Bank community, in 2000. A few days before Yom Kippur he urged me to join him for the holiest day of the year, eager for me to experience the joyous, spirited davening (prayer services) at the yeshiva. I arrived just as the second intifada was breaking out in force. Over the four days of my visit I felt the highs and lows of life in Israel, from the transcendental moments of the community’s passionate prayer to the dreaded awareness that a new wave of Palestinian violence was gaining momentum, aimed at breaking the resolve of the Jewish nation.
No doubt there will be questions among American parents about why Israeli yeshivas permit or encourage their children to travel in harm’s way, and there is talk of encouraging yeshivas catering to gap-year students to be based in relatively safe cities rather than Jerusalem or the West Bank.
The agonizing decisions every family makes about whether or not to send a son or daughter to Israel for an academic year at the tender age of 17 or 18 will be even more fraught with concern in the coming months.
For now, though, the outpouring of grief and the efforts to bring comfort to the Schwartz family are inspiring. Though Ezra attended day school and summer camps in New England, the Modern Orthodox community is a tight-knit group with few degrees of separation. Many people I have spoken to tell me of their connections to Ezra through their friends, their children or their friends’ children. Local area day schools and synagogues have arranged trips to Boston for a shiva visit to the Schwartz family, as did a woman in Teaneck who put out the word on social media that she had arranged for a 57-seat bus to make the trip this week. She encouraged others to join her “to show the Schwartz family our sympathy and support and to let them know that they are not alone.”
Such acts of chesed (kindness) are all the more impressive when they come from people who never met the Schwartzes but feel such a strong affinity with them.
It is no secret that there is an increasing divide between the Orthodox and liberal streams of our community, with the Orthodox dramatically more conservative politically and far less threatened by disaffiliation among the young. But perhaps the biggest gap is in attitudes toward Israel. While most American Jews are either opposed to or deeply ambivalent about Israeli settlements, for instance, the issue is rarely debated in Orthodox circles, where so many people have friends and family living in Jewish communities in the West Bank.
Similarly, it is the Orthodox community that has led the way in sending their children to Israel for extended stays, like the gap-year programs. Emulating the Israelis themselves, these families have allowed faith to trump fear in their calculations about what’s best for their children. While we all pray that calm will be restored to Israel and that parents need no longer make potential life-and-death decisions on a daily basis about their families — which shops to avoid, which street to walk on — we pay tribute to all those who refuse to let terror dictate their lives, even as they appreciate the need for caution. That delicate balancing act is the Israeli condition, the miracle of building a thriving, vibrant and dynamic society in the midst of constant threats from enemies who hate.
May the brief but vital life of Ezra Schwartz, who by all accounts thrived during his time in Israel, be remembered with tenderness, and may his family — and the family of Israel — know no more sadness.