A Tale of Two Tragedies

Israel is the most uplifting place in the world, and on my trip there last week I felt the usual incredible energy from the mall in Ramat Aviv to Tachana Rishona in Jerusalem – kids of all ages running around parents, teens and tourists.

Yet I left Israel crying because I could not shake a haunting visit to the Dawabshe family in Shiba Children’s Hospital, and a tragic shiva visit with the Banki family in Ramat Beit Hakerem. I was in Israel for only 36 hours, with business meetings for YCT Rabbinical School, but I felt I could not leave without going to the shiva for Shira Banki, a”h, a precious, committed Jewish leader killed at only sixteen, or to the hospital where the brother of Ali Dawabshe, a”h, was fighting for his life. Since I left Israel, Ali’s father has also died, and his mother is still fighting for her life. By now the Banki family is up from shiva and no doubt struggling to determine how to rebuild their lives.

There is so much to say about these murders that are seen by the Banki family and many others as connected by a common thread of intolerance – even though as of today, Monday, it is still not known who committed the arson double murder. For now, allow me just to describe the visits themselves, and the powerful, heartbreaking words of those who are trying to pick up the pieces from their losses.

The Banki Family’s Shiva

The Bankis live in the sunny, modern neighborhood of Ramat Beit Hakerem, and even though their shiva was really reserved for family, they were kind enough to allow a group of us to attend. I went to the shiva with Rav Jason Herman, representing the International Rabbinic Fellowship, Rav Loren Sykes, an oleh chadash, new immigrant,  who felt particularly connected because of his own teenage daughter, and Maharat student Leah Sarna. Shira’s uncle, aunt, father – everyone was so young, which further emphasized how tragic it was to have such a young life taken away from them. We entered the apartment through the living room where the grandparents sat surrounded by their friends, and then went to the courtyard where Shira’s father sat down with us – it felt almost like he was there more to comfort us than we to comfort him.

This is a beautiful Israeli family: the uncle and aunt live upstairs, Shira’s family downstairs, and they share the courtyard, which was the scene of Shira’s brother’s Bar Mitzvah just a few weeks ago.  Everyone spoke about how Shira played the key role in the Bar Mitzvah ceremony. This is a secular Jewish family: The Bar Mitzvah had no synagogue element, but Shira’s father talked to us about how important it was to have a Bar Mitzvah, at 13, for their son, and that they struggled to come up with a meaningful ceremony. It was Shira, a”h, who came up with a powerful presentation that made the day so meaningful. Her cousin described how she wouldn’t talk to anyone for a week before the Bar Mitzvah because she was so caught up in planning it.  

This is a family, as Shira’s father described, whose members were not “religious” but were incredibly knowledgeable – “you can be an atheist, but that doesn’t mean you are an ignoramus” – and committed to being Jews. It was Shira’s commitment to her Jewishness that led her to go on the Pride Parade to lend her support for those she felt needed her help. Indeed, her father corrected himself when he described the family as non-observant: they certainly did keep Jewish laws such as not murdering, not stealing, etc. He described his walk-and-talks to Machane Yehuda, the Jerusalem market, with a young Shira and how they discussed deep issues. Shira’s cousin said that they looked to American Judaism to help Israel with a model of openness and respect for difference. I hope we in America are up to that task, but at least our group provided some hope for that.

We sat for a few minutes with Shira’s father, but we knew we were keeping him from the comfort of his family. He is a brave man, and his family and friends will, God willing, fill him with comfort and strength. I hope we gave him some sense that everyone in American Jewry is grieving with the Banki family as well. Unfortunately, it was a shiva house we left without knowing where to find hope. As Shira’s father said to us and to friends there to comfort him: “Don’t try to find words, because you will not find words.” I could not leave Israel without going to the Bankis’ shiva home, and we left them knowing that this is a strong family, this is a family with Israeli resilience, with the people around them that would get them through the darkness. But the image of young Shira, of blessed memory, working so hard to celebrate her beloved brother’s coming of age, and then being killed marching to help others in their struggles, is devastating. All I can hope is that Shira’s life becomes a source of strength and blessing for everything she, at such a tender young age, was committed to and dreamed for her world.

Visiting Ali Dawabshe’s Family at Shiba Children’s Hospital

My visit with the family of 18-month-old Ali Dawabshe’s family was even sadder than the shiva house. The power was out at the hospital. I had to use the flashlight on my iPhone to find my way up the stairs to the third floor – the intensive care floor where Ahmed Dawabshe and his mother, Riham, were still fighting for their lives. (Sa’ad Dawabshe was at Soroka hospital in Beersheva). It was hot and sweaty and dark in the family waiting room.  It felt like Tisha B’Av, when you read the book of Eicha (Lamentations) in the dark. I met mainly with the grandfather, I believe Riham’s father, who spoke a sweet, sad Hebrew: “Ein Milim – there are no words.” The family, young cousins in their late teens or early 20s, were warm to me, but also sad. The grandfather asked the question we were all asking, “Why kill each other? Why do it in such a cowardly way? If you have an issue with me, face me right on.”  

The note of hope was that the grandfather said that the care they were getting was excellent. It was so hard to see that amidst the steamy, dark atmosphere in the waiting room. I assured the grandfather, joined towards the end of my visit by his wife, that we are working to fight hatred from America. During this visit also, there wasn’t much to do or say. I wish I had been there with Rav Avi Weiss or some of his great students who could play some guitar and that we could sing together. All I could do was say a misheberach, prayer for healing, but I took out the words “amongst the other sick Israelites” – not sure if this would resonate with Palestinian Arabs. I shook hands with everyone, gestured that my heart cried out for their pain, and left through a hospital still trying to get the electricity on.

Outside, I prayed mincha on my own, and in the prayer of healing in the Amidah, I prayed for these wounded, but in my prayer I understood the words “amongst the other sick Israelites” to mean – amongst all those in the Land of Israel who are wounded and sick. These Palestinians, Ahmed, Riham, and their murdered son, brother and father, are in the care of the Jewish State. We as Jews are responsible to protect them and pray for them, and to feel the pain of their families. May God bless and heal them, just as God will hopefully heal all those everywhere who are sick.  

So I left an Israel that is still incredibly vibrant and energized. The electricity was on at the Arcafe in the Ramat Aviv mall where I ate supper before flying off to America, and no doubt Tel Hashomer, Shiba Children’s Hospital had restored power there, too. But I pray that Israel, our beloved state, works on these dark corners in its midst. I know there are so many that will now make sure that attacks on the innocent – no matter who is perpetrating them, Jews or Arabs – will be investigated fully and will not be tolerated. I love to leave Israel on a high, inspired and full of hope for even more brightness for the Zionist dream, for the Jewish dream. However, with this visit, I still am weighed down by the families who have to rise from the depths of losing children, siblings, and spouses. May God give them strength, and may God give the Jewish state the strength to move forward and to continue to be a beacon of light and inspiration for our world.

Discover More

How to Plan a Jewish Funeral

A practical guide to preparations for Jewish burial and mourning.

How to Make a Shiva Call

Because a shiva call requires total sensitivity to the needs of the mourner, the tradition mandates appropriate behaviors for the visitor.

Mourning a Non-Relative

How should one cope with the death of a friend, or the death of an ex-spouse?