They streamed down the darkened Beit Shemesh streets in the hundreds, heading toward a local sports complex. Their long skirts, black pants, white shirts and loud accents marking them as American yeshiva and seminary students here on post-high school gap year programs.
As they filed into the white plastic seats seat up where children usually play ball the full extent of the crowd became apparent with more than twelve hundred teenagers from nearly thirty schools gathered to memorialize one of their own who recently fell to Palestinian terror.
"I have one message for all of the terrorists out there. It is not working. You are only making us stronger," dean Rabbi Gotch Yuden of Yeshiva Ashreinu told the crowd, barely holding back tears.
“When we come together as a people there is no putting us down,” he said calling on those in attendance to each complete a small portion of the Bible so that it be read in its entirety by the end of the service in honor of his student Ezra Schwartz, who, only hours before his death, had voiced his desire to complete it on his own.
Last week Schwartz was shot and killed a terrorist attack while distributing food packages to soldiers at the Gush Etzion junction in the West Bank
His death has hit the transient American yeshiva student community in Israel especially hard and the rabbis in attendance on Thursday all called upon their students to use the tragedy of their friend’s death to intensify their own Torah learning in his honor.
“Naturally Ezra’s murder raises many emotions and questions,” said Rabbi Meir Lichtenstein of Alon Shvut, whose friend and neighbor Yaakov Don was murdered in the same attack.
Lichtenstein, whose grandfather Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik founded the Maimonides high school in Boston from which Schwartz had recently graduated, said that many of those present will now “have questions about your role here in Israel nowadays.”
Citing his grandfather’s teachings on the nature of evil, Lichtenstein said that one does not have to deny the existence of evil but must instead respond to it.
“We can take Ezra Schwartz’s death and ignore it and just continue and we can choose to take his death and learn from him and give meaning to his death and make it an establishing experience in our own lives,” he said.
“Maybe you thought this was the story of Israel and that you have come as spectators, to have fun and go back to the States. You are wrong. You are part of the story,” he continued.
“You are part of us. You think you belong to America but you are part of us. Stay with us to the end of this year. Don’t go home. You have a mission to be part of us here. I’m sure your parents will back you. You should understand their difficulties but ask to allow to stay here. Know that you are part of the story of the jewish nation.”
“He was fearless and lived in the moment,” one girl with whom he went to high school said of Schwartz while another recalled him as the “epitome of the crazy guys” at the yeshiva “who can have fun anywhere,” recalling a game of pickup football that they played in the middle of the Malha shopping mall in Jerusalem.
“He wasn’t my friend, he was my brother,” said fellow student Josh Melamed, describing their three months together in yeshiva. “He showed me how much one can learn from someone in such a short amount of time He made the most of his year with growth as a person and in his studies.”
“He wanted to finish all of the Bible and I will finish what he started.”
“Dear Ezra, I miss you so much. I have not stopped crying these last few days,” said Rabbi Akiva Naiman, his Talmud instructor at Ashreinu, recalling a young man who was always pushing himself, whether in the weight room or the classroom.
“We saw him mature and grow and begin to succeed in goals he set for himself,” he said, adding that action is a core value of the Jewish religion and calling on the “over 1200 yeshiva and seminary students here tonight to make the most of your year.”
“There are so many opportunities every day to study Torah, do mitzvot and come closer to God and to do kindnesses to become a better person.”
Speaking with the Jerusalem Post, Naiman said that since Schwartz’s death he has become more sensitive to helping people.
He recalled how Schwartz would go out of his way to help his fellow students and his tendency to ask questions of everything, noting that the numerical value of his Hebrew name also equaled the word to ask.
The pair spent the entire day before his murder together in the old city and spoke the entire way back to Beit Shemesh.
The students at Ashreinu are still processing what happened and “moving slowly from trauma to grieving,” he said.
“They are asking what would Ezra do,” posting ideas for charitable projects on a cork board in the dorms and “going from sadness to strength.”
He said that the important thing is that after Schwartz “stops trending on Facebook” people continue to do mitzvot and good deeds in his name and that, after the public spotlight shifts from his family, people turn to continue reach out to his family.
Both US Ambassador Dan Shapiro and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that they regretted that they were unable to attend but both sent messages to the gathering.
“We grieve with his family and friends but we are also very proud of Ezra who came on a personal journey which is our common journey of jewish people to build our homeland,” Netanyahu said in a recorded video message.
“I want to strengthen his family on behalf of us all of us. We will cont this journey no one will stop us,” he said.
Pointing out that today is Thanksgiving, Shapiro said that he was thankful that the students had come together for an evening of prayer and study, adding that the act of young Americans coming to Israel “has a value beyond personal growth and contributing to the Jewish community” in that it strengthens ties “between the United States and Israel.”
Schwartz’s death “forms an additional bond between our peoples,” he said.
The commemoration was sponsored by Ashreinu, Masa, the Orthodox Union and Yeshiva University.