4 years after U.S. gap-year student dies on hike in Israel, guide speaks out

The death of American Ariel Newman on a hike in the Judean Desert in 2014 was a “terrible but unforeseeable tragedy," Josh Ettinger, the guide on the hike told the Jerusalem Post.

January 16, 2019 15:50
4 minute read.
Ein Gedi

Ein Gedi 465 gallery 4. (photo credit: YONI COHEN)


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The death of American Ariel Newman on a hike in the Judean Desert in 2014 was a “terrible but unforeseeable tragedy,” for which no one can be held responsible, Josh Ettinger, the guide on the hike, told The Jerusalem Post this week.

Ettinger was the counselor on a hike which included Newman and a group of other teenage boys who were studying at the now-defunct Mechinat Yeud yeshiva, a gap-year program for Diaspora youth between high school and college. According to a medical report, at the time of Newman’s death, his body temperature was unusually high.

Yeud officials, including Ettinger, were accused of negligent homicide by Newman’s family. They were questioned by police and ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing. However, last year, a petition was filed to the High Court of Justice by the Newmans’ lawyer, Amos Fried, seeking to overturn the decision to close the case made by the police, the Southern District Attorney and the prosecution appeals department.

It is, however, expected that the court will accept law enforcement’s unanimous recommendation to close the case.

In a first-ever interview with the Post, Ettinger said that while he sees the event as a tragedy, “I was cleared.”

Ettinger said that in the initial weeks after Newman’s tragic death, there were no accusations. He said that what might have started as the parents’ “quest for truth and justice” evolved into “a desire to assuage their sense of loss and regret for withholding vital information and not considering Ariel’s past medical history and the known, inherent physical risks of the program to him based on that history.”

The counselor said that he was “at the Newman parents’ home in Great Neck only a few days after Ariel passed away. After the prayers for mourners, Ellen and Mark asked me to join them for breakfast.

“During the meal, they were anxious to hear what happened on the hike,” he continued. “Afterward, Ellen told me that when the family took a trip to Israel for Ariel’s bar mitzvah, Ariel fainted at the Kotel [Western Wall] in the morning hours of their visit.”

He said that Ellen Newman also told him that she herself had suffered an episode of heat stroke during the same family trip, and that a family doctor then “warned them that they likely have a family genetic sensitivity to the sun or heat of the Middle East.”

According to Ettinger, “had this information been available to me or to the program, we possibly would not have accepted Ariel to our program, a program which had a physical element. Or, if he had been accepted, at least we would have had a heads up to take extra-special measures.”

BASED ON a report by Prof. Yoram Epstein, the Newmans have alleged that Ariel died of heat stroke and from a combination of negligence by Ettinger and other Yeud officials, and have presented arguments contrary to Ettinger’s claims.

However, Ettinger said there is no way to know for sure the cause of death, including whether a genetic issue played a part, as the Newmans vetoed an autopsy, citing Jewish law objections.

The prosecution has also cited the absence of an autopsy as an obstacle to proving the cause of death.

Furthermore, the prosecution continues its attempt to close the case, arguing that in the best case scenario for the parents’ allegations, there is a mix of around 10 contradictory stories from the hike about Ariel’s condition and of how hard the hike was, which it says does not allow it to prove negligence to a criminal standard.

There are disputes over whether a minority of those 10 witnesses support the Newmans’ allegations against Ettinger, but he has rebuttals for each person. And, once again, the prosecution has said that an overall canvassing of the 10 witnesses cannot support an indictment.

Besides denying any negligence accusations, Ettinger also said that his response from the moment Newman collapsed was precise, professional and by the books, crediting his IDF training.

He said he called for a helicopter and coordinated its landing in the middle of a desert using the 12-digit coordinates from the special map he was using, while treating Ariel and making sure that he was in a shaded area, with lots of water, and still breathing.

The helicopter arrived after 40 minutes, at the same time that the Ein Gedi rescue team arrived, he stated, and that a member of the team told him that Ariel would be okay. The rescue team told him that he had evacuated people in worse condition and that Ettinger had acted wisely to quickly call in a helicopter.

Ultimately, Newman died at Hadassah University Medical Center, in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem.

Ettinger concluded that: “This was a horrific and unforeseeable tragedy.”

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