With the conclusion of the seven-day shiva period of mourning on Tuesday night for the families of the victims killed in last week’s terrorist attack in the haredi neighborhood of Har Nof in Jerusalem, the media focus will fade.
But for the families and the community to which they belong, the journey back to normality is just beginning, and it is perhaps the community and its unique nature which will help with this recuperation.
The four members of the Kehillat Bnei Torah community who were killed were all immigrants from the English-speaking Diaspora. Rabbis Aryeh Kopinsky, Calman Levine and Mosheh Twersky were from the US, and Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Goldberg was from the UK. Several others among the wounded were also from the Jewish Anglosphere.
Har Nof has been a prominent destination for the haredi ex-patriot “Anglo-Saxon” community and the neighborhood is conspicuously home to a large number of families originating from the US and UK.
Motti Oderberg, one of the administrators of Kehillat Bnei Torah, described the community he works in as noticeably different from many others in Israel in that it is based on a model commonly found in Diaspora communities and less so in Israel.
“The concept of community is found much less in Israel than in North American and elsewhere overseas outside of the hassidic haredi world,” he said.
“In the Lithuanian [non-hassidic haredi] world, people pray with their colleagues from their yeshiva or in a small shtiebel [a synagogue with ad hoc prayer services].
What we have here in Bnei Torah is quite unique, and we contain a wide spectrum of people from different nationalities, cultures, outlooks and groups in one community,” said Oderberg.
And the congregation also stands out in that higher numbers of men in the community are employed than in other haredi neighborhoods and communities.
Oderberg said that many of the household heads are employed but noted that outside of their jobs they engage in intensive religious study as well. Torah lessons are given in the mornings and evenings at the synagogue building and study hall that comprises the Bnei Torah center, in order to work with members’ work commitments and provide them with study options outside working hours.
Oderberg also noted the organized communal response to the killings, which includes the provision of social workers and psychologists for those in need of such services, and coordination with the Defense Ministry and the National Insurance Institute to help the families of the victims claim the state benefits which they are entitled to.
“Everyone has taken a part in helping the families with what they need, and obviously this is just the beginning, these families have to start getting back to real life and, thank God, I can say that everybody is happy to help them with this.”
The community’s reaction to the killings, in terms of its religious perspectives, has been striking, and the common themes and ideas expressed by residents of the neighborhood, and those who were involved in the attack, are noticeable and easily discernible.
Rabbi Ephraim Stein, 56, originally from the US, was one of the people in the 6:25 morning prayer service in the synagogue, which was targeted by the terrorists.
He has lived in Israel for 22 years and has taught and is still associated with the Dvar Yerushalayim yeshiva in Har Nof.
Stein was reciting the central Shmonah Esreh prayer last Tuesday when the attackers broke into the synagogue, and he took cover behind the prayer podium after hearing the first gun shots. He said he was somehow able to crouch down and rush to safety unharmed in the midst of the attack.
In seeking to come to terms theologically with the killings, there has been a common response within the community to the question of how the lives of the four victims, all of whom rabbis and all of whom were well respected and loved for their demeanor and Torah knowledge, could be cut short, and in such a brutal manner.
Stein said that although the immediacy and closeness of the attack was painful, it was nevertheless another event in what is seen as the greater but enigmatic plan of God for the world.
“There are certain things God reveals to us and several things he doesn’t. There are things which we don’t understand and are not expected to understand. We just have to accept that God knows what he’s doing even though it’s beyond us. We cry about the people who were killed, and that they were killed in an inhumane fashion. We thank God for the people who were saved, and we accept that God knows what he’s doing which is above our comprehension,” he said.
Numerous accounts have circulated in the community of people who usually prayed in the early morning service but who for various reasons did not turn up last Tuesday. Their unusual absence is seen by Stein and others as Divine providence that treated these people benevolently, which he also credits for his own personal survival.
At the same time, however inexplicably, the presence of the victims in the synagogue at the time of the attack and their murder is equally seen as part of a Divine plan.
Stein explained that the “correct response of a Torah-oriented” individual to incidents such as the Har Nof attack is to better one’s religious practice and relationship with his fellow man.
Relating a story in which Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (1899–1985), known as The Steipler, was asked a similar question, Stein said that the proper question “is not how such a thing could happen, but what can we do now that it has happened.”
The same response is prevalent throughout the community and a similar refrain has been heard in the speeches of rabbis and on the lips of the congregants ever since the events of last Tuesday.
It also informs the community’s reaction toward the larger conflict Israel and its citizens are involved in, which is forbearing and accepting.
“Our way is not the way of revenge or battle; we disapprove of revenge, attacking mosques and so on, that shows a lack of faith. We obviously must take all necessary security precautions, but a person who has faith and believes in God does not have anger, but contemplates the meaning in such events,” said Stein.
“God gave us a mission in life, and no one knows when he’s going to be called back and how long he’s here for. As someone who went through this attack, we have to see that we were given a second chance. We have to reevaluate our plans and I have to consider what I can now return to God.”