At around 6:00 p.m. on the 30th of September, 2002, a unit of the IDF’s Nahal Brigade was fired upon by Palestinian gunmen while patrolling the West Bank city of Nablus. During the ensuing exchange of gunfire, one soldier was wounded in the chest while another, Sgt. Ari Weiss, 21, turned to help his wounded comrade and was shot in the head and killed. The loss of this soft-spoken, cheerful and famously shy but friendly young man – just three weeks short of his 22nd birthday – was devastating not only to his family but to his home town of Ra’anana as well.
Ra’anana had watched with affection as Ari grew up. After his family arrived from the US in 1992, his father, Rabbi Stewart Weiss, quickly became well-known as founder and director of the Jewish Outreach Center, a popular columnist of The Jerusalem Post, and the officiating rabbi of Ra’anana’s Absorption Center for new immigrants. Erudite, intellectual, and most comfortable as a teaching rabbi, Weiss soon began to give lectures and organize programs featuring prominent guest lecturers that informed and inspired thousands of Ra’anana residents, religious and non-religious alike. His Sunday night lecture series and his Wednesday morning Torah lessons for women, conducted with his equally dynamic wife Susie, quickly became institutions in the city’s cultural life. And throughout most of these activities, the couple’s six children, including Ari, were rarely far away. It was thus not surprising that Ra’anana’s Military Cemetery was literally filled to capacity by mourners as Ari was laid to rest.
The Weiss’s could have succumbed to grief, questioned their faith or at least altered somewhat the direction of their lives. They could have turned inward. They could have “geared down.” Instead, Stewart and Susie Weiss turned even more outward than they had been before and began to “gear up.”
Weiss recalls, “After Ari was killed, we decided we wanted to do something on a pretty major level in his memory, something that would be good for the whole community, something that would fill a need. We came up with the idea of creating a community learning center that could house a number of different programs simultaneously and offer a home to different institutions that had programs but had no place to offer them. It’s somewhat like a Jewish community center in America.”
Weiss was soon approached by a congregation that had been meeting in members’ basements and local elementary schools for several years and was planning to build a synagogue on the east side of Ra’anana, near the new administrative center of the Open University. They decided to pool their efforts, and the resulting four-floor facility contains a synagogue that seats 500, social hall that seats 700 and can be subdivided into four smaller rooms, a library and a beit midrash
Called Ohel Ari, the new synagogue and learning center’s name came about in a rather unusual way. Weiss recalls, “During the shiva for Ari, one of our friends came and said she had a dream in which she saw a very, very large tent, colored army green, open at all four sides. And people were streaming in from all over the city to study, meet one another and participate in all sorts of programs. And over the door, it said ‘Ohel Ari.’ We had already thought along those lines, but the name came from that dream, and the image of it being open on all sides, to bring in the young and the old, men and women, and people of all different backgrounds.”
Up and running for the past ten months, Ohel Ari is already the largest synagogue in the city, among more than 75. Over a thousand people came to High Holiday services. Four different congregations meet in the building every Shabbat and holiday. Ohel Ari’s beit midrash is already the home of a functioning kollel, or yeshiva for adult men, and has its own chapter of the religious Zionist youth movement, Bnei Akiva. “Ohel Ari is already the leader in providing food packages in the community, almost equal to the other 75 synagogues in the subsidies it provides,” says Weiss. Ohel Ari recently adopted a charity, Mishneh Lechem, that had provided food but ran out of money and closed its doors. In one night, Ohel Ari was able to raise NIS 400,000 for Mishneh Lechem’s yearly budget, enabling them to resume their distribution of food.
Weiss, who has chosen not to be Ohel Ari’s rabbi, says that for him, the new facility’s major remit is to serve as a learning center focused mostly but not exclusively on religious education, “open to all kinds of groups to offer their programs, essentially free of charge.” Weiss expects to be deeply involved in various educational and outreach programs at Ohel Ari, with many of his projects directed toward youth, with a planned youth lounge and a broad spectrum of Torah study programs geared to young people.
Although running in full swing for almost a year, Ohel Ari was officially dedicated with a star-studded inauguration ceremony on February 14, with speeches given by Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky, Vice Prime Minister and former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon, Mayor of Ra’anana Nahum Hofri, former Ra’anana mayor and Jewish Agency head MK Zeev Bielski, and Chief Rabbi of Ra’anana Yitzhak Peretz. Musical interludes were provided by Lt. Colonel Shai Abramson, Chief Cantor of the IDF.
Although the guest speakers were dramatic in their praise of the Weiss family and the heroism of their lost first-born son, the most emotionally compelling remarks, not surprisingly, came from Ari’s parents. Weiss said, “When a human being comes face to face with death, particularly a tragic death and especially the loss of a child, there is an overwhelming feeling of being powerless, helpless, so small that you are almost reduced to insignificance. You struggle to find meaning to regain your confidence and your self-respect – not to mention a sense of optimism and a joy of life. I have learned that the only hope is to attach yourself to something greater than death, more powerful even than death.”
Susie Weiss shared some reflections about her son, named after the Ari Ben Canaan character played by Paul Newman in Exodus. Glancing out at the packed house, she said, “Among our kids, we each have that one child that’s a little more sensitive than the others, the one that only has something to say if it’s nice, who is a little shy, and the one that always says ‘thank you’ a few too many times. There’s always that child that’s willing to give his toy to someone that needs it more, who never takes the last popsicle from the freezer. I think we all have an Ari – just your typical kid that you want to build a glass case around, because he’s just a bit more fragile than the others.” After sharing a few deeply emotional memories, she concluded, “This is quite a boy that you’re naming your synagogue after.”
As time goes on, the Weiss family will no doubt draw comfort from this living, thriving memorial to their son. Upwards of 1,000 people already pass through its doors each week, with the certainty of even greater numbers in the months and years ahead.
“There are a lot of other things that have been done in Ari’s memory,”
Weiss says. “There have been three Torah scrolls dedicated in his name.
There’s a park in Ra’anana named for Ari, and there have been nine
children so far named after Ari. There’s been a lot of things, but we
felt this would really have an ongoing impact on a lot of people from
different backgrounds. Because Ari was the sort of person who was not
only very friendly, but had a very diverse group of friends from all
different backgrounds. He was very non-judgmental, very open to
everyone. This project – open, inclusive, with its arms open to
everyone – is very much in keeping with Ari’s personality and who he
was, a fallen soldier who represents self-sacrifice and devotion to the
State of Israel.” And while Weiss acknowledges that the pain of
bereavement is never far away, he says, “All in all, I think for us, it
helps to take this tragedy and try to distill something positive out of
it and try to bring some light out of that darkness.”
For further information about Ohel Ari, contact Rabbi Stewart Weiss at
firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, or visit the website:
http://www.bkohelari.org. Donations may be sent to Ohel Ari, POB 211, Ra’anana.