The Human Spirit: Making the right decision

At the recent dedication of Ohel Ari, named in memory of Ari Weiss who was killed in action in 2002, the appreciation of the young man, his family and his community shone through and has set the bar of valor high.

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March 5, 2010 16:55
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barbara sofer 88. (photo credit: )

 
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‘You made the right decision,” say the new immigrants who’d kindly offered me a ride to Ra’anana. They were referring to my moving to Israel decades ago, around the time that they, too, had considered aliya, but then postponed it until a much later period of their lives.

My immediate reflex is to say a quick prayer of thanks, not so much about the long-ago decision to live here – although I feel very fortunate to live in Israel and grateful that the adjustment is so far behind me. But I am thankful every day of my life that my children have survived the near-misses of their military service as officers in the IDF. I am still anxious through every stint of their reserve duty. I know that Diaspora life presents its dangers, too, but having your children so near, yet under fire, is an ongoing, harrowing experience that is central to Israeli life.

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TONIGHT SUCH thoughts are particularly poignant. We’re on our way from Jerusalem to Ra’anana for the dedication of Ohel Ari, a synagogue and Torah study center in the northeast part of that city.

The stunning, new white edifice with its modern lines and cathedral ceiling is a hub of learning, prayer and communal good deeds. This is a night to celebrate, but ebullience is muted because the center is being named in memory of a young man, a son of Ra’anana, aged 21.

St.-Sgt. Ari Yehoshua Weiss was killed on September 30, 2002 when Palestinian gunmen opened fire on his position in the Nablus casbah. He is the son of Rabbi Stewart Weiss, a regular contributor to this paper, and Rabbanit Susie Weiss, a social activist in Ra’anana.

American-born Jews, they had made the decision to move to Israel and to bring up their six children here.

Nearly eight years have unbelievably passed since the morning of September 12, 2002 when I read writer Eli Wohlgelernter’s unforgettable description of Susie Weiss’s successful solicitation of food to feed her hungry soldier-son Ari and his 34 fellow members of the Nahal Engineering Brigade. I remember it like yesterday: Wohlgelernter described the immigrant from Cleveland and Dallas going from restaurant to restaurant and shop to shop gathering eats and treats for the soldiers. She went from Little Red Riding Hood (Kippa Aduma) Shwarma – where the proprietor simply asked her “How many?” before filling bags with grilled turkey sandwiches – to the Roladin bakery, where she came away with individualized honey cakes with a legend engraved in frosting: “To a soldier, Happy New Year!”



In the process, she discovered the soft heart and good will beneath the sabra prickles. But what I remember most is her own indefatigable efforts and amiability, thinking how well suited she was not just to make a go of life here, but to make a contribution to the fortunate community where she lived.

Three weeks after the article ran, Ari was killed.

A THOUSAND men and women have turned up for the dedication. The community planned, raised the funds and supervised the construction of this stately building. There are veteran Israelis among the synagogue members, but 90 percent are immigrants, according to Ohel Ari president David Levy. They have left England, the US, Canada, Australia, Belgium and South Africa. The program is in both Hebrew and English but the lingua franca in the corridor is English.

The founders were newcomers 20 years ago. In the organic process of building a synagogue from the ground up, at first they came together to pray in a nearby school hallway, later moving to a gym. As the congregation grew, they dreamed of having their own building, particularly since for so many, synagogues were the center of their social and educational activities back in their “old countries.”

In 2004 they formed a nonprofit entity (called an amuta here) and called it simply “The New Quorum,” Haminyan Hachadash.

Rabbi Weiss, who had long been running a successful outreach and study center without a building, was simultaneously working toward setting up a permanent site which would bear Ari’s name. In 2006, the synagogue builders combined efforts with Weiss. They voted to name the entire project Ohel Ari.

At the podium, Susie Weiss speaks of her oldest son, the child she always felt had an extra measure of vulnerability and concern for others. When his unit came under fire, Ari’s best friend Shai Haim was hit first and slumped to the ground. Ari rushed to his side and was shot, killed instantly by the bullet that punctured his lung.

Shai survived. The bullet stole his ability to walk, but he went ahead to marry Tamar, his sweetheart, and they now have a baby girl.

Weiss officiated at the wedding and the baby-naming.

Among the many speakers were Lt.-Gen. Moshe Ya’alon and Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Today, Ya’alon is an MK and vice prime minister, but he has come to Ohel Ari as Ari’s chief of general staff. Ari was an outstanding sharpshooter, says Ya’alon. Ari’s unit was part of the move from defensive to offensive fighting, which eventually ended the second intifada. But then Ya’alon asks a more philosophical question: “What constitutes heroism?” “It’s not a single act,” he answers. “It’s an approach to life. Ari was a Jewish hero, from a family that is the example of Jewish heroism after 2000 years of dispersion.”

“When you name a synagogue for such a hero,” adds former Prisoner of Zion Sharansky, “you are setting the bar high for yourself to live up to.”

I ask Ohel Ari president David Levy about the community’s decision to take on that challenge. “Look who was talking about setting the bar high!” says Levy. “Natan Sharansky experienced the weightiness of being a Jew and met it with the responsibility of identifying with the Jewish people. Many of the congregation knew Ari growing up. We chose the name because Ari symbolizes self-sacrifice, and the love of the people of Israel and the land of Israel.”

SOME 210 families have joined the synagogue so far. “For most of us who are immigrants, Israel was always on our radar,” says Levy. He and his wife Rebecca moved here from the US; he works as a banker in Tel Aviv. “We had to make a decision whether to watch the story from afar, or to be a part of that story.” The Levys have three sons, the oldest recently bar mitzva. “We know the Weisses, and we understand what could happen,” says Levy. “We talk about it, and we hope we have made the right decision.” Looking at the sea of faces at the dedication of Ohel Ari, I imagine family after family thinking of the weightiness of identification with the Jewish people.

Children and adults will study Torah in these halls. There is, for example, the talmudic story of Rabbi Akiva’s defiance of the Roman edict to teach Torah, questioned by colleague Papus, who decided against taking such risks. The Talmud relates that the two men eventually met again while both were in prison. Rabbi Akiva was arrested for dissemination of Torah; Papus for a reason he doesn’t reveal. Said Papus: “Fortunate are you, Rabbi Akiva, for you were apprehended on account of the words of Torah. Woe is Papus, who was arrested for something meaningless.”

About six weeks after Ari died, a distraught woman, a stranger, came knocking on the Weiss’s front door. She was born here, she told them, but as their teenage son approached army age, she and her husband moved to California to protect him from the dangers of military service. At 21, he was killed in a car crash. Now she was overcome with guilt for the choice she had made. “At least your son died for something,” she said.

Talmudic stories aren’t always straightforward, as students in these halls will doubtlessly learn. Nor are life decisions. Amid the sadness and loss in Ra’anana shines an appreciation of a young man, a family and a community which has set the bar of valor high for themselves, and decided to be part of the ongoing story of the Jewish people in their land.

The author is a Jerusalem writer who concentrates on the wondrous stories of Modern Israel and its people. She also represents the women of Hadassah in Israel.

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