Mercaz Harav library 224.
(photo credit: AP)
On March 6, 2008 - a year ago in the Hebrew calendar - Avraham David Moses was one of eight yeshiva students murdered as they sat in the Mercaz Harav library learning Torah. Alaa Abu Dhein, 26, from the Arab neighborhood of Jebl Mukaber in eastern Jerusalem, entered the yeshiva armed with an AK-47 just as preparations were under way for a celebration marking the new Hebrew month of Adar.
Hearing gunfire, some students mistook the sound for fireworks.
Entering the library, the terrorist opened fire, splattering blood and books everywhere, instantly killing five of the eight students destined to die that evening. One of them was Avraham David Moses, 16. His mother, Rivkah Moriah, had started life thousands of miles and worlds away, in a loving New England Christian home, and her story links communities of Palestinians, Christian Americans and Orthodox Jews.
IN 2002, AN ARAB village near Efrat began to pay the price for refusing to attack its Jewish neighbors at the behest of its Palestinian brethren. The Jews of Efrat had been kind and decent to these Arabs, who now refused to engage in shooting and rock throwing at the cars traveling in and out of Efrat.
When the government erected protective barriers along the roads, many Arab villages were cut off from supply routes used to transport everyday essentials, and now had to rely on their greater community for delivery of basic necessities.
But the community refused to supply this particular village, because the inhabitants had not participated in the terrorism against their Jewish neighbors.
Efrat resident Rabbi David Moriah became aware that the neighboring villagers were suffering from malnutrition. Gathering volunteers, he prepared and personally delivered food packages to the stranded village. In so doing he developed a rapport with "Abdul," a Palestinian who had often traveled to Efrat seeking work as a handyman and a collector of used clothing.
When the recently divorced rabbi and father of six mentioned that he was moving to a new apartment, Abdul offered to help him. He also wanted to introduce the rabbi to a nice Jewish woman. The rabbi needed a wife.
BACK IN EFRAT, Rivkah Moses, a recently divorced mother of two, was also packing. She had come to Israel in 1989 as Martha Webb, a 21-year-old Quaker from rural New Hampshire seeking guidance on her path to Jewish conversion. She had become intrigued by Judaism after joining a Sabbath get-together on her campus at Oberlin College, just outside Cleveland, Ohio.
"I went for the community aspect" she recalls. She found that, among other things, "the Jewish rituals sanctifying the mundane really spoke to me."
The experience led her to seek lessons toward conversion with the campus rabbi, and then to switch gears. She opted out of her plan to spend an academic year studying Japanese in Kyoto and instead decided to attend the Machon Pardes school in Israel.
Once fully committed to becoming a Jew, Martha realized that conversion was easier in the US than in Israel. She returned to Cleveland to work with her rabbi, and there met and fell in love with a Jewish man who was just discovering his roots, which included the fact that he was a kohen, a descendent of Jewish priests.
Deeply in love, the couple traveled to Israel to seek the advice of a matrimonial expert, who sadly pointed out that Jewish law precluded any marriage between a convert and a kohen. The disappointing break up of her first love was a sacrifice for Judaism which would prove to be minuscule by comparison to the future sacrifice in the life of Martha Webb.
Now living with her sons in Efrat as Rivkah Moses, she was picking up the pieces of her life, post-divorce. She had gone through a grueling process in which she had to satisfy a beit din that her commitment to Judaism was unwavering.
"The judges kept asking me if I intended to continue the observant Jewish lifestyle." The custody of her two boys hung in the balance. "They never asked my husband that question. They just didn't trust that my conversion was for real." She finally managed to convince the court of the sincerity of her conversion, and the couple was awarded joint custody of their two children.
Just before her move to a smaller apartment, the local Palestinian used clothing collector came by for his regular pick up. She knew Abdul to be a kind and well-intentioned fellow from the nearby Arab village.
"Where is your husband?" He asked as he looked around, "Who is helping you move?"
"I have no husband" she replied. "I am divorced."
"Let me help you move" was Abdul's reply, "and I want to introduce you to a nice man. I can't believe that such a wonderful woman has no husband!"
The Palestinian used clothing collector had just become the matchmaker for two Orthodox Jews.
AVRAHAM DAVID MOSES'S appearance belied his nature. The fresh-faced blond-haired teenager was known for total devotion to his studies, almost to the exclusion of all other activities. He would keep his bright blue eyes on his books even while preparing salad. His intense immersion in Torah had shaped his character and moral stance to such a degree that his own mom was taken aback by his ability to control his temper, avoiding the occasional outbursts and episodes of rebellion most would expect from a teenager.
"He had the ability to respectfully and gracefully disengage from a tense conversation. He just blew my mind," she said. "Shouldn't that level of maturity have come from me, as the parent?"
Rivkah credits Yeshivat Yerushalayim L'tze'irim with helping shape his fine character. "Yashlatz," originally founded in 1964, is one of the leading national-religious yeshiva high schools, and shares a campus with Mercaz Harav. The schools aim to inculcate students with a love of Torah and commitment to the Land. Many alumni have gone on to be IDF officers, rabbis and Jewish leaders.
Rivkah feels that the boys killed were among the top students, and would have gone on to be leaders had they not been murdered in cold blood.
The shooting of innocent yeshiva boys shocked and saddened people from all walks of life. The boys' funeral was broadcast without interruption on TV.
Striking to Rivkah was the outpouring of sympathy and support following the tragedy.
"The reaction of Diaspora Jewry and secular Jews in Israel made us feel like they were with us, even if they didn't identify with our way of life. Everybody cared." Following the massacre, hundreds of people from all over the country and abroad visited the families of the slain boys. Among them were Jews from every spectrum as well as Arabs and Christian peacemakers. Many had crossed paths with Rivkah and her husband in their outreach efforts through the years.
And there with his wife, stood Abdul, the Palestinian used clothing collector who had paired David and Rivkah Moriah. His eyes full of tears, Abdul apologized and expressed his shock and embarrassment that such an act of terror had come from his people.
PERHAPS IF A PALESTINIAN like Abdul had never touched their lives, the couple would not stand by their belief that even now, the hope for peace still exists.
Rabbi David Moriah says he and his wife have not given up on Jewish/Arab relations, though he fears there are fewer and fewer members of Palestinian society to work with.
"It concerns me how violent the Arabs are within their own society. In Gaza, it is now legal to murder those who carry on negotiations with Israelis." But he also recognizes that there are many non-violent, well-intentioned Arabs. "We are still friends with Arabs, and we know there is a way to move forward. One must understand that it is a complex situation and everything you do can have an effect on future generations."
David feels that only with justice can Israel move forward in dealings with its Arab citizens and neighbors. No bad deed should go unpunished. "We must hate evil and show justice to those who perpetrate evil," he says, "while making every effort towards coexistence."
Rivkah surprises the Christians she meets with her easy familiarity with their customs and terms, when she explains to them that she used to be a Christian. The formerly Quaker rebbetzin who teaches Orthodox brides the fundamentals of family purity is unwavering when asked if she has any regrets about aligning herself with the fate of the Jewish people and the lifestyle in which it placed her son.
"Who he was, and who he pushed himself to become - he wouldn't have been if I hadn't been in the system."
Rather than undermine her faith, Rivkah felt reinforced by all that transpired and all that she would go on to learn of her son's life and the lives of the other slain students. Though each lost boy was unique and special, beloved by the other students and teachers at the school, Rivkah remains confident that her son's school will go on to cultivate future leaders.
The thoughts and prayers of those close to the boys have recently been published in a book entitled Princes among Men (Feldheim, 2009).
The writer lives in New York and is co-producer of the documentary film Blood and Tears: The Arab-Israeli Conflict. Rivkah Moriah notes that anyone wishing to make a contribution to a scholarship fund in Avraham David's memory can do so at www.yashlatz.com