For most families, the month leading up to their oldest child’s bar or bat mitzva is an exhilarating time. Their child is getting good at chanting the Torah portion and, if a boy, learning to wind the leather straps of his tefillin. Many families make a journey to the Western Wall a month before the event.
The Horaling family was planning to celebrate their oldest son’s coming of age a little differently. He would first put on tefillin on his Hebrew birthday. Instead of the Second Temple Kotel, they would go for morning prayers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah and Leah are buried and where the legendary scented opening to the Garden of Eden is. Then there would be a family Shabbat with the bar mitzva at the synagogue and a festive meal, prepared with the help of Granddad Gedalia, who works for a caterer. The menu would include a mix of Indian and Israeli delicacies.
But life has changed for this family. In a little publicized terrorist attack, on November 17, Ebenezer Horaling, the father of the family, was rammed into by a terrorist driving a van. His neck was fractured and he was knocked into a coma as his head crashed into the ground. He’s still in intensive care.
The Horaling family’s Zionist journey began in the northeastern Indian border state of Mizoram, a land with a mild climate, rolling hills, lakes and forests, an exceptionally high rate of literacy and a citizenry that is mostly Christian. In the 1980s, several thousand men and women there began a return to Judaism. They were certain that they were descendants of the lost biblical tribe of Manasseh, the younger son of Joseph, a tribe dispersed by the Assyrian Empire 2,700 years ago. The local Indian tribes of Kuki-Mizo recall a legendary leader called Manmasi. Hence, the rabbis who came to India to teach Judaism refer to them as them Bnei (the children of) Menashe. In 2005, then Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel Shlomo Amar accepted their claim to Jewish ancestry, but ruled that Bnei Menashe needed to undergo conversion. They accepted. In 2006, holding tight to the hands of their toddler son, now the bar mitzva boy, Ebenezer and Miriam Horaling and Ebenezer’s parents Gedalia and Malka made aliya. They flew from Mizoram to New Delhi and then to Israel, their tickets paid for by the Shavei Israel organization, founded by Jerusalem Post columnist Michael Freund. So far, about 3,000 Bnei Menashe have moved to Israel and undergone the conversion process. Some 7,000 others are waiting to come, puzzled why the Israeli government restricts them to 700 a year.
Ebenezer’s older sister, Lily, was already in Israel to greet her family. She’d made aliya in 2000, just as the intifada was beginning.
“Our generation grew up knowing we were Jewish and wanting to move to Israel,” she said. “Our parents brought us up as observant Jews.” In the conversion course, she met her future husband, also Bnei Menashe, but from a different town, a full day’s journey away in India. They have four children. She works as an assistant kindergarten teacher.
Today, however, Lily and the other adults in the family aren’t at work. They’re sitting on the benches in what’s called a “Healing Garden,” outside the intensive-care unit in Hadassah University Medical Center, taking turns visiting Ebenezer inside.
Lily says her brother is intelligent and fun-loving. He likes music and volleyball. She recalls fondly how they, only a year apart, walked to school together in India.
On the morning he was attacked, Ebenezer took a bus from his home in Kiryat Arba to the intersection leading to the cluster of schools in Kfar Etzion. He’s the custodian at a boys’ junior high and there’s always a lot to do: overseeing the ordering of supplies, the workmen making repairs, deliveries and deposits. Usually one of the teachers or administration staff spots him where the bus lets him off and gives him a ride to the school. If no one picks him up, he walks the rest of the way.
On that terrible Friday morning, a 17-year-old Palestinian named Izz al-Din Ali Abu Rmeishan Karajeh, from Halhoul, got there first. The terrorist rammed a 70-year-old man near the southern entrance to Efrat, then crossed the highway to the Gush Etzion junction, a busier crossroad where soldiers and civilians often gather for buses and rides, and drove into Horaling. As the IDF soldiers surrounded Horaling, the terrorist came out of the van, smiling and gripping a knife. The soldiers shot at him to stop him.
Soon after, a colleague at the kindergarten pulled Lily aside to whisper that a terrorist attack had taken place nearby.
“I had a bad feeling and hoped I’d hear from my brother who was always quick to report to me about what had happened,” Lily said.
Then a text arrived from sister-in-law Miriam. Ebenezer was one of the victims. He was already being prepared for surgery.
The adults in the Horaling family gather every day in the Healing Garden. Learning Hebrew has been a great challenge, especially for the older generation, because the phonology of their Indic and Sinitic languages makes Hebrew especially challenging. Still, they offer soft drinks and comfort to others whose loved ones are inside the intensive care unit. Miriam also asks visitors to pray for her husband, now a father of six.
In one of those situations that has become commonplace in Israel but never seems commonplace to me, the victim and terrorist were in rooms directly across from each other in the intensive care unit. A soldier guarded Karajeh, who recovered first and was moved out.
At last, there was good news to share. Two weeks after the attack, Ebenezer opened his eyes and responded to his family, making eye contact and squeezing their hands.
The chances of him being by his son’s side for the bar mitzva, less than two months away, are now improved.
Grandpa Gedalia is confident Ebenezer will recover, but counsels patience. It was Grandpa idea back in India at the bar mitzva boy’s brit mila to name him Magen Yisrael, Hebrew for “defender of Israel,” as if the family would need an extra measure of strength in the future. He’s sure that the One who brought their family back to Judaism and back to Israel after 2,700 years, will bring Ebenezer back, too.
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.