The neighbor I never knew

A look into the life of one of the victims from the Mercaz Harav terror attack.

Mercaz Harav attack224.8 (photo credit: AP)
Mercaz Harav attack224.8
(photo credit: AP)
A year has passed since the murder of eight students at the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva. The horrifying events of that evening instantly made the iconic institution more well known for the tragedy than for the century of its producing elite Torah scholars. That terrible night, and the heart-wrenching funeral the next morning, are emblazoned in my memory for many reasons. The brutality, the youthful innocence of the victims, the tear-streaked faces of the thousands who came to pay their respects and the fact that my own neighbor was one of the victims all struck me like a physical blow. As a parent, I was anguished at the thought that the parents of eight young people would never hug their children again. Rabbi Elishav and Moriah Avichayil are two of those parents. Living just blocks away from me, the modest and unassuming couple's life was changed in a way no parent should ever have to experience. Although I had never met them, like countless strangers who were compelled to comfort those eight families during the shiva week, I paid a visit to the Avichayil family. I joined the crowds overflowing from their front door as I craned my neck to get a glimpse of the grieving parents of Segev P'niel Avichayil. I was afraid of what I would see and hear, but I never expected to hear them comfort their visitors. They were reassuring people, speaking words of Torah and unwavering faith. I thought I had come to comfort them, but it turned out to be the reverse. I never met Segev. I thought I would never have the chance, but through an unforeseen chain of events I had the opportunity to get a glimpse of the extraordinary young man through the eyes of his parents. It was when, several months later, I received an e-mail from an Italian reporter named Giulio Meotti. He was looking for the Avichayils' contact information, as he was writing a book about Israeli victims of terror and wanted to interview them. As I did not want to release that information without their permission, I called them to see if they would agree, assuming I'd be finished with my part the moment I hung up. They agreed to the interview. However, as the reporter only spoke English and Italian and the Avichayils only spoke Hebrew, he asked if I would be willing to conduct the interview for him, in Hebrew, and then translate it to English. With much trepidation, I made an appointment with the Avichayils for the difficult interview. The reporter had given me four questions to ask Segev's parents. They were loaded questions. I hoped my mediocre Hebrew would be adequate for the difficult task ahead. This was not simply a job or a favor - it was a responsibility. I arrived at the Avichayil home with my stomach in knots. One hour, and pages of notes later, I walked away from the interview a changed person. Who was Segev? Segev was a good person with a very good heart. He saw the good in everyone. Whether he was with his friends, his family or even strangers, he loved to help, and showed interest in every person. He was very honest, smiled at others and genuinely cared about them. As a child he had his own charity box for needy people and would be responsible for collecting the money each month. He was very smart and put a lot of thought into everything. His teachers praised his abilities, while he always remained modest. He was a great learner, while at the same time a normal kid riding his bike and playing with his friends. Segev learned the technical script used in writing a Torah scroll. His learning of Talmud and things that were usually very hard, he learned with relative ease. From a young age he would participate in classes of higher learning and ask intelligent questions. And he thanked his teachers after every lesson. A janitor from the school reported that Segev would always greet him. Once Segev saw that he was having a hard time, so he helped the man empty the the garbage bins. What is your family's background? Moriah was born in Israel. Her mother was in Belgium during the Holocaust; part of her family was killed in Auschwitz. Her grandfather was a great rabbi in Belgium. Moriah is an artist who does soft sculpture (art with fabrics) and a teacher. Rabbi Elishav was born in Paris but has lived in Israel, mostly Jerusalem, since infancy. His mother was in the Holocaust. As a young girl, she hid in a village in France. On her own she became religious and made aliya. His father is Rabbi Eliyahu Avichayil, who was born in Israel. Rabbi Eliyahu is a well-known rabbi whose organization helps bring back the Lost Tribes of Israel. After they were married, the Avichayils lived in the Old City for five years. Then Elishav became the rabbi of Adura in the southern Hebron Hills region. It is a mixed religious-secular yishuv. He is also a teacher at Michlala College (where his father also teaches) and at a yeshiva in Beersheba. The couple moved to Efrat, and then nine years ago to Neveh Daniel. Segev was born in Efrat. Why do you think the terrorists chose Mercaz Harav? The terrorist was a bus driver for Jewish schools. His father was a contractor for Jewish homes. It seems that he veered toward this path as an adult, as it doesn't seem he was brought up that way. Why Mercaz Harav in particular? Any place that had Jews would have sufficed. He hated Jews and simply wanted to kill them. But if he did specifically choose that place, it is because it is a place of deep faith - in the Jewish people, in the land of Israel and in the Torah. Segev was the exact opposite of such hatred. He was full of love. Three years before he was killed, he was traveling with his father to Adura when they were shot at by terrorists. Segev was wounded. He prayed to God to save him, but he never said one hateful word about his attackers, only to wonder why they can't just let us live here in peace. Has the attack caused you to question your faith? Rabbi Avichayil says, "I believe that everything in life can strengthen the strong and weaken the weak. We believe in the Jewish people, in the Land of Israel, in the State of Israel - because God believes in them. God gave the Torah to the Jewish people - having this strength and belief can weaken bullets. All eight families are stronger now after the attack. The terrorists want to break our motivation, but in reality the opposite occurs. We are even stronger because of it. Even more dedicated and committed to the Land of Israel. But we don't always remember our strength. Sometimes it takes something horrible like this to remind us and renew our strength. All the families together create something that was not there when we were apart, without this tragedy binding us. Like fragrant plants, one little leaf is very delicate, but a whole bouquet is quite strong. Every war against terror is a war of light against darkness. The Jewish people want goodness to triumph over terror. There is tremendous pain that is impossible to describe. But our faith is stronger, better than ever," he says. "On the night of the attack, Segev had finished learning with his classmates, and there was to be a party for the new month of Adar. They were all told to leave the study hall so it could be prepared for the party. The boys found themselves with free time. Segev suggested they continue learning in the library. After a while they were told it was time to stop. Segev said, 'Another five minutes.' This was a perfect example of the way Segev always learned: with his heart, not through obligations. He wanted to finish calmly and not abruptly. It was exactly then, in those extra five minutes, that the terrorist attacked," he recounts. "The Jewish nation has powerful strengths. All those who try to hurt us in reality only remind us of our strengths. Since the time of Abraham they could never break us. But we must always maintain our faith," he says. The writer is the author of Moving Up: An Aliyah Journal.