A mother reflects on tragedy

Two years ago, her son was murdered in a shooting attack on a Tel Aviv gay community center. Ayala Katz reflects on mourning, life and hope.

Nir Katz (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nir Katz
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It had been 19 years since Ayala Katz’s husband Rami was killed in an army training accident, leaving her to raise a one-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son.
With Rami’s picture hanging in her living room in the center of the country, Katz had been thinking lately about how lucky she was that her lifepartner Gili, sleeping upstairs, had embraced the fact that mourning her late husband was simply a part of their life together. Every year, he participated in the memorial at Rami’s grave. When Katz and Gili had a daughter together, they took the letters from the name “Rami” to name her. Her two children from her first marriage, his three, and the daughter they had together, had accepted each other as siblings and the best of friends.
In the two weeks since all eight of them had said kaddish at Rami’s annual memorial on July 17, she had been feeling thankful about being surrounded by such a big, happy family.
Lost in these thoughts, Katz suddenly sat up on the couch, the color draining from her face. A breaking news flash was announcing a shooting rampage at Tel Aviv’s Bar-Noar gay community center, where Nir, 26 – her son with Rami – was volunteering as a youth counselor. A few minutes later, a phone call from a cousin instructed her to get to a Tel Aviv hospital.
At the hospital’s help desk, there were photos and a list of a dozen wounded at area hospitals, but Nir was nowhere to be found. They piled back in the car and drove to the L. Greenberg Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir, but were told it was closed and they should come back at 8 a.m.
Unlike when her reservist husband was killed, and a trained team of experts in bereavement showed up at her door to provide information and support before any news was publicized, Katz was now alone with her family, listening to the news and making desperate phone calls, trying to learn the fate of her firstborn child.
It was only four or five hours after the masked gunmen’s shooting spree that they were finally able to hunt down someone in the middle of the night to open up the institute of forensic medicine.
Her son’s body was inside. Nir Katz, 26, and Liz Trobashi, 16, of Holon, did not recover from their gunshot wounds.
Nir, a student in computer science at the IDC, Herzliya, spent his spare time studying, visiting family, juggling, doing gymnastics, and volunteering in many sectors. He was gifted in mathematics, computers and working with others, and dreamed of being wealthy so he could afford to live as a math teacher and buy a house big enough to invite neglected and abused youth to stay with him as they put their lives back together. Friends and family say he had an infectious smile and generosity.
Two years after the tragedy, to honor her son’s life and spirit, Ayala Katz spent a day with The Jerusalem Post, reflecting on how to mourn, how to live after tragedy, and how to reduce hate.
What was it like to suddenly be a young widow with small children?
There are no words to describe this kind of pain. Rami was the love of my life. It felt like, if anything happens to him, I’m practically dead. But I had to decide, am I dead or am I alive? And what does it mean to be alive? I had to first decide if my own life has value, so that I have something to give my children. This process is ongoing. It was a long process of pain and missing and understanding how to raise children alone. It took me time to function. But I discovered that I enjoyed and was good at some of the challenges.
Did Rami’s death prepare you in any way for Nir’s death?
When Nir died, every cell was in pain. It was like something is hitting your face, your body. It is like being swallowed into a black hole. I was totally present and totally out of my body. But this time I knew one thing – whatever happens, this family will stay together. During the shiva, the kids quoted from Transformers: Everyone alone can be weak, but when combined we are a mega-creature and nothing can defeat us.
If you go through one trauma and deal with it and process it over time, not ignoring it or fighting it, and more than survive, can live, then with the second one, it might throw you off your feet, but you know you have an inner strength. I learned to be very focused and present with all my emotions, but things were frightening at first. The conception of time changes after a trauma. You can think ahead one hour, but long-term doesn’t exist... you lose track of time. I knew this time that it gets better, even if it takes years. Memory is also affected.
Most of all, there are moments when everything is black and you have no energy, but I learned that this can coexist with living life. I can be with my pain Friday morning, but I know my kids are coming for dinner, so I look inside for where there is a little bit of strength, and then I use it to go make dinner. While I’m making dinner, both things – joy about seeing the family, and pain – are flowing in and out.
After Rami, everything was dark for months, but then one day there was a drop of sunshine for a second, and then it was gone. Then a few days later, another drop. And it took a lot of time to really be able to laugh. What is frightening in the beginning is, you feel that it will stay like this forever. But now I know that it changes, that rays of light are coming in bits and pieces, and I know to welcome them whenever they come.
Why did no one in the police, army or social services alert you about Nir’s death?
If it has been a terror attack, they call social workers, send someone to the family. After this happened, social services in Tel Aviv changed their procedures; they realized that it doesn’t matter what the event is, there is a family in need.
You laugh a lot; does it surprise people?
Sure. It’s a myth to assume than when anyone loses a husband or child that their life is over. Once a woman wrote in an online group, “For a long time I was very sad and people told me to stop being so sad because it will drive others away, so try to be just a little bit more cheerful. I did it, I tried to act and be more happy, and then people told me, how can you be so happy after you lost your husband?”
I value life – every life and every human being – so I have to respect myself as well, and that means freedom to feel everything from sad to happy, whatever is coming...The idea that I’m not here forever also causes me to live and enjoy every hug, every flower, the sound of the birds, the simplest things.
Five years after Rami died, you fell in love again, and you are still together but never married. What held you back?
We don’t care about how other people define us. Also, a part of it was that until a year ago IDF widows were not recognized if they remarried. Benefits are important after a traumatic loss because your life changes, like the ability to work... and it’s the responsibility of the state to take care of the family of someone who died in service. There used to be a theory – Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief – that you go through the stages and then come back to life, [or] if you remarry, then you are over it. This is a devastating myth. For most widows, she is a widow for life. This was my master’s degree thesis topic, especially about women who are widowed young.
Years go by, you work and take care of your children and are functioning. You have to; kids have to be at school at 8 a.m. Then... when the kids are grown up and when you are not busy all the time, suddenly there is time and energy to think, relax, and to process what our defense mechanisms had prevented us from processing years earlier. Some of my friends took 25 years to get to a point where they could process this.
In Western society as a whole, people prefer to run away from pain, fight it, or try and find happiness through positive thinking. When you run away, it stays inside of you and will pop out one day. When you fight it, it gets bigger...Acknowledgment by the state is even more important than benefits; I’m an IDF widow, and this will be part of me until my last day.
How did it go when Nir “came out” to you?
I had no idea he was gay; I thought he was shy like his dad. When he was 20, he talked a lot about rights, animal rights, gay rights. One day he said, “Mom, I want to tell you something. I think I also like men.”
I said, “I hope you’re careful.” He laughed, he said, “You don’t know anything about it.” I said, “Right, so tell me.” He showed me a lot of Internet sites so I could understand what it means to be a parent of a gay person and what it means to be gay. When we don’t know something, we all live with stereotypes.
He also told me, “I know you want me to have kids, and you know I love kids; I don’t know in what way yet, but I will have kids.”
How did you feel about him being gay?
What helped me was that when we built a blended family [years earlier], we took ourselves and the kids to an art therapist. Every family has different values, behaviors; every kid is different, and usually people can handle things from their own kids that they wouldn’t from other kids. The whole process created an openness in our family. You don’t find this teaching in schools, and it is more important, in my mind, than many other things we teach...
Of course, it was a difficult process to divide his life from my dreams. I did have a dream to see him meet a nice girl, get married, and what we call “normal” stuff. Society creates beliefs of what normalcy is. So I had to say good-bye to some of those dreams, and this wasn’t easy, but it was my process and not his problem. I hear lots of parents say, “Why did you do this to me?” He never did anything to me.
When someone walks around with a secret, it sits heavily on them, and when the weight comes off their shoulders, the moment they talk about it, you can see it. When I saw him happy – at peace, feeling like he knows who he is, not hiding from himself or others, living his own life without hurting himself or others – well, that is something amazing. I don’t know many people who live like that. It also sparked a process in me, to decide if I was living how I wanted – I had to reexamine myself. Especially my career.
Do you blame society in part for your son’s death?
The direct responsibility is of course the person who held the weapon. I know it wasn’t personally against Nir – I went through Nir’s computer and e-mails afterward, and the weirdest thing I found out about him was that at 4 a.m. he was helping his classmates write computer code. I believe it was a crime against the gay community. But what I know for sure is that before this, there were a lot of homophobic messages from leaders in Israeli society.
What they did not understand is... that the phenomenon of homosexuality exists and has existed through history and in nature. Talking or acting violently against a group of people is different than saying you don’t like something... it does psychological damage to gay people, even if they are not out; it hurts their self-esteem. According to informal statistics, about one-third of young people who committed suicide in Israel were gay. Studies in the US make a direct link between family rejection and self-abusive behavior – alcohol, drugs, unsafe sex. Parents who reject their kids, this is like sending the kid to hell. And when leaders dehumanize people, it can lead to violence.
Nir’s murder exposed dramatically how much homophobia is in the homes, schools and streets. People are beaten or bullied every day. We need to understand what takes a person from not liking or understanding homosexuality to a place of hurting other people. There is something that is triggering this violence and behavior.
What would you say to those who argue that based on the Torah, gay acts are sinful?
It also says that all men are created in God’s image. As long as you don’t hurt anyone or yourself, nobody checks if heterosexuals are following every rule of Jewish law, and if they don’t, it’s their business. Also, there are lots of interviews with religious, gay couples who said they don’t violate this particular Torah law, and all the rest is not prohibited.
When people talk about homosexuality, it reveals more about themselves than about other people. Why should they be questioning if a gay person is following a rule? I don’t believe anyone follows every rule. Being gay is a lot more than this act. To dehumanize someone on the basis of one characteristic is awful. Homophobia is prejudice, baseless hatred. Sometimes people have an agenda and use religion – leaders who want to empower themselves sometimes create an enemy for the group to be against, and the gay community is an easy target – and that has nothing to do with Torah.
What is misunderstood about the gay community?
I have seen Internet sites that say gays are pedophiles – there are many heterosexual pedophiles; there is no connection between these two things. Pedophilia is violence. There are heterosexuals that are kind and loving and those who abuse their own kids or murder them, and if you are heterosexual or homosexual, it doesn’t mean anything about your character.
One of the impressive and moving things I have seen in the gay community is how many people, out of their own pain, find a way to help others. It is like grief – one option is to [crawl under the covers]. The second option is to live and be there for others. You can see this in many places in society, but in the gay community it stands out.
Do you feel Nir’s presence in your life?
[Smiles] After the murder, my life changed. I had never gone to meetings with Tehilla [the support group for parents of LGBT children], the Gay Pride Parade or to the gay community center in Tel Aviv. Then I found myself in places I’ve never been before, and it felt like he was sitting on my shoulder, laughing, “Look at where my conservative mother is now.”
He and I had spent many nights talking about the meaning of loss, continuing our lives afterward, with some black humor, and some very emotional conversations. One day we when he was a teen, we were watching the movie Revolving Doors, about how a one-second period of your life can change your destiny, and suddenly... he said, “Wow, I was just thinking that if Dad hadn’t been killed, we wouldn’t be here, you wouldn’t have Meirav, and luckily I don’t have to choose between these two lives. Of course, I can keep crying over the life that I didn’t have, or I can be present in the storyline that I do have – that is the choice I can make”...
I knew so many [widows] who continue to cry over how reality should have been – I am not saying this critically – some choose, and others don’t know they can choose, and this 17-year-old kid knew...This evening is always with me.
What are your thoughts about the Jerusalem Parade for Pride and Tolerance?
In my generation, we grew up with a lot of stereotypes, like that gays wear women’s clothing, are prostitutes, grow up alone... Part of this comes from the media. If you had asked me before I had ever been to the Pride Parade in Tel Aviv if everyone wears pink shorts and feathers, I would say that is what the news shows.
I asked Nir once, are 30,000 people really dressed like that? He laughed. He said it’s about 50 people. In 2010, I was there, and there were 100,000 dressed in jeans and T-shirts; less than 50 were dressed differently, and some of them were professional dancers and not gay.
In Jerusalem, you will not see dancers like in Tel Aviv. People are properly dressed because of sensitivity to other people. You know in advance that there is a parade, so if you don’t want to see it, don’t go there. I am puzzled by the fact that the parade is such an emotional issue. Last year, religious people in Jerusalem brought donkeys and said, see, it’s a parade of donkeys. How can you believe in a religion of God, kindness, spirituality, and then dehumanize people like that, some of whom are in your community and in your home, and maybe you don’t even know it? It is not a parade to say, hey, everyone come and be gay like me. They only want to be themselves, to have rights like other citizens... to have their voices heard.
What is your hope for change?
There should be equal rights for every citizen. Lawyers for Jerusalem’s Open House found discrimination [based on sexual orientation or identity] in 700 clauses in Israeli law. In the US, the FBI has hatecrime statistics, which include ethnic, religious, homophobic, political hate crimes; also in places like Berlin. In Israel, there are no statistics and no definition of a hate crime beyond “an act against the state,” meaning terrorism... I’m not a legal expert, but if the state recognizes someone being hurt or killed in a bus blowing up as a hate crime, why not people hurt or killed in a gay community center?
But the most important thing is to change the atmosphere and attitudes. Love thy neighbor as thyself, realizing how precious [every] life is, focusing on being and doing good and believing that others’ purposes and activities are also directed there, even if it may be [on a] different [path] than yours. Understanding that being against homophobia – violence – is not equivalent to promoting being gay or approving it. Understanding that people do not “become” gay only because they hear about it. Understanding that gay people can choose to live a life that is a lie or live in this world as who they are.
The murder opened many people’s eyes, but it will take time to change the understanding that being gay doesn’t mean anything about a person’s character. One kid called his dad after the shooting, and his father said, if you are in such a place, you are better off dead. Homophobia inside the house is not an isolated thing.
Parents need to understand that when they bring a child into the world, they are not always getting everything they dream and want. You don’t want your son to be gay? But this is who he or she is. Young people need hugs, love, support from their parents; it doesn’t matter if you like them being gay or not... I believe in unconditional love and support for yourself and your children; this is key to better families and a better society.
When teenagers go to places like IGY or Bar-Noar, they are safe because there are professionals who work with them... but if they are afraid and don’t know where to go, they can end up in the street, in clubs, trying to find out who they are. Parents are so worried about what the neighbors will say; it is this matter of shame that causes people to hide secrets. The funny thing is that if you think that 5 percent to 10% of the population is gay, then... in every synagogue, in every neighborhood, there are at least a few, even if you don’t know it...
It makes me extremely sad to see a parent crying that his son is gay, and he doesn’t realize how lucky he is that his son is alive. Just hug him.