After Eilat shooting, JAFI probes applications

Jewish Agency-sponsored internship brought American William Hershkovitz, who killed one at an Eilat hotel, to Israel.

IDF soldiers guard the area near Eilat hotel 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
IDF soldiers guard the area near Eilat hotel 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Following a deadly shooting incident in Eilat on Friday morning, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky appointed a panel to examine the processes by which the gunman was accepted into the Israel Way program.
Sharansky expressed his deep sorrow at the loss of life.
The 23-year-old shooter from Poughkeepsie, New York, identified as William Hershkovitz, was part of the Israel Way program – formerly known as Oranim – that brings Jews from around the world for volunteer work, study and internship.
Police and the Israel Way program said Hershkovitz was fired from his internship in the hotel kitchen a day before the shooting, which left one person dead and three others suffering from shock.
A student in Hershkovitz’s program, who asked not to be named, said she spoke to Hershkovitz a few days ago, and he told her he had just been fired, but did not appear especially upset.
Hershkovitz arrived at the hotel’s kitchen on Friday morning, where he began arguing with an employee.
He then grabbed a gun from a security guard who tried to break up the fight, and started shooting, killing 33-yearold chef Armando Abed from the Christian village of Mi’ilya in the Western Galilee – who had been his supervisor in the kitchen.
Police said that Hershkovitz subsequently barricaded himself in the kitchen and that they deployed special patrol units. Officers conducted negotiations with him and quickly determined that he wasn’t holding any hostages.
About an hour after the incident began, the members of the Counterterrorism Unit moved in and shot and killed Hershkovitz after he opened fire on officers, National Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. No police were injured in the raid.
One student in Hershkovitz’s program described “Willy” as “a sweet guy” who mainly kept to himself and didn’t go out with any of the other 80 participants.
The student told The Jerusalem Post that the others thought Hershkovitz was somewhat odd, and “when you spoke to him you could tell there was something weird about him.”
The student, who works at a different hotel than Hershkovitz, said, “Everyone thought he was spacey and weird, but I don’t think anyone thought he would do something violent or something like this.”
The Associated Press quoted one anonymous participant in the program as saying that Hershkovitz had made death threats against other participants, and that the program organizers did not respond to the complaints.
“He would talk to himself, share dreams that he’d had about random killings and mutilations that he did, he would have statements against Arabs or Nazis or terrorist type movements,” the participant told AP.
The Israel Police said police received no complaints about Hershkovitz before the shooting on Friday.
In a press release issued on Friday, the organization Israel Way, which is owned by Egged tours, said Hershkovitz came to Israel on August 27 to take part in MASA, one of many programs supported by the Jewish Agency.
The organization said “since he met all of the criteria for acceptance and his medical record was clean, he was accepted into the program.”
Israel Way said Hershkovitz was supposed to spend five months in Israel, working at a hotel in Eilat and taking part in field trips to get to know the country first-hand.
After hotel staff complained about his behavior, a meeting was held on Thursday between the heads of the program and Hershkovitz, during which it was decided that he would leave the program and return to the US this coming Tuesday.
Yuval Arad, the spokesman for the Oranim program, said there was nothing about Hershkovitz that sounded any alarms when he applied, a process that required he submit a clean bill of health from a doctor, fill out an online form, and take part in a phone interview. The process does not require a police background check.
Arad said the program’s coordinators did not report having received any complaints about Hershkovitz’s behavior from any of his fellow students, only that the hotel had complained to the program that he was not suitable for the job.
An article in the Poughkeepsie Journal quotes Rabbi Yacov Borenstein of the Mid-Hudson Valley Chabad on his impressions after meeting Hershkovitz at a festival last summer at the Dutchess County Jewish Community Center.
“At the time we met him, he was looking for something more,” Borenstein told the Journal, adding that “the feeling I had was he was searching and trying to rekindle the faith.”
The rabbi said he later performed Hershkovitz’s overdue bar mitzva and that part of the reason he came to Israel was to rekindle his connection to Judaism and meet people his age.
The rabbi also told the paper that his synagogue would hold a service for Hershkovitz after Succot.