Book review: Enduring inspiration

On her third yahrzeit, Hallel Ariel’s mother and aunt share the lessons she continues to teach us in ‘Pirkei Hallel.’

RENA ARIEL on daughter Hallel Yaffa (pictured): ‘We wanted something full of life, something that could show the spirit of this young, happy girl.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
RENA ARIEL on daughter Hallel Yaffa (pictured): ‘We wanted something full of life, something that could show the spirit of this young, happy girl.’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If Hallel Yaffa Ariel were alive today, she would have just finished her junior year of high school. She would be dancing around in her home in Kiryat Arba, she would be bringing joy to her parents, she would be mentoring her two younger sisters and she would be enriching the lives of those around her. Now, from the grave, she continues to inspire and to lead by example through the book Pirkei Hallel: A Shared Journey for Bat Mitzvah Girls and Their Mothers, which was just released in English translation two weeks ago.
Three years after a Palestinian teenager infiltrated Kiryat Arba and brutally murdered Hallel in her bed at age 13, this book carries on her legacy and inspires bnot mitzvah to approach their milestone with a better understanding of the responsibilities that accompany it.
Written by Hallel’s mother, Rena Ariel, and her aunt, Tziporah Plitz, the book includes 12 chapters, replete with activities, stories, quotes from biblical and rabbinic sources, and comics. The comics portray Hallel and her qualities, allowing the readers to familiarize themselves with who Hallel was as a person.
Although her story ends in sadness and calamity, the book portrays the Hallel that was positively brimming with life.
“I think she was a happy girl, so we didn’t want a memorial book like something black and white and sad, because nobody would read it,” Ariel said. “We wanted something full of life, something that could show the spirit of this young, happy girl.”
ARIEL HOPED that the bat mitzvah book would pay tribute to Hallel by inspiring mothers and daughters to embark on a mission of doing good. 
“I believe that when you want to memorialize someone, it’s not just going back and preserving the day, but it’s doing something good for others so the neshama can have an aliyah (so the soul can be elevated),” she said.
Hallel’s bat mitzvah year was a special one for both her and her mother, as the two spent it immersing themselves in the stories of inspiring Jewish women. Each month, they would meet a different Jewish woman who had a meaningful impact on the Jewish community around her. They connected with Debbie Gross, who started a crisis center for women, and with Sarah Nachson, who was instrumental in the foundation of the community of Kiryat Arba, according to Ariel. They met a woman who was a beacon of Torah scholarship, and they met a woman who had lost both her daughter and son-in-law in a terror attack and had raised her grandchildren herself.
Ariel hopes that the book will help bat mitzvah girls to connect with their mothers and that it will inculcate a love and gratitude for family.
“Family is so important and connections are so important, and appreciating what you have,” Ariel said. A mother and daughter told her that they spend an hour each week sitting and learning parts of the book together. “We wanted… something that could add, connect mothers and daughters,” she said.
The process of writing the book was one that strengthened Ariel’s family ties, as different family members came together to share stories and memories of Hallel. Ariel required a great deal of funding in order to fulfill her vision of writing the book, so she went on a speaking tour in the United States, sharing her story and Hallel’s story. Last year, the book was released in Hebrew, and an English edition came out just weeks ago. Ariel hopes to expand her project and to begin selling the book internationally, so that young women across the river can benefit from it. Currently, the book is one that English-speakers from overseas generally buy in Israel and then take back with them.
People connected to Hallel’s story and were willing to give of themselves in order to help create the book, Ariel noted. She believes that Hallel’s murder is a result of antisemitism, a problem that is relevant to Jews all over the world.
“A Jew could live in Ra’anana or New York and they could deal with the same issues that we feel, so we’re part of something bigger.”
I MET Rena Ariel two years ago, as she was traveling throughout the United States to raise money for her book. She spoke at my high school, to a crowd of students who were only a few years older than Hallel would have been. I was struck by her strength and her resolve to share Hallel’s message and legacy with others, which, from what I observed, was centered on small but powerful acts of kindness. The stories that she told painted Hallel as someone who was sensitive to the feelings of those around her. For example, one time she approached a girl in her class who was sitting all by herself, because she had no friends. Hallel extended a hand to the girl and befriended her.
It is the small acts such as this one that made Hallel such an exemplary human, and which should inspire others to follow her lead. The book is truly a guide for how to live a life that is filled with love and mutual understanding.
Although writing the book was a major project for the Ariel family, it is not the only one that they have undertaken in order to commemorate Hallel. Hallel’s stepfather, Amichai Ariel, owns a vineyard, and after her murder, he planted a new vineyard called Kerem Hallel. The studio where Hallel used to dance has been named after her, as has the playground where she used to run free during school recesses. The gate that leads to the Temple Mount has taken on Hallel’s name as well; many call it Shaar Hallel (Hallel Gate) in her honor.
Rena Ariel has plans to work in conjunction with other groups to establish some sort of organization that provides support to women experiencing loss or trauma. This idea is part of her commitment to “doing anything positive that we can do in Hallel’s memory to keep it going.”
The book, while a tribute to Hallel, also serves as a form of healing for her family. As her mother and aunt wrote in the book’s chapter about positive speech, “There are moments of crying out, but afterwards, there is a need for speech and for processing,” they wrote.
“Speech helps us gain clarity and prevents the soul from remaining apathetic, tortured and confused. Speech demands details, accuracy and conceptualization. The infinite internal bewilderment is given a name and a word. That’s how it was after the murder, and that’s how it is after many challenges. The process is painful but therapeutic.”