Marla Bennett was our cousin. She was murdered 11 years ago today, July 31, 2002 in the suicide bombing attack at Hebrew University. I wrote the following memorial to Marla in the days following her death.
Our cousin Marla came into our lives only two years ago when she arrived in Israel to study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. But as soon as we found each other, she became a close part of our family in Jerusalem. We both had very little family here, and so finding each other was that much more important. Marla spent countless Shabbatot with us, many chagim, and time at shul as a member of Kehillat Yedidya.
It seems that whenever someone leaves us in such a sudden and harsh way, everyone says how special and unique that person was. In Marla’s case, this was really true. She was a remarkable human being – a wonderful, giving, caring, playful woman with a deep love of deep life – and her death is a tragic loss to the entire Jewish people. She was always up, always full of energy. Her smile could melt any sadness. It is not for nothing that her email address was email@example.com.
She was smart, tolerant, committed to tradition, and embodied the very things the Jewish world and the world as a whole need more of. As a teacher, she would have inspired so many Jewish children towards those values. Her commitment to tzedakah and helping people were not just words, but really were an integral part of who she was.
Marla had a particularly strong connection with our children who loved her deeply. When the parents needed to nap on Shabbat, it was Marla who would hang out all afternoon and play games with them – cards with our 11-year-old Amir, Monopoly with our 9-year-old Merav, or endless rounds of hide and seek with our 4-year-old Aviv. She made a special effort to come to Merav’s violin concert; I think the first time she had been in an Israeli elementary school. I remember her sitting with us, the proud parents, just as proud of her 9-year-old cousin. Telling our children about her death was one of the hardest things we’ve had to do.
When we went on vacation this summer, we gave Marla the keys to our apartment and car. She was so excited to have a car to use for the month… or maybe it was the access to cable TV for a while! I came back after four weeks from my part of the vacation; my wife Jody and the kids were to stay on in San Diego for another 3 weeks. Marla was flying to see them the very day she was murdered. Before I left, we joked that she and I would cross in the air – as I would be landing literally as she was taking off. Marla’s last email to Jody was – see you on Friday in San Diego. They met, instead, a few days later under entirely different and tragic circumstances.
In the weeks since Marla’s death, there have been many moving tributes distributed by email and posted throughout the Internet. What was it about Marla that has touched so many people in such a profound way? Certainly, she was an amazing person. But it’s more than that. I think that, in many ways, we are all Marla. We can see ourselves in Marla – in what we were, what we are, or what we might become. For Jody and I, the parallels are particularly striking. Our paths were the same, even though they were separated by some 17 years.
Marla, Jody and I all grew up in California and came from reform or unaffiliated backgrounds. Marla and Jody both came to Israel when they were 22. Each of us studied and became observant at Pardes. Jody and I met while studying together at Pardes in the early 1980s. Marla and her boyfriend Michael fell in love here in the 21st century. Jody and I were married and spent several years in the States before making aliyah. This could very likely have been the path for Marla and Michael as well.
Marla’s friend Shayna told Jody a story about one day in July, while we were on our vacation and Marla had use of our car. Shayna and Marla took the car and went to the pool in the Jerusalem Forest. They had a great time. Afterwards, they came back to our house because Marla needed to water the plants. That was the kind of person Marla was – she would never miss a day. While there, Marla took Shayna on a tour of all the photographs in our living room. She kvelled over the kids.
Marla looked at us and saw what her own life could become, and we looked at her and imagined anew the possibilities of life and what it would bring, as she was starting out on her path. Would she and Michael truly marry? Would they have children? How many? Where would they live? What would they do? Would they be happy? In what ways would they change the world? In what ways have they already changed it?
When we look at Marla’s destiny now, we can also imagine that it could have been any one of us at Hebrew University that day. That our life, so fresh with promise at age 24, could have been cut down mercilessly and everything that has unfolded since would never have come to be. Marla touched all of us because she was all of us, either now or at one time.
When a tragedy such as this befalls us, it puts into perspective our relationship as individuals vs. the national history of the Jewish people. Too often, in the face of difficult times such as those we are experiencing now in Israel, we tend to bury our heads, hoping it will pass over us and our immediate family will get through this on the way to “better” times. But when someone in your family is targeted because she is a Jew, you instantly are thrust into part of the collective Jewish narrative. Your story of tragedy – and also in entirely different circumstances a story of joy or success – becomes part and parcel of the Jewish totality. You can no longer see yourself as just individuals. In this way Marla is not alone, none of us are alone. Our struggle is collective.
Indeed, Marla wrote these very words in May in a column she contributed to a San Diego newspaper that has now been widely circulated online. I’ll repeat the critical lines here: “My friends and family in San Diego are right when they call and ask me to come home – it is dangerous here,” she wrote. “I appreciate their concern. But there is nowhere else in the world I would rather be right now. I have a front-row seat for the history of the Jewish people. I am a part of the struggle for Israel’s survival.”
Marla dared to express the feelings we are sometimes afraid to say out loud. That this place we live in is dangerous…but that it’s worth it. That life is more than just a new SUV, a movie theater with stadium seating and 400 channels of digital cable. It is that meaning is critical. That some things are worth fighting for.
And yet, just three months before those words were published, in February, when she was in the States doing her student teaching, she emailed Jody asking for some words of strength and encouragement to come back. She was worried. Scared. Was this the right thing to do? And we gave her the words she was seeking. Now it is Marla, through her words and her actions, who is giving strength and encouragement to all of us to continue in the struggle, to not give up, to not run away to a place that we perceive to be somehow “safer.” But rather to remain part of community – this community – and participate fully in the unfolding national Jewish drama.
Marla had her eyes wide open. She knew why she was here. And her actions were contagious. Debbie Jacobson who knew Marla from the Educator’s Program, sent out an email to the Pardes community where she related speaking with Marla’s mother Linda after the funeral in San Diego. “Go back to Israel next year, don’t even think about not going back,” Linda told Debbie. “Marla would have wanted you to go back. It would be a waste of Marla’s life and everything she stood for if you don’t go back”. That a mother while still in the throes of mourning over the loss of her precious daughter could say such a remarkable thing is a testament to the way Marla has already changed the world.
I have tried to find words of comfort for my children. My message to them when I spoke to them over the phone in San Diego after the hearing the tragic news was that the best way to preserve Marla’s memory is to use who she was and what made her special to either change yourselves or change the world. To make yourself a better person – more like Marla – or to help make the world a safer, more giving, more loving place.
To this, I would add that we must do it together, as a community, following in the path that Marla was on – the path that we have all been on, or that we are on now, or that we will be on in the future.
Here’s a link to the original post which also includes links to some other articles which were published at the time.