A teachable moment: Anyone Can Do It!

In Judaism, ‘tzedakah’ is the act of giving for charitable purposes; according to the Torah the amount should be 10% of one’s income. Jewish homes often have a box for collecting coins for the poor, and it is common for a child to become familiar with the practice by having an artistic child-friendly tzedakah box of one’s own, received as a gift in early life. Some say that tzedakah is the highest of all commandments, equal to all of them combined.

In our modern times, when families are so busy, it’s often easier for adults to just whip out a checkbook or credit card and dash off a donation to one’s charity of choice, be it a local Jewish charity or synagogue, or a community or health related cause, whether in the US or in Israel. Therefore, it is possible for a Jewish child growing up to hardly ever experience the giving of tzedakah first hand, when the parents take care of it as a ‘banking matter’ in their rush to meet the challenges of day-to-day life.

Those who have followed recent news from Israel were overwhelmed by the horrifying news, difficult even for adults to comprehend. The series of attacks throughout Israel grew, with news of a series of stabbings and cars running onto the sidewalk purposely slamming into people. Israeli citizens felt a different sort of unease since there are no ‘Red Alert’ half-minute-to-safety sirens for terrorists bearing knives!


One such attack took place in October in Pisgat Ze’ev, a suburb of Jerusalem. The victim was a boy named Naor, just short of his thirteenth birthday; the news conveyed that the perpetrator was an Arab teen from the neighboring village of Beit Hanina, just across a highway from Pisgat Ze’ev. As an American Jew interested in Israel’s welfare, I was drawn to this story, saddened because we have become immune to such situations after reading them day after day.

After reading a few versions of the story online, I began to piece the scene together, learning more about the victim and the situation from each online story. From one report I learned the boy’s first name. From another, I learned that he was taken to Hadassah Hospital, and from another news source I learned that he was attacked while riding his bicycle near a candy store in a local mall. I then found a short online news video with interviews of the shopkeeper and the boy’s friends; the PBS video included a photo of his bicycle lying on the ground, where he’d been attacked, and some footage of the perpetrator running away. For purposes of anonymity, the victim’s full name was withheld, mentioning only his mother’s name so that there could be prayers for his recovery in the traditional Jewish manner: Naor ben Rut was recovering in Hadassah Hospital, that he’d needed extensive surgery, and that his bar mitzvah was just about a month away.

Surely, I could make the traditional ‘mishebayrach’ prayer for his return to good health, but I felt I wanted to do more. Various Pew studies report that Diaspora youth are grossly deficient in their knowledge about and connection to Israel, regarding history, culture, tradition, Hebrew language. I wondered if this news story about Naor, could serve a purpose beyond its heart wrenching sadness. Naor’s upcoming bar mitzvah was to me, the link to make a connection with Jewish youth.


When I was in Junior High School, I had two Israeli pen pals. Communication then was via the post office, and pen and ink; the only thing I ‘computed’ was whether I had enough money to purchase my lightweight ‘air letters.’ With the newly collected facts gathered from the Internet about Naor, and a personal contact at Hadassah Hospital, I approached Rabbi Katz, rabbi at Temple Beth TorahScreen Shot 2015-11-16 at 7.27.10 PM on Long Island, with an idea.

Might it be possible to carefully discuss this news story with pre-B’nei Mitzvah Hebrew School students? Parents are anxious enough about attacks in school and community settings in the US; they might not want their children to know about stabbings of 13 year olds riding their bikes in Israel. Concurring with Orna, our Religious School principal, we agreed this could be done, sensitively and carefully; it could be a teachable ‘Israel moment.’


As a congregant, I met with about 35 students, eleven and twelve year olds. Armed with photos gleaned and printed from the Internet, and some basic facts, I shared Naor’s story carefully, suitable for young children.

Did they know that ‘tensions’ have existed in Israel for a while? Yes they did know that. I explained that Naor lives in a suburb of Jerusalem, just as they live in a quiet Long Island suburb. After school he was riding his bicycle with his friends and was ‘attacked’ [no knives were mentioned] by some unfriendly Arab youths. A map showed just how close the two communities are in the Jerusalem suburbs; we compared it to two neighboring towns in our own community, and their proximity with only a highway in between.

ME: Here is a photo of Naor’s bike.
STUDENTS: “It looks just like my bike.”
ME: Here are some photos of his friends.
STUDENTS: “Hey they look just like they could be our friends.”
ME: Here are photos of the mall and candy store near Naor’s home.
STUDENTS: “What a cool mall! What a neat candy store!

I explained that Naor was hospitalized for a week, and needed some serious surgery. [I did not explain ‘what kind;’ after all, I am not a physician.] Using the photos, I explained that the news revealed that ironically, Naor was being treated by Dr. Eid, an Arab doctor and the assailant was being treated by a Jewish doctor. Casually I mentioned that Naor’s Bar Mitzvah was coming up in just one month, scheduled for the end of November.


I asked the students what they thought they could do, to make some connection to Naor. The natural response came quickly and easily – “Let’s make him get well cards to cheer him up, and also Mazal Tov cards for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah.”IMG_5285

In less than 45 minutes the students made cards wishing Naor a return to good health and wishes for a happy Bar Mitzvah. Many questions arose as cards were created, and there was a lot of looking back at the photos and map. IMG_5286IMG_5283IMG_5296How sad it all was – to be attacked on a bike.  As they wrote and drew, there was talk about how much time it might take an Israeli student to prepare for a Bar Mitzvah, since Hebrew is their native language.

The two outstanding questions I could not answer then, nor could anyone at that point, were:

– Would Naor be well enough for his Bar Mitzvah to take place ‘on schedule?’ 
– Would Naor be able to ride his bike any time soon?

The empathy was palpable.

I explained how their cards IMG_5292would reach Naor, that as a past President of a local Hadassah chapter, Hadassah connections in Israel had agreed to assist me! Included with our cards were photos of our synagogue, the rabbi and school principal, the teachers, the students at work on their cards. Also included was a check from the synagogue for Naor, as a gift for his Bar Mitzvah, and a donation for the “Hadassah Clowns”  program.  In addition to being trained as clowns, these  professionals also receive psychological training. Results have shown that children who are overstressed by their medical treatments are calmer after being in the clown’s presence. We ended our project with the students understanding that there might not be a quick response from Naor, for whom healing and Bar Mitzvah preparation were the giant challenges ahead.IMG_5303


Once mailed, with the kind assistance of a fellow congregant who uses an Israeli courier for business, I felt as impatient in the coming weeks as the 11 and 12 year olds, but realized we had to keep waiting. The child in me and the hopeful feelings of waiting for my pen pal letters of my long ago past, returned. Luckily, from email exchanges with Hadassah Israel connections, there was a heads up! The package had arrived and would soon be delivered to Naor at home; although he was healing, his Bar Mitzvah would be delayed and more information would come shortly.


From Barbara Sofer, Israel Director of Public Relations at Hadassah, a lengthy email arrived, about Chanukah and about Naor.  The letter is below, and I’ve removed medical details; suffice to say, it was ‘touch and go’ with Naor for many days.

12/7/2015 4:24:45 P.M. Eastern Standard Time
Subj: Jerusalem Netletter Hanukkah

The Holiday of Light has begun and pastry shops have produced every kind and color of Hanukkah donuts. My favorite so far is pistachio cream.  In the bakery in the Hadassah Hospital mall you can pick one of twelve kinds, and giant trays keep arriving with fresh ones. That sweet donut scent fills the lobby and corridors. The Hebrew word for donuts is sufganiot, from the word for sponge. These tasty little treats soak up the oil, reminding us of the Hanukkah miracle of oil. Yes, latkes are eaten, too, but they are eclipsed by donut mania.  Public buildings are hoisting up their Hanukkah menorahs and of course, in our hospitals there will be nightly lightings. After a difficult autumn, we can all use the light of the Hanukkah candles. … We’re commanded to light up our houses and to spread the light of our tradition and miracles. Let those Hanukkah lights shine!

Naor Shalev Ben-Ezra was riding his bike with his little brother on October 12. They were visiting their grandmother, (who still doesn’t know what happened to him) on 16th Street in Pisgat Zeev. The two cousins Ahmed and Hassan Manasra, who live in the adjoining neighborhood of Beit Hanina, left home with the intent of stabbing Israelis. They first attacked a 21 year old, … and then came upon Naor. … When Naor, almost 13, got to nearby Mount Scopus he was assumed dead by the ambulance team and bystanders. His family received condolences. …  But at Mount Scopus, the Hadassah team recognized signs of life. “His pulse was 20-30, and we couldn’t take his blood pressure,” said Dr.Yoachim Shiffman, Head of Anesthesiology at Mount Scopus. “At first we didn’t see the source of bleeding.”… For 15 minutes, the senior anesthesiologist kept his fingers deep in the artery… Shiffman’s friend and medical school classmate Achmed Eid was on his way. He was ready for surgery. …Naor was still alive. At Hadassah Ein Kerem, vascular surgeon Ina Akopnick was on her way home. … “I was already half-way home when the call came for me to come urgently to Mount Scopus. … She scrubbed up, while Naor underwent imaging. He was still alive. Professor Eid opened the chest cavity. …  She and Prof. Eid finished their work. Naor was still alive. Everything was working. In intensive care, he was gradually awakened by the team.

He’s back in school. In two weeks, he’ll be Bar Mitzvah. A miracle. A Hanukkah miracle. On Tuesday, the Hadassah Pediatrics Division is sponsoring a day at Jerusalem’s Cinema City, movies, medical clowns, candlelighting. Naor will light the candles. After all, his name means “let there be light.” A Hanukkah miracle that belongs to all of Hadassah.


Back on Long Island, while speaking with Orna, the Hebrew School principal, and to one Hebrew School teacher during our Chanukah program, I learned that children from these classes had been inquiring about Naor! The idea had worked; it was so easy to make this connection!  Just via the conversation about Naor and this attack, he had become important to them, so they cared enough to inquire and learned some facts about Israel as well. I explained that after the beginning of the year we might hear more.

That very evening I received an email from Israel, this time an entire letter about Naor.

Jerusalem Hadassah Netletter
Tevet 5776
December 21, 2015

In this wintry Hebrew month of Tevet, we pray for rain and follow reports on the water level of the Kinneret. But on this special day I’m glad for the Jerusalem sunshine breaking through in the Old City. It’s
the Bar Mitzvah celebration of a young man whose name means Light  – a youngster who has walked through the valley of the shadow of death and emerged with the help of Hadassah.

The Bar Mitzvah boy is easy to spot among the crowd of celebrants and camera persons. He is wearing a crisp white shirt, pistachio-colored trousers, blue and white kippa with a Star of David clipped onto that morning’s buzz haircut. Chairs are set in the archaeological plaza in the Old City. Around us are the huge stones fallen from the Herodian Temple. One stone contains the inscription, L’Beit Tekia, “to the House of the Shofar Blowing.” Many shofar blasts will be blown today as we celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of Naor Shalev Ben-Ezra. Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 6.56.19 PM

This coming of age ceremony is for a boy who on October 13 was thought to be dead by those who saw him being carried from the street in Pisgat Zeev. Indeed, when he arrived at Hadassah Mount Scopus, his pulse had fallen to 20; the staff couldn’t get a blood
pressure reading.  Relatives were already receiving condolence text messages on their phones. Then. the heroic, creative doctors and nurses used all the knowledge and experience they’d acquired over years and decades and brought him back. And here we are at the holiest Jewish site, rejoicing with one very alive Naor with his electric, irresistible smile, and friends and family.  On that fall day in October, Naor had gone with his little brother Orlev to visit their ailing Grandma. Naor was riding his bike.  Two teen-terrorists, cousins aged 15 and 13, had walked down the hill from nearby Beit Hanina carrying knives. They wanted to slaughter
Jews. They came upon a 21-year old first and cut him up badly. Next they spotted Naor and Orlev near a toy store. They plunged long blades into  Naor while Orlev watched in horror.

Everyone in the Bar Mitzvah crowd knows the story, but no one mentions this horror.  It’s time to celebrate. Besides, Naor’s Grandma is here, among the many family members and friends.  Only this week did the family gently tell her about what had happened to her grandson when he came to visit. Before that, she was told he’d had a “bike accident.” A mother of 11, Naor’s Grandma has arrived in wheelchair, glowing with joy for her grandson.

Naor’s mother Ruthi and his Dad Shai say today is only about joy. Naor and the traumatized Orlev are so happy. Our procession moves towards the Kotel plaza. Drums and shofar blasts and singing accompany every step. We stop as blue and white helium balloons are released into the sky. Raindrops dampen the tallit held above Naor’s  head like a huppah. We move through the security checks to the underground tunnels where the morning prayer ceremony will  take place.

Here is Naor holding the Torah. Here is Naor,winding the tefillin straps around his head and arm. He is Naor offering the blessings: You have chosen us from the peoples of the world and given us the Torah. Here is Naor reading from the Torah portion about Joseph
and Judah. Is there a dry eye? Naor’s cousin Etti, a midwife at Hadassah, puts her arm around me.

My turn at the mike, I assure the crowd that this isn’t just a family celebration-that the Hadassah family around the world is celebrating-today. So, l’chayim to each and every one of you contributing time and funds to Hadassah. You made this dream come true.


Mazal tov!


Barbara Sofer
Israel Director of Public Relations
Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America

What a great letter! An article about Naor’s bar mitzvah includes a video of this simcha at the Kotel.

Short of all of us jumping on a plane to Israel to visit Naor, I hoped for a bit more closure. Of course elated and grateful to know all that had transpired for Naor and for his family, I still wished to know  that Naor and the American Hebrew School students had clicked –  in this simple way.


Dear Sandy,
I have been so busy getting back to school after the excitement of my Bar Mitzvah that I have asked Barbara Sofer to write for me. Her English is better than mine. I have a lot of work to do to catch up on my school work, and it’s not easy to concentrate after so much has happened to me. I want to thank all the children for their good wishes and the Bar Mitzvah gift. I’m touched that you also supported the wonderful Hadassah Hospital clowns in my honor. I so grateful to the Hadassah staff that kept me alive. I don’t like to think about that awful day in October. My little brother was there, and he remembers more than I do. For him it’s even scarier. My parents and my aunts finally told my grandmother what happened. She thought I’d only had a bike accident.
Best to all of you!
Naor Shalev Ben-Ezra


Dear Naor… We’ve learned that you are healing, that you are back in school and catching up, that you were given a new bike, Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 6.52.50 PM
and that your Bar Mitzvah took place with great joy at the Kotel. We wish you and your family Mazal Tov, continued healing and long life. L’Chaim! and L’hitra’ot! Perhaps we’ll meet in Israel one day…. From your new friends at Temple Beth Torah on Long Island in New York.

Tzedakah comes in many forms; we often don’t even know the recipient. Traditionally, tzedakah is in the form of a gift of money; other times it can even be the gift of an organ donation, which sustains another’s life. At other times it can be a show of support, an expression of caring. From across the miles, from Long Island to Jerusalem, expressed tangibly child to child, we can connect, showing that we care. There are so many ‘teachable moments’  for our children’s Israel education; we just have to notice them!

About the Author
Sandy Wasserman is a wife, mother, grandmother- LOVER of Israel and all things Jewish! She is a retired teacher and children's author.
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