There was a Jewish man in a small town that remembered fondly the days of a thriving Jewish community and an active synagogue. He always sought to bring back those glory days. But the community had shrunk. The synagogue was decrepit and barely used. Yet he never gave up hope. With great effort the synagogue was rededicated. Someone donated some badly needed tables. And then, in a fit of enthusiasm, the man decided that Friday night services needed to commence again. He convened the community for the Kabbalat Shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath) service and ordered challah (the special bread eaten on the Sabbath) for after the services.
But it was a Thursday. The response was lukewarm. There was not a quorum ready to commit to attend. The service didn’t happen. The man’s family ate the challahs. One remained and was placed in the freezer.
Undeterred, the man decided he would try again the following week.
On Monday, he pushed again, only to receive another lukewarm response. Ever optimistic, he stated: “No worries. It’s still early in the week. A lot can happen between now and the Sabbath. But we WILL have Kabbalat Shabbat. And we will use that challah.”
He was stabbed to death the following day for being Jewish. His name was David Fremd.
The murder itself was shocking, like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky.
Amidst all of the grief, shock, anger and resolve, the family decided that a correct response would be to open the synagogue and conduct Shabbat services. And that is what we did.
Friday night, after a moving service with close to 100 participants, more than had prayed there in decades, we served David’s challah after the services. Everyone made sure to eat a piece. David had been right after all. We did have Kabbalat Shabbat. His family, friends, neighbors and acquaintances had come from near and far, including many from Montevideo, 400 km away and from as far north as Artigas on the border with Brazil.
For those unfamiliar with the story or context of David’s murder, below is some more background.
The tranquil town of Paysandu, all of Uruguay, and the entire Jewish community was rocked last week with the brutal murder of David Fremd for the singular fact of being a Jew. David was on his way to open his store, when a local man brandishing a knife, attacked him from behind, stabbing him repeatedly. The local man, who a number of years previously had converted to Islam, and claiming inspiration from Allah, left his home with the singular purpose of killing a Jew. He succeeded.
The national media has reported extensively on the murder, the circumstances, the background of the murderer, the effect on the family, the community and the Jewish population, the after-effects, the alacrity of the political response, the tremendous show of support and solidarity, including an unheard of march in Paysandu of thousands of people. However, there was almost no mention in the international media and some in the Israeli and Jewish media.
I have had the responsibility of accompanying the family since I found out about the attack and rushed to the hospital, where David had already died by the time I arrived. This has been the first free moment I’ve had since the murder.
Just to give my readers some background: Paysandu is a small town. Its center consists basically of a square of four city blocks punctuated by an old but stately church and a reasonably maintained plaza with some patches of green. Beyond the small city center there are barely any buildings taller than two stories. Most have not seen a coat of paint since their original construction which must go back many decades.
While the roads are bumpy and cracked, there are no major potholes. There is a relaxed quality to driving, walking or anything anyone does in Paysandu. It is on the shore of the river Uruguay, whose banks have a tendency to overflow, and has done so quite recently forcing people we know from their homes.
Nonetheless, the people of Paysandu are generally proud of the little spot on earth they call their own. It is one of the older cities in Uruguay, with its own respected history and heritage, once being a major trading hub, but that was decades ago.
The Jewish community of Paysandu has likewise seen stronger days. At its height, it counted over 200 families amongst its membership with an active synagogue, Hebrew school and Zionist youth movements. However, the majority of those families have since move out, either making Aliyah (emigrating) to Israel, moving to Montevideo, or other locales, or simply assimilating so completely into the surrounding culture as to have no identification whatsoever with the Jewish community.
Today, Paysandu claims fewer than 10 Jewish families in its membership. The extent of the synagogue use is only for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, where they struggle to have a minyan (the quorum of ten men required to conduct communal prayer).
Last year, I had the privilege of participating in the rededication of the synagogue of Paysandu where I met David Fremd, much of his extended family, and other members of the community. The reason for the rededication is that after a legal battle lasting several years, the community finally managed to evict a squatter that had taken over control of the synagogue.
To give the story some biblical overtones, it turns out the squatter was a prostitute and saw her customers on the synagogue grounds. It immediately brought to mind the tale of how Titus, the destroyer of the Temple in Jerusalem, went into the very Holy of Holies, and on a Torah scroll had relations with a prostitute. I told the community members that evicting the prostitute and rededicating the synagogue, in a way, is also a correction of that horrible defilement that occurred in our Temple. David in particular had liked that connection.
The day of David’s funeral was unusually cold, windy and rainy. As we arrived at the cemetery there was an army’s worth of policemen guarding the perimeter including a SWAT team. All the TV stations had set up cameras outside the cemetery as they were not allowed inside. Despite the inclement weather, there were more people than I had ever seen in the cemetery, including notable political figures.
The mourning family showed tremendous strength and force of character, especially the sons who spoke so powerfully, with no rancor or hate. The mourners with a busload of family and friends returned to Paysandu.
Paysandu is almost 400 kilometers away from Montevideo, on roads that alternate between somewhat reasonable highways, to barely paved country roads.
As all understood, the attack against one member of the Jewish community for being Jewish, was an attack against all of us. We needed to respond. I had suggested to some of the family that an appropriate response would be to open the synagogue this Sabbath. They responded enthusiastically. We then decided to extend the opening for the entire week of mourning and the rabbis of the Montevideo have taken turns in accompanying them.
I arrived for Kabbalat Shabbat, the Friday night service, and was surprised to see more than 100 people participate in the services. The majority were from Montevideo, but even the only Jewish family from Artigas, all the way on the northern border of Uruguay, had made the long journey.
There was singing, and joy and a sense of peace and comfort. David’s sister mentioned to me that his favorite song had been the classic “Heni ma tov uma naim shevet achim gam yachad” (How good and how pleasant it is for brothers to sit together). We sang it emotionally, with family members in tears as they embraced and swayed to the melody. Then the family got up and formed a large circle where we all embraced, swayed and sang it again.
However, of all the moving moments, memories and events that have taken place, the one that has struck me the hardest is the story of David’s last challah.