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How do you explain to your 13-year-old son why his friend is dead?

How do you explain to your 13-year-old son why his friend is dead?

It was a Friday afternoon. We’d recently moved to our new desert home in Kfar Adumim and, with a 9-month baby belly, I was installing our garden’s watering system. I’d been assured by the hardware store that any idiot could do it. Unfortunately this idiot defied the odds.

I’d cut the main water line too close to the ground and couldn’t fasten on the thinger that would let me connect the other thingy so we could connect the watering system — and reconnect the house line. And now we were looking at a long, hot Shabbat weekend without any water in the house.

Panicked, I remembered that my three-doors-down neighbor Alon Muchtar is a gardener. His lovely wife Sarah, also American-born, and I had become friendly and I waddled to them for help.

We live in a small, mixed religious and secular community in the Judaean desert. There are about 1,000 families altogether in our grouping of three settlements, all founded on the principle of respect and religious tolerance. It is a place where meals are organized after births, life-cycle events are celebrated by everyone, and every death is a communal loss.

It’s a real community. And though a bit too large for everyone to know each other these days, neighbors are generally happy to help out.

Alon more than anyone. Wearing a large knitted kippah, he was an oak of a man, tall, broad-shouldered and steady. He dropped everything to come. With his professional tools, he calmly reconnected our water line — and got soaked in the process. A real tzaddik, when we offered to pay him, he said we should just donate NIS 50 to a good cause.

Of course he saved us several more times in the five years we’ve lived here. And doubtless countless other neighbors. He gave numerous rides to my hitchhiking husband and always had a broad smile and friendly, “How’s it going?” for me, as I passed him mornings, while walking the dog.

A few days ago, I watched him load up his big white truck, ready to set out on the road for a family holiday up north.

And now he’s gone.

In a senseless traffic accident on Monday night, Alon and Yoel Shalom, the quiet 7-year-old “baby” of the large Muchtar family, were killed. Daughter Ella, 13, joined them on Tuesday morning; their joint funeral is this evening (Tuesday).

My friend Sarah, whom I usually see running long laps around our village or in humorous posts on Facebook, is still hospitalized with two more of her children. Only one daughter, who rode with relatives, was spared injury.

In our community, their tragedy affects us all. We walk in grey clouds and attempt to digest the impossible. How can we help? How could this happen?

Yesterday evening, my husband and I broke the news of the accident to our six kids. Ayyala, who just completed first grade, had been in preschool with Yoel. She cried, talked about games they’d played together, and said, “Now he will never have a family of his own.”

Yair, my oldest at 13, was a good friend of Ella. They were classmates last year and spent a lot of time together. He took the news of her serious injury hard, though at that time, there had been a chance she would recover.

Speaking our inner voices, he said, “I hope, Imma, that soon she’ll come home and things will be able to go back to normal.” Unwilling for him to build unrealistic expectations, I told him things would never be normal for her again.

To lighten the mood, we then talked about fun times they’d had together. He laughed about the names they called each other and how she loved to eat chicken schnitzel, even though her parents were both vegetarian. In his stories, I saw her wide smile — she takes after both parents in that — and her pretty brown wavy hair. How she would move her slim body as she chased after Yair when he teased her.

This morning, I missed the community’s announcement that Ella had succumbed to her injuries. Picking up my phone after a shower, I casually read about it in a press release — one of hundreds I see each day as a journalist. Shocked, I shouted and burst into tears.

My 11-year-old twins came running, but Yair was still asleep.

Collecting myself, I went to him, but, seeing him sleeping, thought to allow him a few more minutes of peace. Unfortunately, so worried for his friend, the first thing he did upon awakening was search the internet for news of her. Thus, he learned of her death.

He came to me sobbing and repeatedly asked the unanswerable. Why her? Why them? Why should she die? How could she just be gone?

I told him, based on my experiences with the deaths of my brother Nick from cancer at 22, and also my mother, who died three years ago, that it is impossible to make sense of it. But that as long as we remember them, they are not truly gone.

God, I told Yair, may or may not have a plan for each and every individual one of us. But He’s smart enough not to waste His creations. Their memory is still with us, and maybe parts of their energy, too.

In their death, maybe we have an opportunity to learn something. To make the world a better place.

I threw all the trite palliative phrases at him.

He listened, nodded, and remained unconvinced.

“But it just doesn’t make sense.”

About the Author
Amanda Borschel-Dan lives in Israel, where she and her husband are raising their six always hungry children. She is The Times of Israel's Jewish Times editor.
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