A Thanksgiving weekend I will never forget
Finally done with class, and beginning the anticipated Thanksgiving break, I was in the back seat of my friend’s car driving home when suddenly I got a call. “Hi Maia, it’s Rabbi Levi Slonim from Chabad. You won the raffle!” I couldn’t believe my ears; I had the opportunity to go to Israel in less than 24 hours! Just two hours previously I had seen a GoFundMe campaign by Chabad at Binghamton to send one student representative to Jerusalem for the wedding of Sarah Litman. Sarah’s father and brother had been murdered two weeks earlier in a terrorist attack but she and her fiance Ariel had decided to go ahead with the wedding and had in fact invited the entire “nation of Israel” to rejoice with them in defiance of terrorism. Little did I know when I made my contribution just a few hours earlier that I would ultimately be that representative!
Everything happened so quickly and before I knew it I was at the airport. It wasn’t until I got to the El Al security check in, that everyone knows and loves, that I finally realized what was happening: I was actually going to Israel, my favorite place on earth. They asked me the usual routine questions about where I’m from and why I was going to Israel. I excitedly answered, “I am going to a wedding.” Naturally they asked who’s wedding and I said, “My family.” At first, I was just trying to get through the questions and tried to answer in a way that would make the process go faster. But on further reflection I realized, I really was going to a family wedding. Although only a few weeks before I had never heard of the Litman family or about their wedding plans. But when the bride’s father, Rabbi Yaakov, and her brother, Netanel Litman, were murdered, it wasn’t just their immediate family who suffered a loss, we all lost a father and a brother that day because we are one nation, Am Echad.
Families are there for each other in good times and bad. So often we go great distances to comfort those in times of mourning and sadness. Many times we forget that we must stand together even more so in times of happiness. That is what family does and that is why I and the other representatives (from colleges across the country) flew more than 5,000 miles without a second thought to share in this joyous occasion.
Besides for myself, five other students from four other schools made the same trip, they represented Chabad at Einstein, the Center for Jewish Life of Rockland, Chabad on Campus — Queens, and Chabad of Ottawa. Rabbi Dov Oliver led the group. He is the director of the Center for Jewish Life at RCC and the one who really spearheaded this initiative. We all met for the first time moments before we walked into the wedding. You could feel the excitement among us, as we were all still in shock to be standing in the center of Jerusalem. We shared a sense of pride at being able to represent our communities back home. We came on a mission to prove just how strong of a bond the Jewish people have.
We weren’t the only ones with that same mission that night. Thousands of people came to celebrate with one couple. You could hear and see people singing and dancing in the streets from blocks away. Anyone who walked past the excitement was immediately pulled into the giant circle of dancing. The scene was no different inside Binyanei Hauma, the largest convention center in Israel, and the venue of the celebration. Thousands were dancing like I’ve never seen before. No matter where you turned it wouldn’t be long before you could spot an Israeli flag. Am Yisrael showed how we respond to terror: Our response is with joy.
As a family we get our strength from each other. Sarah and Ariel Biegel, the bride and groom, gave the Jewish people hope and strength. When our nation, our family faced so much tragedy, Jews of all backgrounds came together, uniting as one. By extending the invitation to all of Am Yisrael, they gave us the opportunity to to show our unity. We took something so awful and completely turned it around.
Rabbi Dov introduced us to the bride, explaining where we came from, why we were there, and who we represented. The room was too loud, echoing with the songs and cheers of celebration, for me to hear their conversation, but you could see from her expression that she was in disbelief and amazed by the love and support from our communities that sent us half-way around the world to be with them on their special day. But that’s what family does.
At the chuppah itself, there was a sadness to all the joy when they spoke about Sarah’s murdered father and brother. Both the bride and groom were so emotional, yet you could feel their immovable, unrelenting strength at the same time. And I kept thinking to myself, ‘This is crazy — that a random raffle would result in us being here, all passionate about Israel, the Jewish people, now singing, dancing and taking part in this momentous occasion.
The most powerful moment of the evening that made our purpose at that wedding so clear, was right before the groom stepped on the glass under the wedding canopy. He cried out “If I forget you, O Jerusalem…” and then broke the glass. This custom serves as a reminder for the Jewish people that while we have so much joy and celebration in our lives, we cannot forget the hardships we had to overcome to reach this point. But on that night we were doing just the opposite. Despite all the extraordinary hardships our family is facing day to day in Israel, we are not forgetting to celebrate the joyous occasions that will ultimately get us through.
For a family that has been through so much pain, to be able to call out to Gd with so much passion and emotion in the beloved city was an incredible moment. As he spoke, you could see the iconic Jerusalem bridge in the background. The bridge is reminiscent of David’s Harp which not only reminds us of our history, but the harp also draws a connection to healing and unity. The groom’s powerful statement and connection to the holy city reminds us that we must fight for peace in our home as a united nation, a family.
The next day, Rabbi Yossi Witkes, who is the Chabad on Campus International representative in Israel as the Director of IsraeLinks, Chabad’s educational Israel trip, arranged for us to visit the homes of the mourning families of two young adults who were murdered. I wish I could have known Ziv Mizrachi and Hadar Buchris. Ziv was a soldier who was murdered while on duty protecting his home, quite literally as he was killed just 10 minutes from his home town of Givat Ze’ev. His family was in unbearably familiar pain as they had lost Ziv’s uncle to another terrorist attack less than 10 years earlier. When we arrived at their house, his family and friends couldn’t believe that we came all this way just to comfort them. They stopped everything they were doing and turned their attention to us to hear our message to them. We expressed how Ziv was protecting our collective homeland and how much his sacrifice is appreciated by communities around the world.
We then traveled to Netanya to be with Hadar’s mother and brother. It was a strikingly different feeling when we walked in. Instead of crying and tears there was so much laughter and joy. At first we were confused, but once her family started talking about Hadar, it was clear that the strength to have such a positive attitude was directly inspired by Hadar’s incredible personality. She was always looking to go out of her way to help people. She recently decided that she wanted to be a special education teacher. Everyone could tell how amazing and happy she was, whether it was from the stories her mom shared or the selfies of her and her friends on the wall.
I was particularly inspired by her brother who made a promise to Hadar just days before her death that he would start wearing tefillin and now he does it every morning in honor of her. While there is nothing we can do to physically bring these innocent lives back, we can honor them by taking on mitzvot and continuing to work towards repairing our world. Rabbi Dov explained in a beautiful parable: with each mitzvah we do in honor of Ziv and Hadar, they move closer and closer to first class on the plane to the world to come. All it takes is for each of us to go that extra mile and perform one more mitzvah to help “upgrade their seat” as they move from our physical world, to the World to Come.
On Saturday evening we went to Shaarei Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem to visits wounded soldiers. The trip was arranged by the Chabad Terror Victims Project. The soldiers who are our age expressed to us how touched they were by our short trip, we couldn’t stop thanking them for putting themselves in harms way to protect us and our home.
I will never forget those 72 hours in Israel. Jews across Israel and from all over the world came to support a family who’s lives were devastated by terrorism. Even in these difficult times there was an incredible amount of joy all around us. This wedding shows how strong the Jewish people are when we are unified. It was so powerful to see Jews of all different backgrounds coming together to support one another and help make this one of the happiest nights for the bride and groom
There was no better place to be on Thanksgiving than in Jerusalem. Even though we didn’t get to have the turkey and the stuffing, we experienced a Thanksgiving in the most pure and genuine way. It is a time to be with family and to be thankful for what you have. So many families have been torn apart by terror recently. It is up to us to be there for them, and what we have is a nation, a community that will celebrate with you, like at the Litman wedding, mourn with you, like at the shiva homes of terror victims, and always be there to hold you up and keep you strong when you feel discouraged.We all have to stand together, united as one nation and one people. Although I was thousands of miles away from my house, my brother, sister, and parents, I spent this Thanksgiving with my extended family, Am Yisrael.