Rabbi Leo Dee: A Jewish Response to Terror
Mah nishtana hapesach haze mikol hapsachim? How is this Pesach different from all other Pesachs? This year the maror was more bitter. This year V’hi Sheamda was sung louder. This year, Yom Hazikaron came early. It was a very painful Passover this year for the Jewish people. Personally, I struggled to fully celebrate the Jewish holiday as I found myself often online reading and watching the horrific news and aftermath from Israel.
This year, Passover was both preceded (Shabbat mincha) and followed by the Torah reading of Parashat Shmini. It is the only time that the weekly reading offers insight into responding to tragedy. The Eighth Day was to be the day of the Dedication of the Mishkan, it was supposed to be a day of celebration for the entire nation. However, a tragedy occurred to the Jewish people when the two sons of Aharon, the High Priest, were tragically killed. Similarly, this past Pesach the Jewish people went through a horrible tragedy. A wave of terror hit Israel, and in particular the Dee family whose family trip to the Kinneret turned into a catastrophe when a terrorist shot and killed Lucy, Maia and Rina Dee of blessed memory. They were killed because they were Israeli.
Twenty years ago I started to volunteer for Camp Koby Mandel. Camp Koby Mandel was started by Koby’s parents after he and his friend Yosef Ish Ran z’’l were murdered by terrorists when they went on a hike. Seth and Sherri responded to their suffering by building a camp, an organization and a community for family members of victims of terror. We had our first staff meeting also on the week of Parashat Shmini. Rabbi Seth Mandel spoke to the staff to give some perspective of what Camp Koby is about. He quoted the famous Biblical commentator Abarabanel who asks; Why does God command Aharon directly immediately after his sons are killed not to drink wine (see Leviticus 10:9)? He answers by saying because sometimes when people encounter terrible suffering they turn to alcoholism, despair and depression. They can easily allow the suffering to continue and even worsen over a lifetime. But God tells Aharon – this is not what God wants! God wants the opposite, God wants Aharon to continue to do his holy work in a healthy way, not in any way that is self destructive like alcoholism. These were powerful words that I still remember twenty years later. What made it so powerful was that it was given by someone who was a living example of what he taught and truly internalized this piece of Jewish wisdom. It was a response of Kiddush Hashem (sanctifying God’s name) in memory of those killed Al Kiddush Hashem. It was a response of building in response to destruction.
I studied in the Rabbinic Seminary at Yeshivat Hamivtar in the years 2007 – 2010. I was among a small group of mostly Baalei Teshuva (Jews who later in life became more observant) whom dedicated their time towards Torah study to ultimately teach and lead Jewish communities in Israel and the Diaspora. Our Bet Midrash (study hall) overlooked the Biblical landscape of Gush Etzion, our rabbis were top notch, we were living Religious Zionism at one of it’s best!
One of those young men I was learning with was Rabbi Leo Dee. Leo was a few years older than most of us. He was already married and had a few beautiful blond daughters. He and his wife Lucy z’l sacrificed so much for Leo to learn Torah full time. Prior to Hamivtar, Leo and Lucy were living in London, they both graduated from the top British universities Cambridge and Oxford. Leo was working successfully in finance but was searching for more in life. He and Lucy decided to give up their comfortable lives in England to make aliyah and to become a Rabbinic couple.
The Hamivtar Kollel families lived in relative comfort. Our homes were brand new Caravillas which were also rent free. We also received a monthly stipend which helped all of us get by. I remember that Leo and Lucy lived in Efrat, paid their own rent and didn’t take a dollar from the kollel. They chose not to be takers but only givers. Lucy’s generosity continued even after her death; she donated her major organs hours before her funeral, saving the lives of five people. Lucy’s heart, liver, kidneys and lungs saved multiple lives in this final act of kindness.
As part of our Rabbinic training, we would alternate giving a dvar Torah with Rabbi Riskin in the audience. Rabbi Riskin would give us feedback afterwards on our public speaking skills. I remember when Leo spoke. His British common sense, intelligence, eloquence, and thirst for Torah left a lasting impression on me. It was apparent to everyone in the Bet Midrash how happy he was to be learning Torah and living in Israel. My wife Emma is also British so we had an additional English connection. I remember Lucy’s mother often came over to spend time with Emma during her long visits to see her family. Leo and Lucy’s daughters were very young when I knew them. I can only recall how adorable they were.
Leo was a year ahead of me in the Smicha program and he and his family went back to London for their shlichut. They lived in two communities, Hendon and then Radlett. Radlett is where my mother and step father in law live. They often reported to me how wonderful the Dee family are and how Rabbi Leo Dee inspired the community one sermon after the next. They were so proud that their Rabbi went to Rabbinical school with their son in law. When Leo was returning to go back to Israel, he and I spoke for a while on the phone. He shared with me his enjoyment and job satisfaction being a community rabbi. It seemed that the Dees were living a very happy and meaningful life in the UK, but at the same time there was nothing stopping him nor Lucy from returning back home to Efrat. I know personally that the Dee family left a strong impression on both communities in London. They brought their love for Torah and Israel with them and inspired so many.
Rabbi Dee, in the most awful of circumstances, has an audience much bigger than the Smicha class at Hamivtar and the small shul in suburban London. He has in a superhuman way managed to channel so much pain into teaching the world Torah values of what the Jewish people and the State of Israel stand for.
Rabbi Dee said: “For too long we have let a small minority try to convince us there is no right and wrong. Everything is relative. On the other side, my beautiful late wife, Lucy and I have tried to bring up our children with strong moral values; helping others, caring for others, and building community. The evil terrorist is a product of a broken culture that does not differentiate between good and evil. The Bible, the best selling book of all time, teaches us one major lesson: We can all make the choice of good and bad.” Then, he called on all listeners: “Let the Israeli flag send out a message to humanity which is to choose good over evil!” My friend Leo after falling victim to such evil challenges society today, calling for moral clarity in a world filled with moral confusion.
When eulogizing Lucy, Rabbi Dee quoted David Sacks, a teacher of a popular Torah Podcast saying, “The formula for faith is always to focus on what you DO have and not what you do NOT have. We all need to replace what you say you NEED in life with WANT. You don’t NEED more money, you don’t NEED a larger house, you WANT those things. Now, replace what you HAVE with what you NEED. You don’t just HAVE a family, a job, a community, good health, you NEED your family, your job, your community and good health. This is a secret to a meaningful life.” After losing two of his daughters and his wife yet appreciating that he still has three surviving children, he proclaimed: I don’t HAVE three children left, I NEED my three children.” Like Rabbi Mandel, I am inspired by another survivor living al Kiddush Hashem in response to their loved ones who died al kiddush Hashem.
I work part time as an Israel tour guide during summer and winter vacation. In August of 2018, I was guiding a small group in Gush Etzion. We visited the park that was built in memory of “the Three Boys” (2014 kidnapping). It was my first time there and I was unsure what the place had to offer. I saw another guide who was talking so passionately about the place and he and I started to chat for a bit. He was so proud of this park. He explained to me that it was physically built by the teenagers of Efrat in response to the terror that took place at that very site where the three boys were kidnapped. (That site also happens to be less than one kilometre from where I lived at Hamivtar.) I will never forget his words. He said, “They seek to destroy us and we respond by building, this is how we respond to terror”. That inspiring man was Ari Fuld z’l, this story occurred just prior to his tragic murder that took place within site of the park where I met him. I believe that I met Ari days before his tragic murder so that I can spread his powerful message he taught me to others.
Ari Fuld was so right, the Jewish response to destruction is to build! The greatest testament of this is the fact that after 6 million Jews were murdered the nation immediately started to rebuild our ancient Biblical Homeland!
In his last days, Moses shares that there are secrets of world history which are only for God to understand. However, that which is revealed, namely the Torah is for us to learn from and act upon. (see Devarim 28:29) Rabbi Dee has articulated time and time again Torah wisdom to so many. We can never know why these things happen, but we can learn from Jewish wisdom how to respond. He has inspired and reminded so many of us what it means to be Jewish, to be Israeli, to be a good human being. The Dee family are another living example of how to build in response to tragedy. They are a living Kiddush Hashem to those beloved who were killed Al Kiddush Hashem. May they and all those in pain from this terror be comforted, and may the Jewish people listen to Rabbi Dee’s words and unite together in strength for a better future.