The night my son, my first-born, my beloved, Avraham David was murdered was March 6, 2008, Rosh Chodesh Adar on the Hebrew calendar.
Rosh Chodesh Adar initiates a period of rejoicing in the Jewish calendar, so it was an auspicious date for Yeshivat Har Etzion to be celebrating its fortieth anniversary. I was there with my husband, David, Avraham David’s stepfather, participating in the event.
It was while preparing the sources before a class to be given by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein that we received the first text message. “Attack in Mercaz HaRav, three moderately injured.” Avraham David didn’t study in Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav, he was at the high school next door, Yashlatz. But I knew Avraham David. He was precocious beyond his years, and I knew that he frequented Mercaz HaRav, and had even spent several days there as a full-time student when, due to the prediction of a particularly severe snowstorm, his high school had sent all the students home. On Sunday morning, instead of enjoying the brief vacation, he packed his bag, grabbed a sleeping bag and headed into town. That was how determined he was to learn, and that was how dedicated he was to the study-hall.
“Three moderately injured,” that didn’t sound too bad. All I had to do was establish connection with Avraham David to make sure everything was all right. I called. He didn’t answer. But then again, he almost never answered. He kept his phone in the closet in his dorm-room and would check it every few days to see what calls he had missed. When I would try calling him, he was likely to call back two or three days later to ask, “Ima, were you looking for me?”
His not answering was no reason to worry. But it also wasn’t reassurance that everything was all right. I tried calling his friend and study partner, Segev Avichail, who kept his phone available and was happy to answer when we were looking for Avraham David. Segev didn’t answer either. I thought, surely the boys must have the good sense to go get their phones and call home. I waited a few minutes and tried Avraham David’s number again. Still nothing.
A few years before, Jerusalem was plagued with bus bombings. One of the most chilling stories was of a ZAKA worker who found a mobile phone with 51 unanswered calls.
People were frantically calling to be reassured that everything was all right. But it wasn’t. The owner of the phone had just been killed. That stuck with me: “51 unanswered calls.” It wasn’t the specific number, that was just a symbol. A lot of calls, a lot of anguish, no reassurance. It became a concept for me. When I thought something was really bad, the phrase “51 unanswered calls” would pop into my head.
I had tried calling Avraham David. I had tried calling Segev. I had tried calling Avraham David again. From out of nowhere a sentence popped into my head, “That is three out of fifty-one.”
I called the school counsellor. She was on the way to the high school. She said the boys would be gathered together. Accounted for. I said the obvious, “Please have them call home.” Fifteen minutes later I called again, and the counsellor said that Avraham David hadn’t been located yet, but they were still gathering students together. I considered driving into town, but I knew Markaz would be a closed zone, and I was not savvy enough to get in.
A flurry of text messages continued. People who didn’t have information. People who needed information. We texted each other back and forth simply to stay connected.
It was time for the class to begin. It was assumed that most of the women would participate in a different activity. I was upstairs, in the balcony, which was not designed for the volume of a class or lecture, but I had wanted to meet Rav Lichtenstein for a long time, so I wanted to stay, whether I heard everything or not.
I was still reminding myself to wait quietly. Waiting to hear from Avraham David. Waiting to hear about Avraham David. Choosing to wait. Choosing to sit quietly.
Rav Lichtenstein walked up to the podium, and instead of beginning the class, he opened with a chapter of Psalms. This was no typical responsive reading. It was heart-wrenching, an outpouring of the heart.
Out of the depths I cry to you, Oh L-ord!
Oh L-ord, hear my voice!
The Rav shook the rafters, and his cry shook me to the core. I knew clearly at this point that he had heard news that I hadn’t yet heard – I knew there were dead.
I held my ground through the class. I told myself over and over again not to panic. I spoke softly with the woman sitting next to me, since we couldn’t hear the class anyway. We spoke of family and children. Those things most precious to us. I didn’t say what was worrying me. It was an opportunity to be near someone. Let go for just a bit. Wait until there was more news.
At the end of the class, she and I were told that there were eight fatalities. I knew it was time to start moving. It wasn’t my place to stay at a celebration. I had sat through class waiting for more news, and I had just gotten enough more. Eight were dead. I was not going to continue waiting to hear if one of them was Avraham David.
I located my husband, and said, “We have to leave now.” We had gotten one more lead, in the meantime, which was a phone number for a contact at Avraham David’s school. I was told that Avraham David was now considered “missing.” I said, “But surely someone knows where he is,” and was told, “He was last seen with Segev, leaving Yashlatz, most likely on the way to Mercaz.” They were both missing. I had this phone conversation as I was walking down the flight of steps leaving Har Etzion. And then somehow, I was in the car, my husband at the wheel.
The radio was playing, and the news came on. Israelis are tough. They’ve seen a lot. Their reporters seem invincible. But not this time. With a shaking voice, he announced that, although Mercaz HaRav is a yeshivah for adults, and although one would expect the casualties to have been adults, there were reports from the hospital saying that two patients had just been stabilized and were out of risk of death, and that they were just boys, approximately aged sixteen. We turned to each other, “That’s them! That’s Avraham David and Segev!” I asked David to drive home so I could pack some things and then continue to the hospital.
While I got some overnight things, he made a few phone calls. Hospitals were hurriedly trying to ID patients. These weren’t patients who provided ID numbers upon arrival, patiently, if uncomfortably, waiting for their turn to be treated in the emergency room. These were patients whose ambulance teams radioed in to have surgeons scrubbed and poised to start working as soon as they were rushed in the door. These were people who had an article of clothing brought out to see if it was recognized. My husband was speaking with someone who was tracking these details and he must have been in a mild state of shock, I couldn’t get him off the phone. As if we could find Avraham David somehow in the comfort of our home.
I slipped into the bedroom with the Jerusalem phone directory and looked up Mercaz. I had talked to people at Yashlatz. I would try one more possibility. Where the attack had actually taken place. It was a longshot. Educational facilities don’t answer phones at 11:00 at night. But, to my surprise, someone picked up. “Hello. I’m looking for my son, Avraham David Moses. I was wondering if you have any information?” The reply was faster than in a normal conversation, “We don’t have a student by that name. Be in contact with Yashlatz.”
This was, for me, the moment of knowing. Only later did my brain process how I knew. There were many students at Mercaz HaRav, and additional people drop in for evening classes. No one answering a phone in a school office at 11:00 at night would know the name of every student, and there was nothing in what I said that indicated that he was a student at Yashlatz. There was someone in the Mercaz office with a list of names. Someone had made a decision that anyone who looked for one of the people on the list would be referred to Yashlatz. Avraham David was on that list. I couldn’t process any of that till months later, but at that moment, I viscerally knew Avraham David was dead.
I didn’t understand why I knew that, so I went according to protocol – going through the motions.
I told my husband, who was still on the phone, I’m going now. If you want to come, come, but I can’t wait any longer. The last unidentified injured at Hadassa Ein Kerem was described as “blond” (not Segev) and with braces (not Avraham David). So we went to Shaare Tzedek. I called my former husband, Avraham David’s dad, to let him know. He headed out at the same time. As we left Efrat, there were still three unidentified injured there. Even by calculating likelihood – three unidentified injured, eight killed – the numbers were not reassuring.
David said we had to brace for a long haul of recovery and rehab. Of nights in the hospital. In fact, I had packed what I needed just for that. But the whole time I couldn’t stop asking myself, how will I bury Avraham David? I didn’t say this out loud, as if my belief could kill Avraham David even if he wasn’t already dead. As if he could die just from my not believing he was alive.
Family members kept making phone inquiries and calling us back. People were looking so hard for their children. A kippah, or sneakers, or a photo of a face taken in the OR were quickly recognized and identified.
As we entered Shaare Tzedek, there was still doubt whether one “small, blond, green eyed boy” was still to be identified. My husband said, surely blue eyes could be confused with green. Everything else fit. But he had just been claimed by other loving parents who also recognized his clothes. I know who that boy is, he is a young man now. I love him very much, and, in fact, his eyes are blue. There were just not enough injured to go around …
On our way in, I asked to see the list of those killed. The whole time I was sure, but I was also ready to be called out on a hasty mistake. Oh, how I would have liked to have been wrong. Ironically, a list of those killed is official, and goes through strict procedures. Avraham David’s name could not show up on that list until I gave it permission to be there. And all I wanted at that point was to know.
We were led to an area with a social worker. Segev’s family was already there. We wondered whether they could have been any place else other than the site of the attack. I spoke with his uncle, expressing regret that Segev and Avraham David weren’t the kind of boys who would leave yeshivah to sneak into a movie, turning their phones back on later, only to find what a commotion they had caused.
The social worker who had been intermittently talking with us approached us and said there was nothing more she could help us with, and that we should go to the yeshivah. We were doing everything by rote, so when we got to the roadblock that approached the yeshivah, we looped around to get to the yeshivah from the other side, but of course that was blocked, too. Fortunately, David realized at this point that we should talk to the guards at the roadblock, and of course they allowed us through.
After parking, we walked towards the yeshivah. Although it was after midnight, the street was full of pedestrians. It wasn’t exactly a mob, and it wasn’t a demonstration, just a lot of people trying to get close, experiencing the shock together. Suddenly we were stopped by an officer of the civilian corps, who told us that from here, the street was closed even to pedestrians. She spoke like a Jewish matriarch. The kind of grandmother that everyone knows not to argue with. I didn’t know how to explain why we had to be let through, I looked at her and a sentence came out of my mouth, “We’ve been asked to help identify the dead.” Yes, she was just like a grandmother. She put her hand on my arm, her touch full of compassion and courage and waved us through.
Within minutes, we were at the closed yeshivah gates. The high school counsellor was waiting for us and ushered us in. She led us through the yeshivah building in a circuitous route to the high school, and into the office of the high school Rosh Yeshiva. Rav Weis was out of his office, attending to another family when I arrived, but my former husband, Avraham David’s dad was there, as was our eleven-year-old son, who had gone with his dad to find a brother they thought would be mildly enough injured to laugh about it. Their faces were both tear-streaked. I turned to my former husband and got the words out in the only way I knew how, “Did what I think happen really happen?” He just nodded and cried some more. I said the blessing upon receiving grievous news, and I tore my shirt.
Segev was gone, too. They both had been shot, embracing each other, gemarrot between them, crouched between the rows of bookcases in the library, each trying to protect the other, each trying to find shelter with a friend.
I reached for my son Elisha Dan, who came and sat next to me and cried in my arms.
Most of the rest of the night we spent planning the funeral. Rav Weis went from room to room, and, together, we planned a funeral for all eight boys, and planned an individual burial for Avraham David. I found a work substitute for the next night, and my husband found a replacement for the wedding he was to officiate the next day.
Since I hadn’t received an official announcement, at the first opportunity I asked one of the social workers to please tell me. “I know what happened, but I need to hear the sentence.” There are strict rules about who can make such an announcement, and ironically, a decision that the eight boys would remain at the yeshivah and that the families would come there directly circumvented some of the formal protocol, and I could find no one who was authorized to tell me. I had felt the truth already at the third phone call. I knew the truth without knowing why after calling the yeshivah office. Driving into town, I was aware of the logical implications of three unidentified injured and eight unknown dead. It was as if I were traveling through a funnel, leading to only one logical possibility: that Avraham David had been killed. But I couldn’t get anyone to tell me.
Sometimes I still want someone to knock on my door when I’m least expecting it and say, “I’m so sorry to have to tell you that your son Avraham David has been killed.”
Partway through the night, we were given the option of seeing Avraham David. I walked in, and the person beside him uncovered his beautiful face. His face was untouched, and someone had carefully washed his hair. A wound on his neck was exposed and concealed so quickly I almost missed it. He barely looked like Avraham David. He had lost nearly all of his blood, and what was really missing was the tremendous light that so characterized him. I had never realized that his most identifying characteristic had been a kind of radiance. But I knew he was mine, and I could see he had left. I said goodbye and thanked him for being my boy.
In the next room, his dad made the necessary declaration, and we did the required DNA swabs and returned to preparing the funeral. We made phone calls to notify family. My mother and sister had been watching the news in North America and knew what the call was as soon as they heard the phone ring.
There was nothing left to do besides wait for the funeral, so we finally left the yeshivah a little after three a.m. On the way out, I saw the sister of one of the other victims, the only other member of the bereaved families I had seen since we had gotten to the yeshivah. She was crying, and I wanted to hold her and cry with her. We were experiencing something overwhelming: devastating and isolating. I wanted to reach out and make that contact, but I just didn’t dare.
We got home, and after choosing a photo for an announcement, I decided to sleep for an hour before I woke up the little ones to tell them the news and to get ready for the funeral. One might ask, “How could you possibly sleep when your child has just died?” But there was such a feeling of irreversible loss. Staying awake couldn’t fix that.
I allowed myself one hour of sleep. It was just enough to divide what I knew from what was yet to come. I reached into the closet for my blouse of pale cornflower blue, the one I had worn for Avraham David’s bar mitzvah, to begin the day.