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Two packs of tissues and an arm around my shoulders

I knew nothing could prepare me for saying Yizkor for my son, recently killed in war, but it was a woman's kind comfort that surprised me
Zechariah ob"m, with his wife Talia.
Zechariah ob"m, with his wife Talia.

Now that Passover is behind us and we are approaching Yom HaZikaron, I am writing to share a moving act of kindness I experienced on the last day of Pesach in Israel, at a synagogue in Jerusalem. To my great sorrow, our beloved son Zechariah Pesach Haber ob”m was killed in Gaza in reserve duty in January 2024. Since then, my husband Aharon and I have been grappling with the worst loss a parent can experience — the loss of a child. I know it can be difficult to know how to relate to people who have suffered a terrible loss, particularly after the initial mourning week of shiva has ended, even for people who would very much like to help. I am hoping that my experience over the holiday will inspire other similar acts of kindness. 

Until October 7th, I attended synagogue (or “beit knesset”) almost every Shabbat and holiday. On October 7th, I was on my way to minyan when the first sirens sounded in Jerusalem and I returned home. Zechariah, a kind, brilliant father of three, was called up to reserve duty that night, and, throughout his reserve duty, which lasted (with short breaks) until he was killed on January 16th, I barely attended beit knesset. My anxiety about his safety was overwhelming and I could not stand engaging in small talk with other congregants while my child was in danger.  

After Zechariah died, I did not have the energy to go back to the synagogue where I had prayed regularly prior to October 7th. It seemed that life had simply moved on for most of the attendees, while for us, life is largely standing still, at the moment of that knock on the door. However,  I missed hearing the Torah reading and group prayer afforded only at synagogue. I decided to start attending Shabbat morning services with my husband at a different beit knesset in our neighborhood, one we had never visited before Zechariah’s death and where Aharon now regularly says Kaddish for Zechariah and two of his friends from reserve duty who were also tragically killed in the war, Yair Katz ob”m and Netzer Simchi ob”m. Fortunately, the minyan usually meets outdoors in a garden where the beautiful flowers and trees remind me of Zechariah’s gentle presence (he was deeply attached to nature, had already earned two degrees in Plant Science, and was about to finish a PhD in growing wheat in drought conditions at the time of his death). Zechariah was our resident botanist and at this outdoor gathering on the holiday, I was able to see a blooming pomegranate tree, one of his favorites, while praying.

On Shabbat Chol HaMoed, I found myself crying during the singing of Hallel at minyan. Singing God’s praises after losing our precious child seemed absurd to me. Fortunately, I have tissues with me wherever I go these days, including in my designated bag for beit knesset. As the last day of Passover rapidly approached, I realized that if I attended synagogue on the holiday, I would face the double-challenge of singing Hallel and saying Yizkor, the Jewish memorial prayer, for Zechariah for the first time. I packed two packs of tissues.

I have said Yizkor for many years, first for my mother and then for my father as well. But I knew that nothing about my prior experiences saying Yizkor could prepare me for the difficulty I would face in saying Yizkor for Zechariah. I was concerned about breaking down in public prayer. Then I recalled a Facebook post by another mother whose son was killed in this war, in which she explained her decision to host her traditional women’s megillah reading on Purim this year. She had that she would attend as she is — even if that is in a broken state — and off I went to the minyan.

Hallel was again very difficult for me. And Yizkor was even harder than I had imagined it would be. I was embarrassed to be visibly and heavily crying at beit knesset, and while I did feel that it was important for me that I be there, in my brokenness, I also feel largely alone.  

Suddenly, I felt an arm around my shoulders, comforting me.  A woman whom I did not know (though she later explained she is married to someone I grew up with) came to stand with me, and comfort me, during Yizkor. She did not want me to be alone in my grief, and I so appreciated her kindness. She added that she and her family had spoken about Zechariah at their seder, after seeing an email about Pesach-related portions of a talmudic encyclopedia he authored when finishing up yeshivat hesder about a decade ago. I was even more grateful to know people are learning about and remembering Zechariah.

While I am sure other women who saw me crying felt bad for me, only one moved over to help me. I am writing to ask you to please try to be that person.  If you see someone visibly sad or distressed in these difficult days (including in synagogue) please consider speaking up and showing us that we are not alone, and that it is okay for us to be with you, praying and crying (or shopping and crying). Although it can be awkward and difficult to approach a stranger, after the comfort I received yesterday, my view is that it is better to err on the side of extending a kind gesture or word — you never know how much it may mean to the recipient.

Wishing for better days for all of Am Yisrael.

About the Author
Miriam Haber made aliyah to Israel in 1999 from New Jersey and now lives in Jerusalem. Miriam is first and foremost a wife, mom, and grandmother. She is also a lawyer.
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