Condolence visits are part of a rabbi’s life, but no one ever taught us how to make nine visits in a 48-hour period.
We arrived in Israel on the morning of March 11 and left the following night. Our mission, representing the Rabbinical Council of America, was to express solidarity with the families of the victims of the terror attack at Yeshivat Mercaz Harav, comfort the injured in the hospitals, and visit the yeshiva.
We were joined on different parts of our trip by Rabbi Joseph Pollack of Boston and Rabbis Milton Polin and Jay Karzen of Jerusalem, as well as the president of Yeshiva University, Richard Joel, and his chief of staff, Rabbi Joshua Joseph.
During our two days in Israel, we never heard anyone call for revenge. What we heard was a determination to enhance Torah study, prayer, concern for the welfare of the nation, and a vision to double the Mercaz High School enrollment from ’50 to 500. This, it was said, would be the appropriate answer to the terrorist’s destruction.
We immediately traveled to Ashdod to visit the family of Doron Meherte, ‘6. He had arrived in Israel from Ethiopia at the age of 8 during Operation Solomon. He was an outstanding Talmud student who was studying for the rabbinate.
Known for his keen concentration, Doron did not even notice the terrorist entering the library, and was the only student killed while sitting at his table immersed in his studies. The volume he was studying, saturated with his blood, was buried together with him.
Ro’ie Roth, 16, of Elkana, was passionate about prayer and often would be the last in the yeshiva to complete his daily prayers. Yonatan Eldar, 16, of Shiloh, was part of a close-knit group of friends. His great love for the land of Israel turned him into an avid hiker.
Yehonadav Hirschfield, 19, of Kokhav Hashahar, was the grandson and great-grandson of two prominent American rabbis. He had completed studying the entire Mishnah 70 times and on that fateful night he was completing the Mishnah yet again.
Avraham Moses, 16, of Efrat, the son of American immigrants, was beloved in his community for his exceptional acts of kindness. Segev Avihail, 15, of Neve Daniel, was a prolific writer at his very young age.
Yohai Lifshitz, 18, of Jerusalem, blessed with an analytical mind, spent his days and nights in the study hall. Neria Cohen, 15, the youngest victim, was an eager student who wrote sophisticated questions to Israel’s leading rabbis.
At each home we were received with warmth. Each family remarkably demonstrated an incredible spirit and an awe-inspiring faith. We were shown blood-stained and bullet-burned books that the boys had been studying, and we heard remarkable stories about each boy’s commitment to Torah and acts of kindness.
Each family expressed the feeling that they were not alone in their grief and that the entire Jewish nation was mourning with them. One father remarked that he received calls from all over the world.
Our trip included hospital visits to the three most seriously wounded students. The oldest is a ‘6-year-old father of two who suffered a serious arm injury. The youngest is a ninth-grader named Nadav Samuel, who calmly recounted his experience of being shot six times in his arms and legs while taking cover behind a bookcase.
The most gravely hurt boy is Naftali Sheetrit, 16, of the long-suffering Israeli town of Sderot. As of the time of our visit, he was in a medically induced coma with serious abdominal and leg wounds. We met his family sitting outside the intensive care unit next to an Arab family that also was waiting on news of a loved one.
The surgeon who operated on Naftali had rushed to the hospital when he heard about the attack and was the first to open the ambulance door. When he saw the gravity of Naftali’s situation, the surgeon wheeled him into the operating room without scrubbing. The boy had to be resuscitated twice during the procedure.
Before Shabbat we learned that Naftali is now awake, speaking, and off the critical list, thank God.
Our visit, with Joel, to Mercaz Harav was quite emotional. Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro, the head of the yeshiva, gave us a walking tour of the library and a full description of the murderous attack. Contrary to news accounts, the terrorist never had any association with the school. The signs of the horror are still visible.
Our brief visit reaffirmed our pride in Israel and its many unsung heroes. The boys who were murdered take their place among our nation’s martyrs, and the courageous survivors are a great inspiration.
Through this tragedy we again are reminded of the indomitable spirit, resilience, and deep faith of the young and old who dedicate their days and nights for the Jewish future in Israel. May that memory propel us and our nation to lead more meaningful lives.
Rabbi Heshie Billet is the spiritual leader of Young Israel of Woodmere, N.Y. Rabbi Elazar Muskin is the spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Century City in Los Angeles.