Rabbanit Chana Henkin began the eulogy for her son Eitam with an apology.
She was sorry, she told thousands of us standing in the parking lot of the Har Hamenuchot cemetery, that we had waited an hour in the broiling sun until two big blue burial society vans arrived, bearing the shrouded bodies of her child and his wife.
She was sorry, she said in her beautiful American-accented Hebrew, for the hot delay — especially on a Friday, when everyone had to get home to prepare for Shabbat.
Just 15 hours earlier, Rabbi Eitam and Naama Henkin had been driving home from a reunion sukkah party when Arab terrorists shot them dead. The young couple’s four sons — Matan, 9, Nitzan, 7, Neta, 4, and baby Itamar — watched in horror from the back of the car.
Rabbanit Henkin, an internationally respected pioneer of higher learning for Jewish women, did not scream to the heavens for revenge. She did not mention the monsters who took the lives of her beloved son and daughter-in-law for the “crime” of being Jews in the Jewish homeland. She did not mention the celebratory parades taking place in Arab towns and neighborhoods.
Her gentle voice tinged with grief, she observed that Eitam should one day have eulogized her, not the other way around. She vowed to help raise her freshly orphaned grandsons, adding after Itamar’s name, “who is still nursing.”
I know we all wondered, “Who will nurse Itamar now?” as we listened to the heartbreaking words of the rabbanit, as she is known respectfully, and those of her husband, Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, and of Naama’s parents, Chanan and Hila Armoni. We marveled at the steadiness of their voices. Only Rabbi Henkin repeatedly broke down during his loving tribute. And when the sweet little-boy voice of Matan began reciting the kaddish, all of us standing in the parking lot broke down too.
Regrettably I never met Eitam and Naama Henkin — described by Hila Armoni as inseparable in life as in death — but I felt a connection.
A quarter century ago, Rabbanit Henkin founded Nishmat, the Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women in Jerusalem. In 1999, she founded Nishmat’s groundbreaking Yoatzot Halacha Program, a two-year course certifying female advisers on the intricacies of Jewish laws pertaining to fertility, sexuality, family planning, and women’s medical conditions.
From 2009 to 2014, my daughter-in-law coordinated Nishmat’s post-high-school program for English-speakers. She and my son lived on campus in a two-bedroom apartment previously occupied by the dorm parents, Eitam and Naama Henkin.
We often ran into the rabbanit when we came to visit or babysit our grandchildren. Always smiling, always with a kind word about our son and daughter-in-law, she and Rabbi Henkin several times graciously let us stay over Shabbat in the little campus apartment they use during the week. Last June, on assignment from the Jerusalem Post, I came to their home in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood to interview them on the occasion of Nishmat’s silver anniversary.
So when I heard the unspeakably tragic news, I immediately decided to go to the funeral at 11 on Friday morning. At 10:30, I boarded a No. 54 bus to Har Hamenuchot outside the Jerusalem Central Bus Station.
I was not surprised to recognize other passengers, including the young woman boarding behind me. We’d been introduced at various friends-of-friends’ occasions and recognized one another right away. She sat across from me as the bus filled to beyond capacity.
“You’re going to the funeral?” I guessed. She nodded. “I think most of the people on this bus are going, too,” she noted, correctly as it turned out. She had worked and studied at Nishmat. Several years ago she lost a baby in infancy, and the rabbanit was there for her, so she wanted to be there for the rabbanit today.
I saw many other familiar faces at the funeral, including that of Nishmat faculty member Racheli Fraenkel, whose son Naftali and two friends were killed by Arab terrorists in June 2014. The rabbanit had been there for her, too.
She also had been there for the Flatow family of West Orange. Stephen Flatow wrote in the Times of Israel on the day of the funeral: “It was Chana Henkin who met me outside the intensive care unit of Soroka Medical Center in Beer Sheva a little over 20 years ago when I arrived to see my daughter Alisa, who lay dying from her injury in a Palestinian terror attack that had taken place the day before.” Alisa had been a student at Nishmat; now the campus and the international post-college program are named in her memory.
Now it is our turn to be there for her and the Henkin and Armoni families. We cannot nurse baby Itamar. We cannot comfort the older children every morning as they awake and remember that they will never see their parents again. But we can let them know we care with a hug, a compassionate look, a squeeze of the hand, a kind word or deed.
As I write this on Sunday morning, there are more funerals in Jerusalem, more orphans, more shattered lives. We need to be there for them, too.
Abigail Klein Leichman, our Israel correspondent, lived in Teaneck before she made aliyah, and sends us occasional reports on her experiences in Israel.