|This mural, showing various aspects of Jewish women, marks the Alisa Flatow wing of the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey. Yaron Karl|
Alisa Flatow, a 20-year-old Brandeis student from New Jersey whose dimples flashed whenever she smiled, has been dead for almost exactly as long as she was alive.
She should have been 40 now, most likely the married mother of a small brood of children. But terrorists decided that they preferred her dead, and they blew her up. Nothing personal, of course – she was just a nameless passenger on a bus in Israel, in the wrong place at the wrong time.
She was the oldest of five children, a vivid personality, a real person, and neither her parents nor her siblings ever have been willing to let her memory recede. Her father, Steven Flatow, has fought vigorously to make the countries that funded her murder pay for it, and he has had some very real success.
And now the family has dedicated a wing of the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in her memory, so that all the school’s students, but most particularly the middle-school girls, most of whose classes are in the wing, can learn from and live by her example.
“Adam and I just felt that we were ready to do something in Alisa’s name,” Francine Mermelstein of Bergenfield said. Alisa Flatow, her family’s oldest child, had three sisters and a brother; Ms. Mermelstein is one of those sisters, and Adam is her husband. “Nineteen years later, and I still bump into people who say ‘I remember where I was when it happened.’ Those are people about my age. But now there’s a whole new generation.
“Granted, my kids know about Alisa – we talk about her, and they know what happened – but there is a whole new generation of kids, and I want them to know.”
Francine and Adam Mermelstein have five children; the four older ones are at RYNJ, and the baby will be too, as soon as he is old enough. Although the Flatow children, who grew up in Essex County, went to the Kushner Academy in Livingston, which was local for them (and Alisa commuted to the Frisch Academy in Paramus, because Kushner then stopped in eighth grade), the three surviving Flatow sisters – Ms. Mermelstein, Gail Reider, and Ilana Berkowitz – all live in Bergenfield. Their brother, Eitan Flatow, lives in Israel. Many of Alisa’s nieces and nephews are students at RYNJ.
That means it was easy for the Mermelsteins to realize the RYNJ was the right place for a memorial to Alisa, but they did not know at first what form it should take. “We spoke to the school, throwing around ideas,” Ms. Mermelstein said. “The second that they suggested naming the wing, I knew it was the right thing to do. It’s not that I had been thinking about that – I hadn’t been – but the second they said it I knew it was right.”
It’s not that she was suggestible, she continued, it was that the idea made such good sense. “If they had suggested naming the nursery wing, I wouldn’t have felt the same way. I would have said that it was a nice idea – but I’m not feeling it. Sixth, seventh, eighth grades are a time when girls are so impressionable. They are trying to figure out who they are, and where they are going. And what better role model could they have than Alisa? They have so much to learn and to gain from her.”
Ms. Mermelstein was in 10th grade, a few years out of middle school, when her sister was murdered. She was five years younger than Alisa. But she has some memories of Alisa as a middle-schooler. “I remember her walking with her friends, vague memories of her being in school. She was a little girl, hanging out with her friends. I remember her knee socks, I remember her glasses, and I remember her being with her friends.
“And I remember her being the life of the party, always the life of the party.”
Last Wednesday, the school unveiled a mural and the accompanying plaque. Cindy Zucker, the middle school girls’ mashgicha ruchanit – their religious guidance counselor – described the ceremony.
“The girls are wonderful girls, but when they came upstairs” – to the wing – “I have never seen them carry themselves with as much dignity and respect. And right away they were hooked.”
The mural had been hanging since the school year began, but it had been covered. The girls did not know what lay beneath the swaddling. “Every day, they walked by, and saw a wall with a big cover. They had no idea what was underneath,” Ms. Zucker said. “Then they were all sitting on the floor – there are 160 girls – and all of a sudden the sheet came off, and all of a sudden there was a collective” – she made the sound of a great gasp, the sound of awe. “It was so incredibly moving.”
“You could have heard a pin drop,” Ms. Mermelstein agreed.
The mural, created by Rockland County artist Leah Chamish, shows women in many situations. Each woman is a role model. “We have Sarah in front of her tent, and Miriam singing with the women after the parting of the Red Sea,” Ms. Zucker said. “We have Deborah judging, sitting under the tree; a mother and daughter lighting Shabbes candles together, some modern Israeli soldiers. In the center there is a picture of women davening at the Kotel. Each one symbolizes a different quality of Alisa’s.
“And then in the bottom frame there is a picture of YNJ girls learning Torah. You can tell by the classroom that it’s YNJ.
“The girls figured out who all the women are. And the end, I pointed to the last one, and I said ‘Girls, who is this?’ And they said ‘This is us.'”
“The idea is beauty, and the mural is breathtakingly beautiful, and the lessons are beautiful.”
Alisa Flatow’s photograph is on a glass plaque, hanging right next to the mural.
She too was a role model, Ms. Zucker said. She had not known Alisa, but she has heard many things about her. “She had so many friends,” she said. “She wanted to be friends with girls who were more religious than she was, so she could learn from them, and she wanted to be friends with girls who were less religious, so she could teach them.” She saw herself as part of a chain. “That just hit home with the girls so much,” Ms. Zucker said.
The chain will continue to add links. “Every year, we will make a book,” Ms. Zucker added. “The girls will make a book of divrei Torah and give it to the family. That way they can see all the learning the girls are doing to honor their legacy. It won’t be just a plaque on the wall – they’ll really be living Alisa’s legacy.”