First Person

At Thanksgiving, joy and terror in Israel

Jacob Ezra Schwartz
Jacob Ezra Schwartz

Last week, I celebrated Thanksgiving in Israel in the most unusual yet meaningful way. We had a regular day filled with Gemara and Torah learning, but in the evening, I had the honor of attending both an azkara (memorial service) for American yeshiva student Ezra Schwartz (no relation) and a wedding. Before he was murdered, Ezra had expressed a desire to learn all of the Tanach [Torah, Prophets and Writings] before he returned home to the Boston area in June. He had enough resources and rabbis around him that, although it was a lofty goal, it was attainable nonetheless. On Nov. 19, someone woke up with so much hate in his heart that he decided to take away Ezra’s life and end all of his ambitions. In his honor, 1,500 yeshiva and seminary students gathered at his yeshiva, Ashreinu, and each person learned a little piece of Tanach in his honor. We finished all of the Tanach in 20 minutes. We completed one of Ezra’s goals that he will not be able to. We elevated his memory and brought more Torah to a world so devoid of values. We made a siyum (the blessing after finishing a specific track of texts) and although it felt wrong, we danced. We danced until we boarded the bus for Jerusalem and the wedding.

The bride at this wedding, Sarah Litman, lost her father and her brother to senseless terror attacks just a few short weeks ago, right before her wedding. Instead of allowing the terrorists to win again by striking fear into our hearts, she and her fiancé postponed the wedding and invited all of Am Yisroel. All of us! Over 10,000 people showed up from around the world. I have never seen so many different people from so many different backgrounds come together to share in such a beautiful occasion. There were far too many people to fit in the dance hall, so we sang and danced in the streets until we had lost our voices and were drenched in sweat.

These two celebrations could have been tainted by the fear of terrorism, but instead we all experienced unbridled joy. We came together as a family, a big, crazy, happy Jewish family, which is the exact opposite of what the terrorists want. They want us to live in fear, to hide, to stop celebrating and doing mitzvot, but their tactics will not work! They cannot work. Never have I seen such an incredible embodiment of life and spirit tied to, but not lessened by, so much death. We are all aware of the brutal world we live in, surrounded by so many people who want to wipe us out and countries that refuse to support us, but we live on! We always have and we always will because Am Yisroel Chai [the people of Israel live]! We will continue to live and to celebrate every day and to not ever let the terrorists win.

This Thanksgiving, this crazy emotional rollercoaster of a Thanksgiving, one without turkey or cranberry sauce or my immediate family, made me more thankful than every Thanksgiving from years past. As I consider what I am thankful for (my family, my friends, the opportunity to study in Israel and figure out the type of person I want to be and the life I want to live), I now see that we, the Jewish people, really are one big family, that we all share one life, and that life is truly precious. It is the greatest gift we have ever been given and each day we receive that gift again. That is something to be thankful for.

Jacob Ezra Schwartz, the grandson of Tucsonans Trudy and Howard Schwartz, is spending his gap year between high school and college studying at Yeshiva Lev HaTorah in Ramat Beit Shemesh.