When I heard that Ezra Schwartz’s family was planning to be in Gush Etzion, I knew that I would be there as well. It didn’t matter what day it would be, or what time they would arrive, or where in the Gush they were planning to be – but I knew I would be there. I would be there as one of the many nameless, faceless supporters with tears streaming down her cheeks as they walked by.
And so it was, today, at 1pm that Ezra’s mom, dad, sister and brothers were in Givat Oz V’Gaon helping to create a garden that Ezra was working on when he was murdered; and seeing the exercise park created for soldiers that was dedicated in his name a few short weeks ago. Ezra was a spunky, funny 18 year old who chose to study for a year in Israel before college at a Yeshiva that combined learning with community service.
Having spent the summer of 2014 here on a program, Ezra was moved by the creation of Givat Oz. Givat Oz stands as a park and camping area made in memory of Gilad, Naftali and Eyal soon after they were kidnapped and murdered by Arab terrorists for being Jewish. Ezra’s mother spoke today about how Ezra was moved by the unfolding events that summer; by the boys roughly his age who were snatched one evening and the ensuing hunt to find them. Ezra was here, in Israel, when their bodies were found and buried, and through the war that we endured that summer.
He felt connected to these boys, murdered for being Jewish and for no other reason. And he spoke to his parents last month about his work at Givat Oz and the things they were doing in memory of the boys.
Little could he have known that he would join this larger picture when, last month, a terrorist opened fire on the road near Tzomet HaGush as Ezra was on his way to build at Givat Oz. And today, his memory is mingled with that of Gilad, Naftali and Eyal; so much so that Racheli Frankel (Naftali’s mom) was there to speak about grief, sacrifice, love and the Jewish soul.
|Racheli Frankel speaking at Givat Oz V'Gaon|
Today’s ceremony was beautiful and perfect. Ezra’s parents both spoke about their son’s love for Israel, about his choice to be part of the program at Yeshivat Ashreinu and his choice to be part of this specific chesed project. His sister shared a few touching memories. A student spoke about meeting Ezra's parents at the airport and wanting them to know how much the students in the Gush supported and loved the family; and about feeling incredibly touched by the individualized attention this grieving family gave to the boys in return, and the comfort they offered to the boys instead of the other way around.
The head of Yeshivat Ashreinu, Rabbi Yudin, spoke through his absolute grief about Ezra while the Mayor of Gush Etzion, Davidi Perel, spoke about how precious Gush Etzion is to us. He spoke about how, after thousands of years of exile, we have returned to this Land only to have sacrifices over and over again. And he thanked the Schwartzes for sending their boy to us, to Israel.
Rocky Brody, a dear family friend, coordinator of the event today and resident of Alon Shvut, spoke about the connection between Ezra in the Tanach and their Ezra. She spoke about the mosaic that she helped the boys from Yeshivat Ashreinu to create that now sits outside of Alon Shvut (with one for Rav Yaakov Don).
As she concluded she said, “We here in Gush Etzion, and especially those of us from Alon Shvut will be thinking about Ezra on a daily basis every time we enter or exit our yishuv; this mosaic is there to remind us of him every single day. Though, let me make this very clear: Even though this spot is ground zero, we will not be thinking about him in his final moments, at the time of this horrific pigua, rather, just by looking at the words of this pasuk, permanently displayed in broken tiles, we will be inspired by who Ezra was, these words connecting Ezra Hasofer and Ezra Schwartz for all eternity, forever with Hashem’s good hand resting on them both."
|Mosaic outside Alon Shvut made by Yeshivat Ashreinu for Ezra Schwartz|
Picture by Rocky Brody
|Memorials for Rav Yaakov Don and Ezra Schwartz outside Alon Shvut|
Picture by Rocky Brody
In addition to all of these powerful moments, something unusual touched me in its simplicity. Yeshiva Orot Yehuda in Efrat took time out of its school day and rented a bus to attend the ceremony. They had no personal connection to the Schwartz family beyond the connection that we all feel. They brought along with them four signs that they held up at the back of the throngs of people. And the signs read, “Ezra will always be one of us,” and “Ezra is one of us” and so on. Their presence was a beautiful lesson for their students, and the posters were such a simple, yet powerful, message to the family.
|The signs say "Ezra will always be one of us" and "Ezra is one of us"|
Because, indeed, we are all here together trying to figure out how to get through each day safely and trying to find the best way to preserve the memory of those who don’t.
As Racheli Frankel said, Ezra is now with their sons, with the boys that he so admired and felt for, looking out for all of us and giving us the strength that we need to keep planting and building and fighting for our very lives here in Israel.
May the Schwartz family gain great strength from their time in Israel and may they know from events like the one today that we are all here for them in love and support.