I am fortunate while I am in Jerusalem to be learning at a few different institutions in the city. I will write more about them and the content of my courses in a future post.
One of the places I am studying is Pardes, a wonderful Jerusalem institution for Jewish learning. Yesterday it was an honour to participate in and speak at the annual day of hesed in memory of Marla Bennett z”l and Ben Blutstein z”l, two Pardes students who were killed by the bombing of the Frank Sinatra cafeteria at Hebrew University in 2002.
Marla and I were roommates in Jerusalem in 2000-01, during my first year of rabbinical school at HUC and her first year studying at Pardes. She was a remarkable person and her death impacted me very strongly, as it did for the wide circle of friends who were part of Marla’s world.
I will share here the words that I spoke at Pardes yesterday:
In all my time in Jerusalem, I never actually walked into the Pardes building until a few weeks ago. I don’t know why – I have so many friends who have studied here, I have sent my own students over the years to study here because I really value the learning and community that are the hallmark of Pardes and the incredible Jews who pass through these halls. I am sure that part of me was just worried it would be too painful, that there would be too much association with loss. It is really such a place of Marla – I feel here her so strongly – not just because of her picture on the wall, but because of all of the students here. You remind me of her, you remind me of us. You remind me of a time 15 years ago when we all came to live in Jerusalem together and to become infused with the spirit of this city that seeps under your skin and into your soul.
I see you and the passion that you pour into your learning and I remember her thirst for Jewish knowledge – for study not only of traditional texts, but of their meaning and relevance to our lives. Our year living together in 2000-01, was a shnat shmita. I remember her consideration and conemplation of shemita when she invited a friend for dinner who was Ba’al Teshuva. She asked him if she needed to buy special produce for shemita – he told her that he wasn’t going to bring it up, but now that she asked him directly he had to answer “yes.” She wanted to do it just right to make sure that he would be comfortable eating in our apartment. She was an includer, a pluralist, a person who wanted everyone to be at her table.
I see you and the way you connect with eachother and care for one another and I remember her passion for bringing people into her circle. I remember how whenever she had a friend visiting Israel who came to stay with us, she would decorate the door with colourful welcome signs. I remember how we would host massive shabbat dinners and how she would always make sure people felt connected and comfortable, how she could put people at ease with her smile and laugh, not to mention how she would always try to connect at least one dish on the table to the parashat hashavua! I remember her email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
I see you and your youth and idealism and I remember how we would dream about our future. How we would stay up late at night snuggled on Deborah’s bed, talking about what kind of lives we wanted to have for ourselves, with our future spouses and children. How we wanted to create meaningful communities of Jewish living in the US and for our kids to live with a Jewish flow of time. How we wanted to teach and bring our passion for Judaism to others.
Marla will always be 24 and now I am 37. I am back in Jerusalem with my family, my husband and two young children. 14 years in many ways is a lifetime ago – so much has changed for me and never will for her. And though I think sadly of unborn children who will never benefit from a woman who would have been an incredible mother and of students who will never learn from an amazing teacher, I also know, 14 years later, that in many ways Marla has grown with us. With all of us who were touched by her impact in our lives – we bring her into our parenting, into our teaching, into our efforts at outreach and inclusion.
Being in Pardes is not painful, as I imagined it might be. Perhaps it is because of the passage of time. Jerusalem is no longer filled with the sadness of Marla’s death like it once was for me in the years after the bombing. But really, it’s not just an absence of sadness that I feel, but the presence of comfort being in this space with all of you. I am so moved that Pardes continues to honour Marla and Ben’s memories all these years later. Yehi zichronam livracha.