Saturday, May 25, 2024

Puddles of Blood on the Floor of a Shul

I awoke to the nightmare with a telephone call from the Knesset, immediately after the terror attack. I'm not in the habit of turning on the radio when I get up in the mornings and don't even look at my cell phone until after shacharis. But it was my home telephone that brought me the devastating news. “Hello,” said the voice on the line, “I'm calling from the Knesset. Can you tell us which members of the Shas party live in Har Nof?”

It was 8:06 in the morning. I asked what could possibly have prompted the call at that hour. “Haven’t you heard?” he exclaimed. “There was a terror attack in a shul in Har Nof, adjacent to Yechaveh Daas. People have been killed and injured!”

I froze. Death had arrived at our doorstep. My thoughts began moving at the speed of light — or perhaps the speed of darkness. I turned on the radio and learned that the attack happened at Kehillas Bnei Torah, Rav Yitzchok Rubin’s shul. My brother davens there, as do some of my close friends. The Knesset members from Shas daven in the adjacent shul, and there is a third shul in the same building, Chasdei Naftoli, which was founded by Rav Yosef Schwinger. All the people from that shul are my good friends. Terror began to stream through my veins. Over the course of the day, I was to find out that I knew one of the victims, whose son learns in Yeshivas Beer Yaakov. Then I learned that I knew another of the victims as well. By that point, the horror was paralyzing. Oh Master of the Universe, such death and destruction….! How is it possible?

Someone alerts me to a shocking picture circulating on WhatsApp. A man lying on the floor, on his back, with his tallis and tefillin bags beside him, and a tallis draping the upper half of his body. One hand protrudes from beneath the tallis, with tefillin straps wrapped around it. Another tallis, stained with blood, lies crumpled on the floor beside him. I do not know who took the picture and “shared” it with a “group” on WhatsApp. It is simply beyond belief. And it was followed by additional pictures, images of the bodies of the terrorists, with their faces exposed — the face of evil incarnate.

They say that one of the murderers was employed in a nearby store. In other words, it is possible — in fact, almost definite — that he knew the victims. All of them, after all, live on Rechov Agassi, the street where the shul is located, and the neighboring streets, Rechov Katzenellenbogen and Rechov Hakablan. And that means that these terrorists came to massacre people whom they knew to be rodfei shalom, pursuers of peace, men who had never harmed another human being in their lives. Some of these victims were American olim. Why…? The question retreats. Hashem’s ways are hidden from us, and His judgments are infinitely deep.

An hour later, I was at my daf yomi shiur. We are six blatt behind. The maggid shiur, Rav Eliyahu Pincus, was explaining the Talmudic principles involved in the daf but my thoughts, and no doubt the thoughts of us all, were focused on the wounded wallowing in their blood and moaning in their pain. They say that a police officer was severely wounded. Two of the wounded are in critical condition. As for the “lightly” wounded, that piece of medical terminology means that they can expect a lifetime of suffering.

At 9:27, I received a call from Yossi Griff, an officer of the Knesset. “Do you know if Ariel Attias was hurt?” he asked me.

Ariel Attias, who served as a member of the Knesset until last year, lives in the neighborhood, and rumors that he was wounded in the attack were also circulating in WhatsApp groups. I told Griff that I had heard the rumors, but I hadn’t confirmed them. I would feel foolish calling him if he is in a hospital, I added. Griff urged me to call him anyway.

Attias answered the phone when I called. “Yes,” he said in response to my question, “I also heard the rumor that I had been hurt, but I am at home. I don’t dare go outside. They say that one of the terrorists escaped and the police are searching for him now. I’m watching my children at home. These WhatsApp groups are irresponsible, out of control!” Attias quickly added, “We must stop employing Arabs. Any store that has an Arab employee should be boycotted!” Perhaps he is correct; perhaps not. This was not the time to debate the issue.

Next, I called my brother at home. He had already davened and was watching through his window as the dreadful scene outside unfolded. “The bodies are being removed now,” he told me. “Zaka is there.” He had witnessed the entire horrendous episode – terrorists shooting from the entrance to the building – and is thoroughly shaken. He already knows the names of some of the victims, dead and wounded. One of them is a neighbor from his building, who was severely wounded. “My son Meir was at the scene,” he told me. “He’s a paramedic with Magen David Adom. Try to talk to him, if you can. He is completely shell-shocked.”

With a prayer for Divine mercy, I made the call.

My nephew Meir lives in Har Nof, a yeshiva student about twenty years of age. In addition to learning in yeshiva, he is also on call for Magen David Adom, which means that he carries a radio that alerts him to incidents that call for emergency medical assistance. In my eyes, Meir is still my “little” nephew, my brother’s son. I never dreamed that he could be so mature. I never even knew that he volunteered for MDA; he never told me. But as I spoke to him from the vantage point of an interviewer, I could sense how responsible and wise he had become.

He was one of the first rescue workers to arrive on the scene, and he helped evacuate the wounded and tend to the dead. Meir often davens in the shul where the attack took place, which is a hub of tefillah and Torah study for the neighborhood. This past bein hazemanim, he regularly attended the minyan where the attack took place. As my brother described, he was still reeling from the shock and horror of what he had just experienced. He pulled himself together to give the following account over the phone. 

Meir, what time did you arrive?

“The vekker in yeshiva woke me up for davening at 7:00. A few minutes later, I heard a siren, but didn’t think it was anything serious. Then I heard another two sirens and turned on my radio right away. At 7:08, the radio announced a terror attack on Rechov Agassi. I asked for the exact address and was told that it was at Agassi 5. At 7:14, I notified the dispatcher that I was on my way. I left the yeshiva and a police car driving down Rechov Katzenellenbogen picked me up and took me to the scene of the attack.”

Why would a police car pick you up? How did they know to do that?

“They saw me with my equipment. When I arrived, the street was closed to passersby. Dozens of police cars and ambulances blocked the road. I headed straight inside.

Can you describe the scene?

“As I entered the building, I saw them taking out a bochur I know. He was wounded but still conscious. Outside the shul lay a dead terrorist. I made my way into the shul, stepping over puddles of blood that covered the entire floor from the stairway all the way into the shul. Inside, I found one of the men who had been murdered. He was already covered with a tallis soaked with blood. There were a few more EMTs inside and together, we covered two of the other murdered men with talleisim, and evacuated two wounded men, whom I assessed as critically wounded. I helped bring them out to the ambulance, and then went inside to continue my sweep of the area.”

“We were downstairs, where the attack had taken place and the police did not allow us to go upstairs to the next floor. Afterward, a few paramedics went upstairs to check for more casualties. I helped bandage the wounded and evacuate them. We waited until the police allowed us to leave, and then I went back to the yeshiva to daven shacharis. I was still unable to process what happened. I was moving automatically. Some force drew me back to the scene afterward. I knew there was nothing more I could do as a paramedic; the victims had already been transported to the hospital. But I felt I belonged there. Dreadful scenes kept replaying in my head.”

Did you know any of the victims?

“Yes. One of them lives in my building; he was severely wounded. I knew two of the murdered men personally, and there was another whose name I didn’t know but I recognized his face. Since there was blood everywhere, it was hard to identify some of the victims.”

Who collected the blood?

“That was done by Zaka. It wasn’t part of our job.”

Do you think you helped someone today?

“I hope so. Preserving the dignity of the dead is chessed shel emes. I helped the wounded as much as possible. We took care of them immediately and made sure to bring them outside as quickly as possible. In a situation like this, a delay could cost someone his life. Getting a wounded person to the emergency room fast could literally save his life.”

Did you see the dead terrorists?

“Yes. I saw them both.”

Did you recognize them?

“No. Someone claimed that they worked in the shul, but that’s not true. I daven in the shul regularly.”

They say that they worked in a neighborhood store.

“That might be true. I simply don’t know. But the shul workers are not Arabs; they are Druse.”

Is this the first time that you have been to the scene of a terror attack that affected you on such a personal level?

“This is the first time that I’ve been at the scene of a terror attack at all. I’m relatively new in MDA; I’ve been there for only a little more than a year. I’ve been to car accident scenes and resuscitation efforts but was never at the scene of a terror attack. To witness an attack on this scale in the shul where I daven and where I recognized the victims – it’s impossible to describe.”

Your father told me that you said it looked like a massacre!

“Yes – the blood – the smell of death – it was reminiscent of the 1929 massacre in Chevron. That’s what you thought of when you saw people in talleisim lying in pools of blood, people who had said pezukei dezimrah moments earlier and had been murdered in the middle of davening. What could be more shocking?”

Do you think the people in the neighborhood will stop employing Arabs?

“You want to know what I think? I don’t think that anything will change here. I know our country. Even worse things have happened and nothing changed, so why should anything change now? I think that life will proceed as it always has — except for the families of the victims, who will have to live with their agony for many years.”

They say that one of the men killed in the attack is the father of a boy who was killed not long ago.

“People are confused. One of the victims had a daughter who passed away half a year ago, and one of the wounded victims had a son who was killed in the Jerusalem Forest many years ago. To the best of my knowledge, that man is severely wounded but still alive.”

Was the rov of the shul, Rav Yitzchok Rubin, present at the time?

“He arrived after the attack, for the next minyan, but the police wouldn’t let him go in. Both of the minyonim are regular minyonim. The minyan where the massacre took place was a vasikin minyan, and the minyan upstairs is the one that brought its many regular attendees, including the rov, to the scene of the attack. Most of the men fled upon hearing the gunshots; the rest were prevented by the police from entering the building.

Who put the talleisim on the victims?

“I covered two of them.”

There is a picture circulating of a man who is half covered with a tallis. Is that the person you covered?

“Yes. If you look at the table in the picture, you can see my bag.”

I see another tallis on the left side of the picture, on a bloodstained floor.

“That is the tallis belonging to the murder victim. The tallis that I used to cover him wasn’t his own. I wanted to cover him with a clean tallis, not one soaked in blood.”

Meir, did your training prepare you for what you had to do today?

“I took courses and heard lectures from many professionals, including psychologists. I knew the first terror attack would be difficult for me but nothing could have prepared me for the need to treat my own bleeding, dying neighbors. It was simply beyond my strength. It happened just outside my own home to people I knew personally, in a place where I myself go every day. When I finally started to process what had happened, I was shattered.”

If the prime minister were to ask you your opinion right now, what would you tell him?

“I don’t know what needs to be done, but I do know that right now, nothing is being done. It is clear to me that there is nothing to expect from our leadership. But look what happened yesterday: an Egged bus driver committed suicide in his bus. On the Arab street in Jerusalem, they decided that it was murder, not suicide. Of course, their conclusion was that the Jews had murdered him. And what happened as a result? All of the Arab bus drivers working for Egged decided to stop driving, and the entire bus system in Yerushalayim was disrupted last night.

This is something that should be completely intolerable in any normal country. Imagine what would happen if a Jew was murdered in Brooklyn and the Jews decided to bring public transportation to a halt as a result. The police would go wild! A strike like that is an attack on the country itself, an attack on its sovereignty. But for the Arabs, this is permitted. It’s insane! It should be a basic principle of any civilized country that no citizen can simply do anything he pleases, regardless of whether he is a Jew or an Arab. But we are not living in a country ruled by law.”

I have just heard an official announcement on the radio that four people died in the attack.

“Correct. I told you that four people were killed. I saw a paramedic working on a wounded police office and refusing to give up until he had gotten the pulse back, but the policeman was evacuated in critical condition. So there are the four victims whom I saw with my own eyes, and two terrorists.”

So that is six altogether.

“If you include the terrorists, yes.”

Did you know that the BBC reported, “six people killed in an attack in Jerusalem, four Jews and two Arabs.” Those were their words.

“That is terrible gall to lump the murderers with the victims as if it makes no difference. You should write about it, and you should add another point as well. Publicizing the names of victims on WhatsApp before their families could even be notified about what had befallen them is inexcusable. Where is the humanity? Either people have no concept of what it means to suffer the shock of losing a father or a son, or they simply don’t care. The police asked me as a paramedic to accompany the social workers when they went to inform the families; they wanted me to be there in case someone fainted or collapsed. I told them I simply couldn’t do it. I asked them to please bring someone who doesn’t live in Har Nof. I was afraid to face someone I know personally at their moment of shock and grief.”

You already knew who the families were?

“I identified some of the bodies right way – they were my neighbors! One of them is the father of a close friend of mine. One of the people who were critically wounded used to sit next to me during davening at Chasdei Naftoli. He is a tzaddik on a level that is beyond our generation. It was an inspiration for people just to watch him daven shmoneh esrei. ”

Thank you, Meir. May this be the last time you are needed in the way you were needed today.

– – –

In the aftermath of the massacre, the political right was quick to take to the streets and cry out for vengeance. They stood behind the police barricades and screamed, “Death to Arabs!” I understand their pain, but I disagree with their approach. If we murder Arabs, will that prevent them from murdering us? Even if we were to execute Arab murderers, would that prevent their brethren from acting on their own murderous desires? Even the suggestion that we refrain from employing Arabs is not only impractical, but a form of collective punishment that does not distinguish between an Arab who murder and one who doesn’t. Are there no good Arabs?

In the meantime, the Minister of Internal Security, who appeared at the scenes of other terror attacks only to have people scream at him and demand his resignation, is being interviewed. He announces that restrictions on gun ownership will be eased, and people who own guns will be permitted to bring their weapons home from work. The reason: it is the ordinary citizens, not the police, who tend to be the first to fight back against Arab murderers. Listening to him speak, one can tell that he has no solutions.

What will happen now? Who can solve this problem? Must we remain helpless, unable to act effectively against terror? I recall a historical detail that may be relevant at this time of confusion, although the circumstances were so different then.

In 1979, a heated debate arose regarding the peace treaty with Egypt. The country was divided between those who were in favor of the agreement and those who believed that all Arabs are murderers and are not to be trusted. At the time, Rav Shach published a letter, ostensibly to the Knesset members of the Agudas Yisroel party, who sought the guidance of daas Torah as to how they should vote.

“I will respond to you in brief,” he wrote, “that there isn’t even a shadow of a doubt that we must agree to any step toward peace, in any form. We are obligated to accept any compromise that might advance peace, for peace will prevent much bloodshed. In our current circumstances, there is no basis for all of the talk about the prohibition of lo sechoneim and Hashem’s promise to give us the entire Land of Israel. This matter is not up to us, and our responsibility is solely to improve our own adherence to the Torah and mitzvos. Then we will certainly merit the fulfillment of Hashem’s promise to us. We must pray for Hashem to bless His people with peace.”



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