Stephen Flatow of West Orange had bittersweet feelings as he surveyed the new beit midrash created in his daughter Alisa’s name at MetroWest High School in Ra’anana, Israel.
Building the first room for prayer and study at a secular Israeli high school gave Flatow a profound sense of pride.
But his pride was scarred with deep sadness, he told NJJN at the dedication of the facility on Feb. 3.
Alisa, a graduate of the Frisch School in Paramus, was 20 when she was murdered in a 1995 terror bus bombing near the Gaza settlement of Kfar Darom.
“My first reaction is that I wish it was named after me instead of my daughter,” Flatow said.
A student at Brandeis University, Alisa was participating in an Israel study program and was on her way to the beach in Gush Katif with friends when the bus exploded.
“It was her sixth trip to Israel when she was murdered,” Flatow said, wiping away tears. “I think she’d be proud of what we’ve done to carry on since her murder and that we didn’t surrender. She would be pleased to know she is a role model for her sisters and brother and their children.”
Founded in 1991, the high school is named for the former United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ (now merged into Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ), which has supported the school, its community, and efforts to erase the strict divide between “religious” and “secular” schooling in Israel.
Students will take classes in Hebrew literature, Bible, and Jewish thought in the new facility, which will also offer elective classes, informal activities, and community lectures, said Amir Shacham, the federation’s associate vice president for Israel and overseas.
Rabbi Daniel Beller, MetroWest High School Judaic studies teacher, praised the Flatows for their “revolutionary vision.”
“It’s almost a contradiction in terms for an Israeli [secular] school to have a beit midrash,” he said, addressing Flatow and his wife, Roz. “It is our prayer that by enabling young Jewish people in Israel to come closer to their roots it will be a continued blessing of the memory of your daughter.”
Also attending the event were the Flatows’ daughter-in-law Shaina, their son Etan’s wife, and their daughter, Maayan Alisa, who live in Jerusalem. Another Flatow granddaughter at the ceremony was Michal Mermelstein, who lives in Bergenfield with her parents, Francine and Adam. Michal was with her grandparents, said Flatow, two years ago when the idea of the beit midrash was first raised by the principal and his staff.
The Flatows are members of Congregation Ohr Torah in West Orange, as well as Congregation Brothers of Israel in Long Branch, where they have a summer residence.
Stephen Flatow said that Alisa was a role model to her family and community and “influenced us to adopt a more observant lifestyle, and was a strong supporter of Zionism.”
“Alisa radiated a special goodness that inspired everyone around her,” said Wendy Perelmuter, a former neighbor of the Flatows in West Orange who now lives in Modi’in, Israel. She and her husband, Isaac, attended the dedication. “Alisa’s loss was felt by the whole West Orange community. I think that a beit midrash in a secular high school is exactly what is needed in Israel at this time. Having this dedicated by the Flatows, as a first of its kind, is an especially meaningful memorial for Alisa, since learning was so important to her.”
“The Flatow beit midrash is a milestone in developing meaningful connections between Greater MetroWest and Israel,” Shacham said. “The fact that the beit midrash was actually constructed in the school’s bomb shelter symbolically makes the statement that the security of Israel depends on its physical resilience as well as its spiritual and Jewish infrastructure.”
Michal Zur, program director at the federation’s Israel office, coordinated the dedication ceremony.
“We understand the importance of a Jewish education and are proud to support it,” said Flatow. “I always believed that Jewish education prevents assimilation and intermarriage and helps the continuity of the Jewish people.”