Last week marked the first anniversary of the murder of Ezra Schwartz, the 18-year-old American who was studying at Yeshivat Ashreinu in Beit Shemesh for his “gap year.” He was on a volunteer mission, en route to beautify Shmurat Oz Vegaon, the nature preserve in Gush Etzion established in memory of three Israeli teenagers (one with dual Israeli-American citizenship) who were kidnapped and murdered in 2014. As Ezra and his fellow volunteers slept in the van, a Palestinian gunman in another vehicle opened fire, killing Ezra and two others. His death shattered his family, crushed his friends, devastated a community, and shocked a nation.
“In some ways it feels like yesterday and in others it feels like it’s forever ago,” said Ruth Schwartz, Ezra’s mother, originally from Edison and now a resident of Sharon, Mass. “I haven’t seen him in so long and we miss him so much, but if Ezra walked through the door now it would feel normal. Time is a really crazy thing.”
The Schwartzes are trying to move forward. Ruth and her husband, Ari, who has relatives in Englewood, have four other children, the oldest a daughter in college, and three younger boys in high school, middle school, and elementary school. Ezra was the second child. Ruth said the kids are doing relatively well. Their daughter is feeling motivated by Ezra’s memory to one day go to medical school, and the boys are able to have fun, even while living with heartache.
“We don’t want to feel like we’re pulling other people down or that our whole life is about his murder, his death, his being gone,” Ruth said. “We want our kids to have normal lives and do fun things and enjoy themselves. But we want to keep the right balance between keeping Ezra present and going on with our lives.”
I never met Ezra, but like so many others, I took his death hard because of my relationship with someone close to him: My nephew, Ariel, was in Israel at the time of Ezra’s death, studying in another yeshiva, and was friends with Ezra from the time they were both four years old. They were in the same graduating class at Maimonides School in Boston, my alma mater. I heard about the shooting after reading Ariel’s frantic Facebook post:
Somehow a year has passed. A first yahrtzeit marks a unique moment for reflection.
“The reality is that grief doesn’t change; it hasn’t gone away. Time just keeps passing, and we miss him every day,” said Ruth. “It’s a mixture of emotions with time passing without him.”
This is a common theme of the posts on the Facebook account in Ezra’s memory. “365 days have passed. So I guess that means the worst year of my life is over, but the pain feels as strong as ever. Ezra, I love and miss you so much and honestly just can’t believe it’s been a whole year!” writes one friend; “Well, it has been a year. I can’t believe it. A year since the most horrible day of mine and many others’ life. No, I don’t think the sadness will ever truly pass, nor the pain truly heal,” writes another.
The other reason Ezra’s death felt so personal was because it wasn’t the first time I witnessed someone close to me grieving for a friend killed by terrorists in Israel: My older sister, Amy — Ariel’s mother — was a good friend of Alisa Flatow, a victim of the Kfar Darom suicide bus bombing in 1995.
I knew Alisa relatively well, as she stayed at my parents’ house several times and I spent Shabboses with her during my frequent visits to Brandeis to see my sister. (Later, I attended Brandeis as well, along with Alisa’s sister, Francine). Alisa had an unforgettable smile. I remember hearing that she was injured in a bombing, learning from local news broadcasts that she was from a town in New Jersey I had never heard of at the time — West Orange — and the moment we were told she would be taken off life support. All these years later, the pain is fresh, even for me, though I was just a tangential part of her life. For a parent it’s unimaginable.
“Everybody has to figure it out for themselves,” said Alisa’s father, Stephen Flatow, an attorney who has been a frequent speaker and activist on the subject of terrorism since her death. “There’s no magic potion.”
Stephen said that his public speeches helped him deal with the overwhelming sadness he felt. Although Ruth Schwartz said she was always uncomfortable speaking to large audiences, since Ezra’s murder she’s given several talks herself; they make her feel better, she said, as she is able to share stories of her son, though she’s often down afterward, “because nothing’s changed.”
“After the first yahrtzeit the daily tears stopped,” Stephen recalled. “I was still grieving, but it was like a sea change, as if that first yahrtzeit, going to shul, and saying Kaddish…you never have closure but it’s going in the right direction.”
He’s not there yet, nor will he ever be. Stephen, a gregarious, cheerful person by nature, choked up momentarily when he remarked that Alisa has now been gone longer than she lived.
“She’s always going to be 20, and that’s the tough part,” he said. “Your daughters who were younger than her are now older than her, and their kids will one day be older.”
It’s a point echoed by Ruth, who was similarly tearful.
“I feel bad that time is going on without him and all he’s missing,” she said. “When he died, his friends were 18 and he was in Israel. Now his friends are in college.” Ezra would have been a freshman at Rutgers.
His friends are doing their part to keep Ezra’s memory alive and comfort his parents. Ruth noted that many of Ezra’s friends keep in touch with her family “to show their love for Ezra,” and it helps “because his friends have shared with us so many things about him that maybe we wouldn’t have known.”
“My husband and I we…go to work,” said Ruth, whose inner strength was apparent, even as her voice broke. “For parents there’s a lot of emotions and guilt” in going on without a child. “Ezra was a big part of our house, our home, our lives. He was loud and silly and fun, and I feel like the house is quieter… But we’re doing what we can do to have fun and be as happy as we can be.”