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Oct 24 2011

Happy for Shalit, But Mourning for My Friend

By at 3:59 pm

Fern Shawna Rykiss

My friend, Fern Shawna Rykiss, was murdered in 1989 when a terrorist hijacked her bus and plunged it into a ravine.  She was 17 years old.  Fern spent much of her senior year fundraising for her trip to Israel, and her murder at the hands of a terrorist was one of the first recorded murder-suicides of the first intifada.  Her murderer, who also murdered 15 other sons and daughters, escaped with a few cuts and bruises.  He was sentenced to life in prison because Israel does not condone the death penalty.

He was one of the prisoners released on Tuesday in exchange for Gilad Shalit.

So you might understand why I did not share the unbridled enthusiasm felt by so many on Tuesday when Gilad Shalit was released. Jordana Horn wrote a beautiful article about Israel and the Jewish people being a parent to Gilad, and I cannot disagree with anything she said. But if we are all parents to Gilad Shalit, then are we not parents to all of the children murdered by terrorists as well?

Fern Shawna Rykiss was an amazing person. My first memory of Fern is one of puzzlement.  I did not understand why a first grader was taking the year-end second grader exam.  When she started third grade with me, I had my answer. Fern was one of the few students from the original class to graduate from the Jewish high school.  Out of a class of about 100, almost everyone moved away or transferred to public school by 12th grade.  Her bubbe also endeared us to her; she used to wait outside school every day to walk her home.  When Fern was murdered, her family and our community was devastated.

I tried to keep silent most of the day on Tuesday, although I commented on one post to suggest that our joy be tempered a bit considering the many families who have lost loved ones to these newly freed terrorists.  While the response to my post acknowledged “joy can be separate from sadness and exist with it as well,” they chose to unabashedly ignore the sadness.

Yet what about the tradition that we break a glass at weddings? There are two accounts in the Talmud of Rabbis who broke vessels when they saw their son’s wedding celebration get out of hand. They broke vessels to calm things down. Another reason we break a glass at weddings, the most joyous of occasions, is to recall the destruction of the Temple. It is a reminder that even in times of great joy, we must acknowledge the times of sorrow as well as those who do not share our good fortune.

What about the tradition that we spill wine onto our plates at Passover?  We do this expressly to diminish the joy of drinking our cup of wine. It is a reminder that our freedom came with great suffering, which we do not celebrate even when it happens to our enemies.

My husband tells me that this is also the basis of good sportsmanship — even while celebrating one’s victory, we must temper our joy out of respect to the other side.  This is not only treating someone as you would want them to treat you (what if they had won?) but also decreasing their feelings of jealousy.  Thus, even in times of great joy we must acknowledge those who do not share our good fortune.

I am upset that so many people rejected feeling sadness for my friend and those of us who keep her memory sacred. Can we not find room in our hearts to feel motherly joy for Gilad’s release as well as profound loss for Fern? Can our hearts not overflow with happiness and be outraged at the injustice that a killer has been set free? Should we not be collectively comforting Fern’s mother the same way we sent best wishes and congratulations to Gilad’s family? Where is the outpouring of support and love to the victim’s loved ones?

The Fern I remember would be happy for Gilad’s family.  She would not have let vengeance stand in the way of a mother and her son.  But don’t ask me to celebrate Gilad’s release without feeling a twinge of sorrow — those of us who lost loved ones to the terrorists released on Tuesday will never have the opportunity to welcome them home.


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