We went to the funeral Sunday. We took our 10-year-old to Massachusetts so she could bury her 18-year-old camp counselor. My husband and I, together with our three children, some teenagers, and a few adults from our community, traveled eight hours round trip by bus to attend the two-and-a-half hour funeral of Ezra Schwartz z”l.
We stood outside in the cold and rain–appropriate weather for a terribly sad day–seeking shelter sporadically in our bus. The first 1,000 people to arrive were seated inside Temple Sinai of Sharon, a Reform Jewish congregation near Boston. The overflow numbered close to 500. We listened to the service over a sound system outside the doors of the synagogue, the crowd sometimes spilling out onto the grassy area that led to a local road. Strangers huddled under shared umbrellas watching the live feed of the service on each other’s smart phones.
I thought, with so much attention within the Jewish community, there would be a sizable crowd of mourners–family, classmates, camp friends–then hundreds of others who showed up to simply show solidarity with the family and offer tangible, visible proof of support. But, I was wrong. As puffy-eyed teenagers leaned their heads on the shoulders of their peers and parents reached into their pockets for extra tissues and chuckled at the memories evoked by some of the eulogies; it was clear, even in the overflowing crowd, that almost everyone had a connection to this young man.
“He was ‘melech zimriyah?’” I asked my eldest when his father mentioned Ezra being crowned “king of the singing contest” at camp. Gavri nodded her head and raised her eyebrows at me as if to say, “Weren’t you paying attention that night?” For sure, some in attendance were “just” there out of respect for the remarkable loss suffered by this family. Our own rabbi, Avi Weiss, practicing one of his most important lessons of “just showing up” traveled through the night to stand shoulder to shoulder with mourners in the cold rain outside the synagogue.
The funeral was geared towards the mourner, I felt, not to the media (who maintained a respectful distance) and not to any attendees who came for the purpose of lending support. When we arrived, psalms were being recited over the loudspeaker, giving attendees unfamiliar with the practice the impression that the funeral service had already begun. At least two of the speeches that were delivered the night before as several hundred people gathered at Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv, to send Ezra back to the United States were repeated Sunday afternoon. Some Facebook posts by Ezra’s friends and family were shared as they worked their way into the many eulogies delivered. Many people felt they couldn’t stand in the cold and rain for two-and-a-half hours of speeches, and left before the service concluded.
I brought my children to Sharon, MA, where Ezra had been raised, and his family still lived. We went because my kids knew Ezra and I felt if we could, we should encourage them to escort him to his final resting place, and because of the lesson that “sometimes it’s important to just show up.” We celebrated the bat mitzvah of our eldest just last month. Hundreds of people attended for no other reason than to worship with us, dance with us, celebrate with us, love us. When my synagogue announced on Friday that a bus would be provided for community members to travel to Sharon to attend the funeral, I was overcome with the desire to have Ezra’s family feel the same love and support as they mourned the loss of their young Jewish adult that I had–to separate with 100,000 separations, as we say—experienced as I welcomed my young Jewish adult into our community.
“Thanks for going,” people wrote me. “I’m so glad you were there,” they said. “I admire you,” and even “You are the Jew I aspire to be.” It makes me a little uncomfortable, to be perfectly honest. I don’t really know what to do with that feedback. We certainly didn’t go so others would thank us. I guess we served, in some way, as a proxy for the many who were not there. It wasn’t that hard for us. Our synagogue, under the leadership of Rabbi Steven Exler, said, “Go. Support this other family. Let your children support their friends. We’ll take care of the logistics. Pack a lunch and some reading material and we’ll get you to Sharon.” And so we went. Because we didn’t have so much to do that day, and because my daughters knew Ezra, and because sometimes it’s important to just show up. It wasn’t that hard for us.
“But what about your kids?” you may be thinking. “What did they think about all this?” When I read of Ezra’s murder and his connection to Camp Yavneh where I and my kids had spent many summers, I began to feel something like panic. “Do my kids know him? Had I met him?” Tears welled up in my eyes as I read that Ezra was counselor for the unit of youngest campers. My daughter, Sarit, was in that unit last summer. The pictures beginning to circulate were of him on the waterfront that I spent summers on, in the dining hall that I still eat meals in at the end of every summer. It didn’t matter how well my girls knew Ezra. We were connected. I ached for a loss of idealism, for a grieving mother, for the loss of a child.
My daughters were both stunned at the violent way with which such a young person had to lose his life. They know enough about the security situation in Israel to understand that it’s scary. My younger daughter expressed fear for her uncle who lives in Israel, confiding that she “thought (when Uncle C.J. visited in the fall) that he would stay until the war was over.”
Our 7-year-old son never met the Schwartz family. But my children know sometimes we go because we knew and loved the deceased, and sometimes because “it’s important to just show up.” They have attended funerals where there were only seven of us in attendance. (We are a family of five. You do the math.) And so they, themselves, held a shovel upside down, and filled a grave with dirt in the act of hesed shel emet–an act of righteousness for the deceased which can never be repaid. So when we told them we were taking a bus to Massachusetts on Sunday they responded with, “Oh, OK…can we do our homework on the bus? What should we wear?” Not, “But it’s so FAR. It’s going to RAIN. We didn’t know him THAT well.” But, “OK.” Just, “OK.”
My daughters attended camp with Ezra Schwartz. They are a part of the larger Jewish community that helped raise him. Yesterday, they continued their connection to him as they showed up, stood in the rain, and escorted him to his burial. “I’m going to be happy,” his sister, Gavri’s counselor promised in her eulogy. I was sad for the loss of Ezra Schwartz. My whole family was. But our lives will go on and we will move forward, bound by the unique ties of our inspiring community. We will eventually find happiness. We will value life. We will honor death. We will show up.