Tilted Tree Memorial – Zachor
“To be a Jew means to belong to a nation whose people are linked to each other spiritually and emotionally, to belong to a group that shares a common magnificent past, one tradition, and a common destiny and fate. The Jewish people are the sons of one father. They are one big family.”
~ Moshe Katsav (President of Israel 2000-2007) reflecting on Daniel Pearl‘s last words, I am a Jew
The tilted tree stands at an angle. The tree is Ran Morin‘s artistic memorial to the brutal events that occurred meters away on July 31, 2002. It is secured from falling by a rope; held almost upright as if by a constant loving hand of support. It stands in the garden entrance to the Frank Sinatra Cafeteria on Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus.
This site of this memorial was an off-itinerary visit of a Birthright group I lead this month with Israel Experience. Upon entering Jerusalem, the City of Peace, for the first time, Birthright buses typically stop at the Mount Scopus viewpoint overlooking the city skyline. Our trip was different.
On our trip was the first cousin of one of the nine killed at Hebrew University during the July 2002 attack. Taylor very much wanted to be able to visit the memorial to her cousin, Marla Bennett. Marla had been a student of Judaic Studies at Hebrew University while jointly learning at Pardes to become a Jewish educator. When her life was thwarted, Marla had been living in Jerusalem for a year and a half, coinciding with the peak of violence of the Second Intifada. During that period the streets of Jerusalem were completely empty of tourists, shops and pubs closed early, or did not even open at all. Marla wrote about living in Jerusalem at a time when most wouldn’t come even for a short visit.
“Each morning when I leave my apartment building, I have an important question to contemplate: Should I turn left or should I turn right? This question may seem inconsequential, but the events of the past few months in Israel have led me to believe that each small decision I make–by which route to walk to school, whether to go out to dinner–may have life-threatening consequences. I have been living in Israel for a year and a half; I arrived just a month before the current wave of violence and horror began.”
During our Birthright trip, just a couple days earlier, we had visited Sderot – another Israeli city transformed by terror attacks. Since 2001 over 10,000 rocket and missile attacks have been launched at Sderot and neighboring cities, from the Gaza Strip.
We were astounded to see bus stop /bomb shelters lining the streets, steel and concrete reinforced structures built over elementary schools, and apartments with bomb shelter add-ons – some still being constructed. Giant concrete caterpillars serve as a playground shelters. A new school under construction was being built half-way underground to provide protection from incoming missiles.
We participated in a missile attack drill. Tom, our guide for the hour from the Sderot Media Center, shouted “Tzeva Adom. Tzeva Adom.” “Code Red.” We had 15 seconds to run to safety. We quickly piled into two adjacent bus stop shelters. A man stood nearby waiting for a bus, watching us. He shared how he had once received a call to pick up his son from elementary school after it was hit. The boy was fine: the father has shrapnel scars on his face. “This is life in Sderot” he said. Learning about Israeli life can be intense.
Back at the Mount Scopus memorial our Birthright tour guide shared the timeline of the July 31, 2002 bombing. Is there such a thing as coincidence? He was working security at Hebrew University the day of the attack. He stood next to the Tilted Tree recounting the details of how he arrived at the site seconds after the explosion.
Quiet – for the first time in a week of traveling together with 44 Birthright participants – stillness. Everyone listened attentively in absolute silence. Our guide choked up, became emotional, was unable to speak. A tank commander who has seen combat, overcome by his memories and the helplessness of terror. Silence, but for the peaceful Jerusalem breeze blowing through the leaves. Softly flowing tears. Silently we bonded. Became one. One people. One family. We tacitly mourned together. Linked together by a shared history. A shared tragedy. ‘The Jewish people are the sons of one father. We are one big family.’
Aaron, a Birthright participant, later commented, “I’d heard about attacks in Israel, I never thought I would meet someone who actually witnessed one. I never expected to be part of a group with not one, but two people, directly affected by the same attack.”
We are one. We mourn together.
We are one. We celebrate together.
A few days later our trip came to a close. On our last day we welcomed Shabbat together and danced with Israeli soldiers at the Kotel. We celebrated the B’nai Mitzvah of four participants from our group at a service overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. We concluded Shabbat with Havdallah. We had bonded with each other, and with our new Israeli friends.
Lynn Schusterman, who is shaping the future of Jewish community through her thoughtful philanthropy, shared her vision for a ‘Jewish spring’ at the Israeli Presidential Conference last week. “Can you imagine how powerful it would be if every Jew across the world felt part of our global Jewish community and connected to our Jewish homeland?”
We are fortunate. We don’t have to imagine.