In the spring of 1977, the seniors at Yeshiva College chose Benjamin Goldstein as their classmate with the best character – the most caring, the nicest and the most decent.
Seventeen years later, Goldstein, now known as Baruch, opened fired on hundreds of Muslims kneeling in prayer in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, killing at least 40 of them, and the words caring, nice and decent were still being used by those who knew him.
He had traveled an arc from Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood to the Jewish enclave of Kiryat Arba to the annals of Jewish history as the man responsible for one of the most heinous mass murders committed by a Jew. And only that last segment came as a surprise.
In the wake of last Friday’s massacre, reminiscences flowed within the modern Orthodox community of the quiet man who had become fanatically attached to the militant Rabbi Meir Kahane.
There was a frequently expressed conviction that he had "snapped," because why else would he leave a widow and four orphans?
The reasons for the snapping had to be appreciated, said those who knew him: a peace process which threatened to uproot his settlement, the murder by terrorists of a close friend the month before, the shouting by Arabs of "slaughter the Jews" during the reading of the Book of Esther on the evening of Purim.
Some figures associated with Yeshiva University, where Goldstein studied as an undergraduate and as a medical student, say that while the values of Kahane were far from those of the institution, the school and the modern Orthodox culture which it anchored were for too long too tolerant of Kahane’s extremism.
Goldstein grew up in a modern orthodox household in Bensonhurst, a mixed Italian-Jewish neighborhood removed from the front lines of urban tensions in other parts of Brooklyn, where Kahane first organized his Jewish Defense League in the 1960s.
He attended the modern Orthodox Yeshiva of Flatbush, and was a camper and counselor at Camp Hillel in upstate New York. At Yeshiva College, his yearbook and classmates paint the picture of a well-rounded pre-medical student: studious – he graduated summa cum laude; athletic – a member of the fencing team, an intramural basketball team and president of the track team; and civic – president of one of the college’s student councils, resuscitator of the school’s Hebrew periodical.
"He was as nice a boy as you’ll ever find," recalled Rabbi Louis Bernstein, a professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva College, who fondly recalled Goldstein as "Baruchel."
For such a nice boy, it was no surprise that as a medical student at Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, he would spend Sundays delivering parcels to the poor and elderly in the South Bronx.
And it was no surprise that he would think about making aliyah and moving to Israel.
Y.U. boasts that 10 percent of its alumni currently reside in Israel.
"These are dedicated, committed Jews, and they feel they can find fulfillment there," said Rabbi Israel Miller, Yeshiva University’s senior vice president. Two of Miller’s children, for example, live in Israel.
Among Y.U. students, said Rabbi Moshe Tendler, who serves on both the school’s Talmud and biology faculties, "It’s understood that if you can settle in the Land of Israel, you do that. No one questions it. Those who don’t move there, it’s because they feel they can’t support themselves in Israel."
But at some point, Goldstein crossed a line. The well-rounded college boy, devoted to Israel, became a serious follower of Kahane.
While classmates and teachers at Yeshiva College do not remember him as being ideological, a fellow student at Y.U.’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine remembers the Goldstein of 1979 as being deeply committed to the militant rabbi.
"He was a serious, earnest, clean-cut individual, likable, one of the guys. Except for this peculiar idiosyncracy that he would quote Rabbi Kahane as his spiritual mentor," said this former classmate who, like many who spoke about Goldstein, did so on condition of anonymity.
"The Kahane people I had met until then had either been recalcitrant teen-agers or semi-criminals. Here was somebody who seemed to be a good medical student and a good person. We figured, OK, everyone had his thing."
The point of Kahane’s religious teaching was simple: Israel, as a democratic state tolerant of Arabs, was at odds with the teachings of the Torah and halachah, or Jewish law.
Kahane tried vainly in 1973 and 1981 to be elected to the Knesset on a platform calling for the expulsion of the Arabs and the transformation of Israel into a theocracy, before winning a seat in Parliament in 1984.
Before the 1988 elections he and his party were banned for being racist. He was assassinated in New York City in 1990. A Muslim fundamentalist, now on trial in connection with the World Trade Center bombing a year ago, was convicted for crimes related to the shooting.
While Goldstein was seen as eccentric and mistaken in his devotion to Kahane, he was not seen as deviant from the culture of modern Orthodoxy.
"Kahane was not encouraged at Yeshiva, but he reached people there," said Bernstein, Goldstein’s former teacher.
"Ashamnu, we are guilty, we have tolerated his phenomenon of Kahanism in Jewish life," said Bernstein.
This tolerance reflected both an indifference and a respect for Kahane’s positions, even though they were not endorsed by Orthodox authorities.
The tolerance was manifest in the fact that Kahane was afforded a platform at the campus, which barred speakers on campus seen as too liberal religiously.
"What depresses me is that boundaries (at Yeshiva) cannot include a Heschel but can include a Kahane," said Steven Bayme, who was a faculty member at Yeshiva College when Goldstein attended the school and now directs the American Jewish Committee’s Institute of American Jewry-Israel Relations. Bayme was referring to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who taught at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America. As a student at Y.U., Bayme was not allowed to invite Heschel to speak on campus.
By the early 1980s, Goldstein had moved to Israel, where he worked in the office of Kahane’s political party and, according to a woman who knew him then, suffered no skepticism about the truth of Kahane’s teachings.
Kahane’s followers were at odds, politically and theologically, with the Gush Emunim movement which was the mainstay of the settlement activity on the West Bank and which was widely supported at Y.U.
But both groups shared the realities of day-to-day life amid a hostile Arab population, in an area they view as the frontier of Zionism.
And while the events of recent weeks – the peace process and the terrorist incidents involving his friends – may have triggered Goldstein’s cold-blooded attack, it was an incident more than a decade ago which put Goldstein squarely into the camp of Kahane’s radicals, according to a Kahane follower who knew him then.
"I remember him telling me a specific story that may have changed his life," said Michael Guzofsky, who heads the American office of Kahane Chai, an offshoot of Kahane’s JDL.
The story involved Aharon Gross, a resident of Kiryat Arba who was fatally stabbed in Hebron in 1983. Goldstein, as a physician, was called to the scene.
"I remember him describing the story of how he went to save Aharon Gross, and how the whole town – men, women and children – were cheering, how they blocked the troops and Baruch from getting to the body," said Guzofsky.