One of Judaism’s few unifying religious traditions is the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish. Though the manner in which one observes may vary, the overall practice is similar across most denominations: Upon a Jew’s death, loved ones will recite the Kaddish during prayer services over some period of time, be it a year, a month, a week, or even a day.
But in that the prayer — an impassioned praising of God — makes no reference to death or dying, why is the Kaddish the designated prayer for mourners? The simplest explanation is that by praising God in the name of a lost relative — and in causing others to do the same by responding “Amen” — even after the departed soul is no longer of this world, he or she will continue to earn mitzvot to merit ascendance to Heaven.
In other words, good deeds performed by the living benefit the dead.
I raise this as my way of unabashedly asking for help in providing extra merits for the soul of Ezra Schwartz a”h — even though he undoubtedly banked more than enough mitzvot over the course of his tragically short life.
Sunday, Nov. 19, will mark two years since Ezra’s murder. The 18-year-old American, who was spending his gap year studying at Yeshivat Ashreinu in Beit Shemesh, was asleep in a van when a Palestinian gunman in another vehicle opened fire, killing Ezra and two others.
I never met Ezra, but I knew of him. As I wrote last year on the first anniversary of Ezra’s death, he and my nephew, Ariel Goldman, were close friends since they were 4, and Ezra was responsible for convincing Ariel to root for the Yankees instead of the Red Sox, an unexpected and devastating blow for our family of fifth-generation Bostonians.
The first time I saw Ezra’s name was on a placard at Ariel’s bar mitzvah in 2010, on which the two boys and two other classmates — Josh Hanau and Dani Lerner -— solicited donations toward the purchase of an “ambucycle” for United Hatzalah of Israel, an independent, non-profit emergency medical services organization.
I hadn’t heard of an ambucycle before, but, well, it was self-explanatory. A motorcycle with life-saving gear, small enough to drive around traffic and fit into tight spaces, allows emergency medical personnel to reach victims faster than a full-size ambulance. Together the four boys raised $20,000, and soon a brand-new ambucycle bearing their names took to the streets of Jerusalem.
In the wake of Ezra’s death, friends and family said it was comforting to know that his ambucycle was still saving lives. “It always made me happy knowing it was out there helping those in need,” said Josh.
But in August, Ezra’s mother, Ruth, received word that after more than seven years of service, the ambucycle would be retired due to mechanical problems. It had been Hatzalah’s most senior ambucycle.
“It always made me happy knowing it was out there helping those in need.”
“Right away when I saw that I was horrified,” Ruth told me in a phone interview from her home in Sharon, Mass. “I couldn’t believe that the ambucycle was going to be taken off the road.”
She immediately reached out to the other three boys and their families, and they agreed to, once again, raise money for an ambucycle. This time the goal was to collect $36,000 by Ezra’s second yahrtzeit, the Hebrew anniversary of his death, Nov. 25 this year. To date they’ve raised almost $17,000, and a private donor has pledged an additional $5,000.
“I feel like it’s something that Ezra would have really liked,” Ruth said. “The project itself, he liked it when he was younger, so it’s not like me putting words in his mouth.”
She said there is a certain symmetry in that the maneuverability of an ambucycle could save people who were injured on a crowded street.
“It just feels right given what happened to Ezra, that he was in a terror attack and in traffic,” she said. “Dedicating an ambucycle in his memory feels appropriate.”
The families have put on a full-court press to raise the money through an aggressive social media campaign in which they’ve posted old photos and shared stories about Ezra.
“Losing Ezra has been an extremely painful experience,” Lerner said. “If I can prevent others from having to go through the same experience, I would raise as much money as it takes to do so. Thirty-six thousand dollars is nothing compared to the lives that Hatzalah will potentially save with this money.”
Ariel said that running back their bar mitzvah project helps keep his connection to Ezra strong.
“It really helps me that people remember him and think about him. It is so special that Ezra’s friends are so dedicated to remembering Ezra and celebrating his life.”
“I still remember the day that we decided to raise the money seven years ago,” he said. “To do it together as friends was so special. And now it’s like we’ve come full circle and it’s not like it’s just the three of us doing it; Ezra’s with us, too.”
The most difficult question I asked Ruth during our conversation was the one that is so common it usually goes unnoticed. “How are you?”
“OK,” she said. “We’re moving forward with our lives. But every day is a challenge and continuing life without Ezra is very difficult, for lack of a better word.”
A short time later she emailed, “I said I was ‘OK,’ but that’s not really true, because honestly, I am not OK, I just have no choice. I need to continue life and be positive for my children and Ezra.”
That’s one of the reasons she and Ezra’s friends have invested so much time, energy, and money into the ambucycle. Like the Kaddish, it demonstrates that the kindness he exhibited throughout his life remains even though he’s gone.
“Projects like raising money for Ezra’s ambucycle and other beautiful fund-raisers in memory and in honor of Ezra make me so proud of Ezra,” Ruth said. “It really helps me that people remember him and think about him. It is so special that Ezra’s friends are so dedicated to remembering Ezra and celebrating his life.”
Visit israelrescue.org/Ezrasambucyclecampaign to raise the final $14,000 to put Ezra’s Ambucycle back on the road.
Gabe Kahn is the editor of New Jersey Jewish News; firstname.lastname@example.org; @sgabekahn