(New York Jewish Week) – Alyssa Halpert, an eighth-grader at SAR Academy from New Rochelle, had never met, nor even vaguely knew Maurice Shnaider when she traveled 100 miles to his house to make a shiva call.
But it wasn’t a hard decision for Halpert, along with two dozen of her classmates from the Modern Orthodox day school, to get on a bus after school on Wednesday to make the trip from Riverdale to Shnaider’s home in Kingston, New York. They knew his sister and brother-in-law, Margit Shnaider Silverman and Yosi Silverman, were among the 1,400 Israelis murdered by Hamas on Oct. 7.
“After I heard what happened, I just thought it would be a good thing to go,” Halpert told the New York Jewish Week. “He’s going through a really hard time. If we went and made him happy for even two seconds, it’s worth it.”
Alongside the murder of his sister and brother-in-law, who lived in Kibbutz Nir Oz, Shnaider’s niece and nephew, Shiri and Yarden Bibas, and their young, red-haired sons Ariel, 4, and Kfir, 10 months old, became early faces of the hostage crisis after a Hamas video of Shiri and her sons became public on the day of the attack. Kfir, who was using a pacifier in the video, is believed to be the youngest hostage.
The family’s kibbutz in southern Israel was especially hard-hit during the Hamas attack; between a quarter and a third of the kibbutz’s 350 residents were killed or kidnapped. The Bibas family is thought to be among more than 220 people held hostage in Gaza; the Silvermans were initially thought to be among the hostages, too, but their bodies were later identified and they were buried in Israel on Monday.
SAR Academy has a tradition of showing support for Jewish community members in need, especially when it comes to Jewish mourning rituals. Recently, when the father of an eighth-grader died, all the kids in the class visited while the family was sitting shiva, marking a seven-day period of mourning after a funeral.
The school had learned about Wednesday’s gathering in Kingston the day before from an SAR parent, who had been in touch with Shnaider’s rabbi at Chabad of Ulster County.
“We got the message out to students about this opportunity, and when they understood the significance of what was going on, they knew immediately it was worth it,” said Rabbi Zev Hait, the middle school’s director of Jewish life and learning who chaperoned the students on the visit.
At Shnaider’s home, the students were able to sit and chat with the grieving brother for about 20 to 30 minutes, Hait said. Their group was among hundreds of people who came from around the state and beyond, from different Jewish denominations and backgrounds, after an announcement was distributed around WhatsApp groups. “It was an amazing sight, ‘Am Yisroel B’Yachad’ — the Jewish people being together,” Hait said.
Hait said that while it was important for the students to understand the importance of showing up for fellow Jewish people in need, he wasn’t convinced about how much comfort the young teens could provide, especially amongst a sea of mourners.
But as Halpert described it, “a lot of students went up close to talk to [Shnaider]. He was appreciative that we came in, really happy and very surprised. He asked other people to move out of the way,” so he could talk to the students.
Halpert added that she had worried it might be uncomfortable with the stranger in mourning, but it turned out to be much easier than she thought because “he was a very friendly person.”
“It was sweet in the way only kids can be,” Hait described. “A few of them sat in front of him cross-legged, in a way that an adult never would. He spoke about his sister as someone who never got angry, something for us all to learn from her.” He added that Shnaider emphasized to the students and other shiva attendees that they were here for each other just as much as they were here for him.
The following day, at a public event in front of Kingston’s Chabad synagogue, Shnaider spoke about the outpouring of support from his community.
“I stand before you today deeply moved by the overwhelming outpouring of support from hundreds of people who have reached out to us,” Shnaider said, according to a report from the Daily Freeman. “People from all over and from all walks of life, your presence here, in person and in spirit, has been a source of immense comfort and strength to not only myself but to my entire family, whether they are here with us in the United States or in Israel.”
On the bus ride, which lasted two hours each way, the students discussed the mitzvah of making shiva calls, both to respect and honor those who have passed and to provide even temporary relief of the pain of the mourners.
Shnaider insisted that the kids take some cookies with them for the road, according to people who were present. But what struck Halpert the most was that Shnaider was adamant that they would all meet again soon — when there is good news to celebrate and his family is returned. “He has a lot of faith in Hashem,” she said. “Right now you just have to hope for the best and do all you can to stay positive.”
Hait said the visit was in line with SAR’s “action-driven” values, which he said were themselves in line with the spirit of the moment.
“Since the war broke out, you see this desire to help,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what’s going on, if there’s a test the next day or a basketball practice, if the moment calls for it, we’ll show up and support.”
Halpert, who has cousins and friends in Israel, said that in addition to the shiva visit, the school has been teaching about the war; organizing prayer services and recitations; packing duffel bags of supplies and writing letters of support to IDF soldiers.
“The message that we’ve been giving our kids for the last three weeks has been that the things that you do matter,” said SAR Academy’s principal, Rabbi Bini Krauss, who spent the last week in Israel meeting with the more than 75 SAR alumni who are serving in the Israeli Defense Forces, as well as with former teachers and parents.
“When you get a position to do something, you try to do it,” Krauss said. “We don’t want to scare the kids, but we want to appropriately introduce them to the realities of the world. They had a job to do and they chose to do it.”