From Shalom New Haven, Winter 2016
“Everyone in New Haven is bleeding right now,” said Betty Levy, a family friend, expressing how the New Haven Jewish community is still shocked and saddened over the death of 18-year-old Ezra Schwartz, who was one of three people murdered by a Palestinian gunman on Nov. 19 in Israel.
Schwartz, who was spending his gap year at a yeshiva during his year abroad in Israel, has become a very real, personal symbol for so many all around the world of the escalating number of human lives lost in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The night Schwartz was killed in the West Bank town of Gush Etzion, he was with friends on his way to deliver food and candy to Israeli soldiers. Schwartz lived in Sharon, Massachusetts, but his grandparents, Dr. Mark Schwartz, and his wife, Heni Schwartz, live in New Haven, and Ezra would visit often. Dr. and Mrs. Schwartz are active in the Westville Synagogue, where Mark is the synagogue’s president. Levy is a close friend of the Schwartzes and helped bring Ezra’s father, Ari, to school in the carpool when he was growing up.
“They are a remarkably good family,” she said. “Both Mark and Heni have really given to the community in every way. Mark was a doctor and is so kind and conscientious. Heni is a social worker and is just such an amazing person. That this would happen to their grandson is just unbearable.”
Dr. Arthur Levy, Betty’s husband, said his dear friends “Mark and Heni have shown tremendous grace and courage throughout such a tragic event.” While he admitted they didn’t know Ezra very well, the Levys certain met him at many shared family celebrations. Dr. Levy said the Schwartz family is just devastated with Ezra’s death. “It’s just so unbelievable,” he said.
Pam Reis, of Branford, is also a friend of Mark and Heni Schwartz. Reis said she also didn’t know Ezra well, but she is certain she had met him at the many simchas the families shared. “Ezra was their first boy grandchild,” she said. “He was loved so much by everyone. It’s just shattering what happened.”
Reis said she hopes the family has found solace in the love and support of friends and family clustering around them, but she admitted, “Nothing can make it good. You feel so helpless. You can’t make it undone. All I could do was tell them how sorry I am and how sad I was for them.”
Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven CEO and close family friend, Sydney Perry, said, her voice breaking with emotion, that there are just no words to describe her sadness. “Ezra was a great kid,” Perry said. “His grandparents are remarkable people. He comes from good stock.”
“He was a young man with such promise,” Perry wrote on her Facebook page when she first learned of Ezra’s death. “I pray that his parents, Ari and Ruth, his four siblings, aunts and uncles and Mark and Heni will be comforted by the embrace of their communities and consoled with the certain knowledge that his memory will forever be a blessing.”
Hundreds of people gathered at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv to attend a memorial ceremony to pay tribute to Ezra in Israel before his uncle and two cousins accompanied his body back home to Massachusetts.
More than 1,800 mourners, including Perry and the Levys, gathered for Ezra’s funeral, which was held at Temple Sinai in Sharon, Massachusetts. The two-hour funeral was broadcast on loudspeakers outside the temple and was even carried on a live podcast on the internet.
Perry said it was worth noting that the Schwartz family didn’t know a large number of people who came to shiva, but they all wanted to console the family and show their support for the young man whose Facebook photos show a caring, joyful person who loved his family, his friends and his faith.
Betty Levy said many people from New Haven attended Ezra’s funeral, but she said it was even more compelling and telling to see so many people from Sharon, many of them not Jews, come to stand in the street as the hearse made its way to Sharon Memorial Park after the funeral. “That they came to stand as a sign of respect is indicative of the feeling for this family,” she said.
“The funeral was incredible,” Dr. Levy admitted. “I’ve never seen such an outpouring of support in all of my 74 years.”
Perry said friends of Ezra’s from his school and the camp he worked at as well as five interfaith ministers and New England Patriots football owner Robert Kraft also attended the funeral.
Kraft even decided to honor Schwartz, who was an avid Patriots fan, by having a moment of silence in his memory during the Patriots first game against the Buffalo Bills after the funeral. This momentous decision was the first large scale, and very public, acknowledgement of the fact that an American citizen was killed in the terror attacks on Israel.
President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, (D-3) and U.S. Senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal all called the Schwartz family to offer their condolences to the Schwartz family while they were sitting shiva.
“Ezra’s life was a blessing for so many,” Perry said. “Being present at the funeral was both the most wrenching, heartbreaking experience but also a full expression of the importance of a close, loving family, of friendship and community, commitment to study and prayer, and devotion to Israel. Described by many speakers as having died “kiddush haShem”, I think it worth to note that he lived his life the same way…holy.”
Westville Synagogue Rabbi Fred Hyman said Ezra, who had told his mother how excited he was to go to Israel to learn more about his faith, has “become a symbol of the young Orthodox students studying in Israel in a post-high school program to enhance their Jewish education and connection to Israel.”
“Many of our own children have done, are doing, and will do, just that,” Hyman said. “His tragic death has become personal for this generation of young Jews. Studying in Israel for a year should be ‘idyllic.’ No worries, learning what you want, enjoying, experiencing, the exuberance of life… This event has pierced the heart with the reality of evil and the potential of tragic outcomes. I am impressed and inspired by the young people of our community who are coping with the tragedy and re-committing themselves to study in Israel and place their destiny with the Jewish state.”
Dr. Levy echoed Rabbi Hyman’s sentiments by adding that even though Ezra’s death has been devastating to so many, Ezra still did the right thing by going to Israel to study. Levy said that people should continue to show their support by going to Israel.
Ezra’s death is a terrible, terrible tragedy, but Levy said, “If there is anything positive from all of this, it is that it is bringing the community together.”
In response to various requests, Ezra’s family has established the Ezra Schwartz Memorial Fund. Any donations will be granted to a charitable project that will serve as a fitting legacy to Ezra’s life and pursuits. You can donate online https://secure.jewishcommunalfund.org/ or by sending a check to the Jewish Communal Fund, 575 Madison Avenue, Suite 703, New York, NY 10022. For assistance with the fund or for more information, call 212-752-8277. In addition, the family continues to encourage gifts to the institutions that “helped to form Ezra into the beautiful young man that he was”: The Striar Hebrew Academy of Sharon, MA, the Maimonides School in Brookline, MA, Yeshivat Ashreinu in Bet Shemesh, Israel, and Camp Yavneh in Northwood, NH.