Neila 5778 - Singing at Neila

I still remember the Friday night of December 27, 2002. I spent that year back at Yeshivat Har Etzion, and I was almost entirely immersed in the Israeli culture. I had Israeli roommates, Israeli chavrutot and attended Israeli shiurim. And so it came as no surprise that my roommates and friends invited me to join them for a Shabbaton they were planning in the Otniel Hesder Yeshiva with their peers. Although I initially agreed to join, for reasons I no longer remember, I decided at the last moment to stay back in Alon Shevut.

Yet the memory of that Shabbat remains as vivid as ever. As it turns out, that was the night when two Islamic Jihad terrorists infiltrated Otniel, entered the yeshiva through the back door of the kitchen, and started firing at the four yeshiva students who were on "toranut," kitchen duty. Many will recall the heroism of Noam Apter, who had the presence of mind to lock the door connecting the kitchen to the chadar ochel (dining hall), where the Otniel students and my Israeli friends from Yeshivat Har Etzion were enjoying their dinner and singing Baruch Kel Elyon. In death, he and the other three students - Gavriel Choter, Tzvi Zimen and Yehuda Bamberger - slowed down the terrorists enough to have likely saved many lives. Still, the terrorists managed to injure a number of students in the dining hall, including one critically, before they eventually were killed.

This past Yom Hazikaron, hoping to inspire some others with my experience, I shared this story. What I did not expect is that someone by the name of Ari Dembi shared my post, adding the following comment: “Today is Yom Hazikaron...Noam apter, our cousin and a true hero. His eternal soul and strength continue to move us.” He then tagged a number of others, apparently family members. One of those he tagged, Toba Cohen-Dunning, added, “May his memory be for a blessing.”

I have never felt so small, so humbled. I had simply meant to convey my own encounter, however indirectly, with tragedy, in the hopes of inspiring others to recall these young men. Little did I expect that family members would share my post and share their own recollections.

Indeed, it strikes me that this story is especially apt on Yom Kippur. Today, we invoked the merit of many heroes: the Ten Martyrs, our patriarchs and matriarchs, and even members of our own families. In a different vein, we take stock of our own actions. Like Noam’s family members, we recall the past.

But there was one final comment on the thread. A woman by the name of Katherine Pawlowski - presumably another relative - added simply, “we should sing baruch kel elyon this shabbos.” This, in some ways, is the most remarkable comment in the thread. For on Yom Kippur, we not only recall the past, we also blend it together with inspiration in the present and a commitment for the future. Indeed, all of Judaism can be said to be an amalgamation of past, present and future, all of which we bring before Hashem at the propitious moment of Neila.

Ultimately, then, the message is an optimistic one. On Yom Kippur, we confront the past honestly, but with an eye toward carrying its lessons into the future. As we turn to Neila, let us do the same. Let us not only remember. Let us also sing.

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