In the Jerusalem home of Rabbi Yehuda Ben-Yishai and his wife Tali, photographs of their daughter Ruti, their son-in-law Ehud, and their children — 11-year-old Yoav, four-year-old Elad, and three-month-old Hadas hang on the walls of every room.
These are the members of the Fogel family who were massacred in their home two years ago by two terrorists. "They’re always with us," Rabbi Ben-Yishai said of his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren. "We talk about the parents. We talk about them with the children and live their legacy at the same time. We are learning to live with the fact that they’re with us all the time though they’re not here." That is the essence of their daily routine since that terrible Friday, now known as "the Itamar massacre," which transformed Yehuda and Tali Ben-Yishai from the grandparents to the parents of the children who survived: 14-year-old Tamar, 10-year-old Roi and four-year-old Yishai.
The family’s friends commemorate them also. In two days, when Itamar marks the second anniversary of the terrible event, the cornerstone of a new building at the yeshiva, to be named for the family, will be laid. A beit midrash (study hall), named Mishkan Ehud, was built even before that. Dozens of memorial pamphlets were produced, and the home — which has since been sold — has become a place of pilgrimage.
Although Yehuda and Tali Ben-Yishai are made of rare fiber, the terrible pain of their loss is etched on their faces. Their voices tremble and their eyes are sad, but they look to the future. "What happened was so inhuman that we have gained superhuman strength," Tali says. "We know these children will be great people. They will be all right. They will not be damaged. They’re not in trauma anymore. Some children are afraid of what happens around them, but they’re not like that. They’re not the sort who don’t want to go to school or don’t want to get out of bed and spend the day crying."
The three children lead ordinary lives. "They get up in the morning, go to school, prepare sandwiches for themselves, come back with report cards. A normal routine," says Yehuda. Only Yishai, who was two years old when the murder took place, calls Yehuda and Tali mother and father. "If he looks at the photographs, he can identify his father, Udi, and his mother, Ruti, but he’s all right. He was little, and he’s grown up under different circumstances," Tali says.
She continues: "The move from Itamar to Jerusalem wasn’t easy, but they’re good kids. They understand what happened, but amazingly, they’ve chosen to feel their terrible pain, and at the same time gather strength and look to the future. Roi is already ten years old, and we feel that despite all the pain he’s in, he decided to keep going forward. He doesn’t let himself get bogged down in painful thoughts, collapse and cry. Sometimes he cries over other things, like any kid does. Maybe his crying over the other things is mixed with the pain of what happened, but he’s all right.
"I’m sure they miss them very much, but they don’t say so in front of us. We don’t keep their parents a secret. On the contrary — we talk about them all the time. We tell stories about them and mention them at every opportunity — for example, what Daddy would have done. We also mention them on trips or at dinner. Talking about them helps the children a lot."
Yehuda and Tali say that Tamar, who evidently saw the terrible sights in her home, is an extraordinary person. They recall how, during the shiva — the first week of mourning — she spoke about Jewish unity and how much her father wanted it. They also tell about her concern over Jonathan Pollard, whom she visited in prison. "We know that she is not an ordinary girl," Yehuda and Tali say. "She’s got a special personality. It’s obvious to us that she gets it from Udi and Ruti. They gave her a stable personality that’s also very sensitive, makes a place for yearning and lives with the pain, but it’s amazing how she functions."
"Every moment, every breath"
Although Yehuda and Tali say that the children live ordinary lives, they don’t hide the difficult moments, particularly when the anniversary of the murder approaches. Then, they say, they try to make the children happy. "This week, they were taken on a three-day trip to give them strength. When we talked with them in the evening, they said they were doing a cookout, and we heard how happy they were. The home is not sad. There’s a lot of life in the house," Tali says, pointing out that together with Tamar, Roi and Yishai, her youngest sons, aged 23 and 20, live there too. "Another of our daughters moved close to us, so there’s an atmosphere of young people here," she says.
"We’re partners in raising Udi and Ruti's children," says Rabbi Ben-Yishai. "They have a father and mother, and the connection between parents and children can never be broken, particularly when the children are small. On more difficult days we hug them, go out for pizza, play games. We try to gather them in with all the pain and show them that there’s good in life."
"The darkness is very great. To lose children, grandchildren, who love and are loved ..." Tali can barely finish the sentence, but recovers. "It’s very painful for us. It’s every fraction of a second, it’s part of life, every moment, every breath. But they gave us strength to cope. They left us the gift of three children, and we have a responsibility to make sure they grow up healthy in body and mind, that they believe in life, that they love life and believe in God — and these children rely on us."
And then, Tali adds with a half-smile: "I can’t say it was easy to be a grandfather and grandmother who became a father and mother. After all, people always say that you’re happy when your grandchildren come to visit, and you’re happy when they leave. There was a period of time when it was hard for me to go back to functioning as if I were a mother, but now it’s not hard anymore. We’ve gone back to being young. We’ve been given a gift, and we’ve gained something — the children give us a lot of strength, and I don’t know whether we give more to them or they give more to us."
Rabbi Yehuda rejoins the conversation. "Only now, I’ve come to understand the saying, ‘There is no wise person like the one who has been tested.’ Until now, I understood it in the abstract, but now I understand that there’s no wise person like the one who has undergone a test — there is no wise person like the one who has gotten wisdom from his tests. He sees things differently and receives a different kind of strength."
Rabbi Yehuda describes the horrific massacre and the responses to it as "secret." "The worldwide shock, the abominable deed; it’s an act of such enormous dimensions on the human and national levels that as far as we’re concerned, it’s secret, unknowable," he says. "It crossed all boundaries. At one point, a woman called to tell us that she had come to Israel from the United States for 48 hours and she wanted to meet us for two hours before she went back.
"It crossed boundaries among the people, too. It’s no accident that it happened to religious people or settlers who lived over the Green Line. A delegation from the Ashdod Port came to us. So did people from the Air Force base in Haifa; a yeshiva student; people from kibbutzim that belong to the [secular] Hashomer Hatzair movement; haredi rabbis. That’s part of the secret, unknowable aspect. Maybe it was the magnitude of the disaster. Maybe it was the fact that children were among the victims, which is seen not as a private disaster but a national one. Everyone’s trying to explain it, to find answers. There are many explanations, such as the very fact that it was a family of good character and moral standards that lived their lives for the sake of the Land of Israel, that was harmed."
Rabbi Ben-Yishai continues: "They weren’t radical people. They were good people who connected with everyone. They left [the Gush Katif community of] Netzarim without complaint and looked toward the future. They were capable of living on the private level and on the national level too, without being associated exclusively with a particular sector. Udi’s battalion commander in the reserves, a secular young man from Binyamina, wrote about him in one of the memorial booklets: ‘Udi was one of our own. What happened, the way it happened, the family and the children — all that is hard for us. I assume you will do more reserve duty in the future, so when you do, I recommend that you do what Udi did — don’t stick to people from your own group. Spend a lot of time with folks like me, and find what we have in common."
Ben-Yishai says, "A secret cannot be known. It has no answer. When we finish going over their whole lives, maybe we’ll know. We’re still studying them. Even though we’re their parents, we brought them into the world, we taught them and raised them, we’re still getting to know them. A person is like a closed scroll that opens very slowly."
"The murderers did not succeed"
When the murderers Hakim and Amjad Awad were captured and brought to trial, the victims’ family chose not to see their faces. They also do not seek personal revenge, but see the Awads’ sentence — imprisonment until their dying day — as an injustice against the State of Israel as a whole. "The nation of Israel is doing itself an injustice," Rabbi Yehuda says. "It does not maintain the principle that those who commit murder on such a large scale take from themselves the right to exist."
"There needs to be a minimum moral level," he continues. "This state of affairs damages the State of Israel’s sense of morality. It doesn’t hurt me; it’s not on the individual level at all, because they’re dead as far as I’m concerned — evil people are considered dead even while they live. But the fact that the Jewish people keep such creatures in jail is not good. What will happen if there’s a deal and we have to release terrorists? Besides, we can’t give them the feeling that they can commit murder without suffering the consequences. That compromises the value of human life."
Rabbi Yehuda is firm. In his opinion, the terrorists should have been killed, whether in prison or beforehand, in a military operation. If not, he says, "You’re saying that a person can murder five people, from a father to a baby girl, and still stay alive." He continues: "I don’t deal in revenge. If I dealt in private revenge, I wouldn’t talk much about it. The Jewish people must take revenge. They wanted us to attend the trial and we said: Absolutely not. As far as we’re concerned, they don’t exist."
Tali agrees. "I don’t care about the murderers. They didn’t want to kill Ruti or Udi, but the Jewish people. Udi, Ruti and the children were there, and we don’t understand why God does what He does, but the Jewish people needs to judge them."
As he has done throughout our conversation, here too Rabbi Ben-Yishai finds a point of light. "The murderers didn’t succeed, actually. The body can be harmed, but not the soul. Suddenly Ruti, Udi, Yoav, Elad and Hadas became all of our children. Everybody knows them. We all know the value of their lives. Their parents weep, they are sad, tormented, hurting, missing them. They live two things at once all the time: light and darkness.
"Even when there’s a happy event you’re sad because you ask where Udi and Ruti are now. You want them to be sitting at the table. But we decided that we’re making the effort, almost to the limits of our strength, to ensure that something great grows out of this. We’re their emissaries — Uri and Ruti tell us not to give up. They’ve become a sign and a symbol. Part of what leadership is, is to be very sensitive to the idea of strengthening identity."
It’s obvious to the Ben-Yishais that time does not heal. "No parent who has lost a child can say that the wound ever heals. It becomes a part of you. You have to try to figure out what they would want without their being here. Like it was in the beginning, when they gave us news of the incident, and it was another and another and another, and it’s like a tsunami, and you weep for them. So today you’re happy about the ones who remain," Rabbi Yehuda says.
Yehuda and Tali agree with the feeling that prevailed after the murder that every human boundary had been crossed. Some compared the incident to the terror attack at the Park Hotel [on March 27, 2002, the first night of Passover], after which the IDF began Operation Defensive Shield. The Ben-Yishais are disappointed that the murder in Itamar had no large-scale military ramifications. It is obvious to Tali that the massacre gave rise to the following conclusion: "The Jewish people realized that they could not believe in those wicked people. If there was a time when we thought we could get along with them, it became clear who these people were, how enormous their evil was."
Rabbi Yehuda sums it up. "It’s human nature to look for justifications of actions, but in this case, it happened for no reason. A three-month-old girl … it was for no reason. They weren’t even remorseful. They never said, ‘How could we have killed a baby girl?’ They can feel sorry for a female cat, but not a baby girl? But it’s not just that. The Jewish people has made progress in its connection to people who love the land and tradition as well. That’s the most important thing."