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Rabbi Yaakov Don & Ezra Schwartz: Cut Down in the Prime of Their Life

November 22, 2015 | by Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider and Rabbi Alex Israel and Aryeh Sunshine

A beloved educator and a beloved student were murdered last week by an Arab terrorist.

Rabbi Yaakov Don was one of those people whose presence could light up a room. His smile was overwhelming, his laugh made everyone else laugh around him. That was Yaakov Don, a neighbor and friend, a beloved and talented teacher.

He was nearing the completion of his PhD thesis in educational technology and wrote to a friend: "In two days I will be free to do the things I want." But two days later he was dead. Rabbi Yaakov Don was cut down in the prime of his life by a terrorist's bullet, as he left his home in Alon Shevut, Gush Etzion.

He was a leading educator at one of Efrat's High Schools. A Facebook post by one of his students expresses his powerful personality:

"Tonight my Rabbi from High School was murdered; Rav Yaakov Don, an incredible person to whom I am indebted. I thought I would share something small of Rav Yaakov's world... A man who didn't differentiate between a student with a grade of 100 or of 37... who did not distinguish between a student who clutched a Talmud in his hand, or a cigarette ...who sat at the guard's booth at the entrance to the school with students passing by as they skipped classes, but for him, all that mattered was that he wanted to listen and hear how we were doing. He loved and believed in every student as if he was his only student, and believed that anyone could do absolutely anything. He taught us so much about how to get through the struggles and searching of the adolescent years and all this with a huge smile on his face under his huge moustache. I have rarely seen parents thank a teacher like they thanked Rav Yaakov; they literally ran after him to thank him for his good nature and the holy work that he did with teenagers in high school."

Yaakov's educational philosophy was grounded in a deep love and understanding of the uniqueness of every person. We would discuss at length how the Religious Zionist community needed to embrace a range of educational models and frameworks that made room for every personality, for a range of skills and temperaments, religious and intellectual interests. For Yaakov, every person could be a success story; the only question was how to unlock his or her potential.

Yaakov gave generously of his time, life-wisdom, and expertise to his community of Alon Shevut. "Whenever I needed someone to give a Torah class to the youth, he was the first to volunteer," said our local Rabbi, Rabbi Rimon. And the local teenagers at Bnei Akiva loved those classes and conversations, as Yaakov found a way to exude positivity with his warm, personable and optimistic perspective. He made other contributions to the community; most striking, as a son of Holocaust survivors, his family rescued and repaired a Torah scroll from Hungary, and donated it to our neighborhood synagogue.

But first and foremost, Yaakov showered his love on his dear family. My son would say that theirs was the most perfect family, the most incredible home that there could be. To see his care and love for his elderly parents, Holocaust survivors, was to see a living exemplar of parental care and devotion. Yaakov's wife spoke of their wonderful marriage: "You always said to me, 'What did I do to deserve you?' But really, I was the one who was truly blessed. It was my good fortune to have a loving husband, so attentive, how much sensitivity and warmth you had; to me, to the children, to your parents."

On Thursday evening, Yaakov was under extreme pressure, putting the finishing touches to his thesis and had pushed off all other engagements. But every Thursday, he visited the Yeshiva where two of his sons were studying to learn with each of them. He said to his wife, "This I cannot miss; it is the greatest pleasure of my week." He got into his car, and had driven no more than two minutes when he was attacked.

His family and the entire community have been thrust into deep mourning. But his family has vowed, "We will cry; but we will continue to laugh and smile, and to be a family just as he would have wanted."

Saying Goodbye to Ezra at the Airport

By Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider

It is not uncommon to find people saying farewell in an airport. People hug each other. Sometimes you will see people wiping away tears.

Tonight was totally different.

A thousand people came to the airport to say goodbye to Ezra Schwartz z”l who was being flown back for his burial in his hometown, Boston.

People held each other tight. People cried. Eighteen year old Ezra Schwartz who was studying Torah in a Yeshiva in Israel was gunned down Thursday evening while traveling on a van outside of Jerusalem in the area of Gush Etzion. He was volunteering that afternoon bringing snacks to the soldiers on duty in that area.

As the crowd gathered, Ezra’s classmates, rabbis, and friends who had come to show their last respects formed a large circle and began to sing. They were songs of brotherhood, of faith in God, songs that prayed for peace. Some of his friends were draped in the flag of Israel. Arm in arm people swayed back in forth lifting their voices in supplication and strength.

Natan Sharansky, the heroic refusnik and now Chairman of the Jewish Agency was present and offered words of eulogy. Ofir Shaer, the father of Gilad, z”l, one of the three boys who was kidnapped and murdered just over a year ago was also there to give strength and share in this pain and tragedy, one that he knows too well.

The people of Israel stand together with the Ezra’s parents and family.
The Jewish people stand together with his community in Boston.
We stand with his friends and teachers at his Yeshiva.
Our hearts are broken with your hearts.
We cried when we heard that Ezra was killed.
We will not forget him.
We will learn from him.
We will carry on in the kindness and goodness with which he lived his life.

The night proceeded with eulogies that described Ezra’s beautiful smile, his warmth, his kindness, his love for his siblings, his close relationship with his family, a life lived with much joy, and a life tragically cut short.

The casket draped in the flag of Israel was set to be brought to the plane that would fly his body back home. Those present were asked to exit the airport. One group was asked to stay; Ezra’s classmates who have been studying Torah with him these past few months in yeshiva. Each student approached the coffin, cried, offered a prayer and said a tearful goodbye to their friend Ezra.

The Jewish people around the world read in the Torah on this Shabbat of their forefather Jacob leaving the land of Israel. The Sages teach in the Midrash that angels from heaven come to meet Jacob and escort him on his journey.

This was not the way that Ezra Schwartz was to leave the land of Israel. He was meant to leave Israel as a young man, a year older, with his beautiful smile on his face, and return to the embrace of his loving parents.

The angels of heaven are crying as they escort Ezra back home.

My Brother, My Friend: Ezra Schwartz

Ezra SchwartzBy Aryeh Sunshine

Ezra was not just my friend, he was my brother. Everyday I would walk down to our Beit Midrash to go learn, and some days were harder than others, but Ezra would always be there waiting with a smile on his face and would always offer to help me if I didn't understand something.

Ezra was also a great athlete and I had the privilege of playing sports with him every night, and there too, no matter the circumstance, he would be there with a huge smile on his face talking about how lucky he was to be in Israel.

Not many people have the ability to make every kid smile, but for some reason, whenever people were around Ezra, they were always happy. Ezra didn't take life for granted; he appreciated every second and made the most of his opportunities. He was also dedicated to helping out anybody in need, whether it was volunteering at the Israeli cancer association or teaching underprivileged children the game of basketball.

Ezra was not in my life long enough and there will not be a day in my life that I don’t think about him. He was a real hero, and did not get enough recognition for the amazing things that he did.

One of Ezra's biggest loves was his love for the game of football and the New England Patriots. No matter what time the American football games were streamed in Israel, he was always watching. This morning, with a black stripe around my arm, I scored a touchdown in my football game, right after a moment of silence where both teams stood at midfield around the Patriots logo. Ezra was truly an incredible human being and his spirit and positive energy will continue to enrich myself, all of Yeshivat Ashreinu, and the Jewish people as a whole. May we all come together and pray that this madness should end.

Ezra, I love you. Rest in peace. Am Yisrael Chai.

Aryeh Sunshine

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