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The Spirit of Alisa

May 9, 2009 | by Stephen M. Flatow

When my daughter was murdered by terrorists in Gaza, her influence grew stronger still.

At age 11, our eldest daughter Alisa had the opportunity to visit Israel for two weeks with my sister (her aunt). Alisa had the time of her life and she came back with her first Israeli tan.

Then the real breakthrough came on Alisa's third trip to Israel, as a senior in high school. She went on the March of the Living, where they visited the concentration camps in Europe and then on to Israel. It rattled her. It made her decide who she was and what she was going to be. She was going to be an activist, working on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people.

In New Jersey we had a school set up for immigrant children who were just coming out the Former Soviet Union. Alisa announced one day that she wanted to volunteer at the school, and I asked, "What are you going to do?" Alisa was co-captain of her high school softball team, and she answered, "Well, if they're in America, we have to make them Americans. I'll take afternoons off and teach them how to play baseball." And that's what she did.

That fall, she went to Brandeis University. She worked very hard, taking extra courses plus summer school. But she loved Israel so much that she still found time to travel those summers to Israel. In the summer of 1994, she went with Aish as an outreach activist and then became a campus representative.

Alisa went to Jerusalem to pursue an education in life.

Israeli-Palestinian violence intensified during those years, but that didn't deter Alisa, who wanted a college experience abroad. In 1995, as a junior, she was granted a leave of absence by Brandeis and she went to study for six months at Nishmat, a women's seminary in Jerusalem. She found an apartment in Jerusalem and pursued an "education in life."

Alisa was thrilled that after two years of sociology at Brandeis, she was now studying Judaism all day long. She went to the shuk when she wanted, and visited people's houses for lunch. One of her favorite activities was to go to the Western Wall and just watch the people. She wrote of being inspired by the initiation of the paratroopers at the Wall, seeing them presented with the two Jewish weapons -- a rifle and a Bible.


That spring, Alisa was to stay in Israel a few weeks after Passover to finish the semester, so she looked around for a pre-Passover trip. She wanted to go to Petra, to see the archeological sites in Jordan, but it was a very expensive trip. So she emailed that instead she'd be going with girlfriends to Gush Katif on the Mediterranean, to get some sun.

I wasn't familiar with the geography of Israel, so on the morning she was leaving on this mini-vacation, we spoke on the phone and I asked Alisa where Gush Katif was.

"It's in Gaza," she said.

I think another parent might have screamed, "You're not going to Gaza!

I think another parent might have screamed into the phone, "You're not going to the Gaza Strip! End of discussion. Cancel your trip." But I had always given Alisa the latitude to make her own informed decisions. So instead of yelling, I asked how she was planning to get there.

She explained, as only a young college kid can, the reason she was up at 5 a.m. to catch a bus from Jerusalem to Ashkelon, and from there to Gaza: It was to fulfill our three agreed-upon rules: 1) travel only by public transportation; she was up early; 2) not to travel alone -- she going with two other American girls; and 3) travel only to a recognized destination -- a popular Israeli beach resort.

So I agreed to let her go.

On my way to shul in the morning, I turned on the radio to hear there had been a terrorist attack in Gaza. A suicide bomber drove a van loaded with explosives into a public bus near the Israeli settlement of Kfar Darom. The blast peeled away the side of the bus and seven Israeli soldiers were killed. And I knew right then in the pit of my stomach that Alisa was involved. But rather than go back home and scare everyone, I continued to shul. When the phone rang at the shul about 20 minutes later, I knew it was for me.

It was my wife, Roz. She had just gotten a phone call from one of the mothers of Alisa's traveling companions. Both girlfriends were back in Jerusalem already, but they'd gotten separated and didn't know about Alisa.

I immediately went home and tried calling the Israeli consulate in New York City, but the phone was busy. So I called the State Department in Washington, which has an office to handle crises of Americans overseas. I provided Alisa's passport number, her address in Jerusalem, and the phone number of the girls she was traveling with. He said he'd call me back.

At that point, because I had run out of shul so quickly, people called the house to see what was going on. And like Jews everywhere, everyone's connected someplace with someone. So I had friends calling insurance companies in Israel to check their hospitals and HMO's to see if Alisa had been brought there. And they found that Alisa was at Soroka Medical Center in Beer Sheva.

No one was able to tell us her condition immediately because she was in surgery. About an hour later, the hospital called to tell us she was in intensive care.

I said, "Can you tell me where she's injured?" I wanted him to say that it was her arm or leg.

He said, "She was hit in the head with shrapnel and is unconscious. You should get on a plane and come right now."

I arrived in Israel in the morning, and was met on the runway by representatives of the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv. They stamped my passport on the tarmac of the airport, put me in a van, and drove to Beer Sheva.

I was met in the parking lot by the head of the hospital, and I had to push my way through a crowd of people at the ICU. Alisa was in a bed in the corner, with a ventilator tube in her mouth.

I grew up in the 1950's and '60's, and I remember vividly on Ben Casey, how the father would hold his daughter's hand, and she would open her eyes, mumble something and squeeze the hand back, and you knew that by the time the show was over at 11 o'clock that everything was going to be okay.

But when I let go of Alisa's hand, it just fell down onto the side of her bed.

The doctor took me into a little room to talk. There was no air conditioning, just a fan blowing hot air. He gave me a cup of orange soda, and sat me down.

I asked, "What's her condition?"

He said, "Her brain is punctured. A small piece of shrapnel about the size of your thumbnail hit her in the back of her head."

They had operated the day before, and gave her a medication to reduce brain swelling. But the damage was too great. She was brain dead.

He let that piece of information sink in for a minute or two. Then the head of the hospital looked me and said, "We have a question."

Just as I had sensed the day before what had happened, I knew it again. I looked up and said, "You want her organs, don't you?"

It turns out that over the previous year or so, I had heard lectures in Jewish law on the permissibility of organ donations under certain conditions. I also knew the Talmudic dictum that "one who saves a life is as if he has saved an entire world." And I knew that we have a responsibility to be a light unto the nations.

I thought of all the soldiers in Israel on the borders, and those patrolling the streets, making Israel safe for us. And I thought of stories I'd heard about Holocaust survivors who arrived in 1948 in the midst of war, and they were given a shovel or a broomstick to fight with because there weren't enough guns. And I also thought of all those in Israel who study Torah, casting a wall of spiritual protection over us. And I thought about the bus drivers, and the guys at the shuk who argue over two cents...

So I called my wife and said, "Every time Alisa came back from Israel, she wasn't just a better Jew, she was a better person. It made her into who she was."

I continued: "This is our way to say 'thank you' to everyone who was putting themselves on the line for Israel, and everyone who had opened their homes to Alisa and her friends. This is our time. This is the way we can save a Jewish life."

So we donated Alisa's organs -- heart, pancreas, liver, lungs and two kidneys -- to six people. Three, unfortunately, barely got off the operating table when they died. The other three came out.


After a few hours, when it came time to leave Israel, they brought me to the VIP lounge at Ben Gurion Airport. The room was crowded with reporters, and I was sitting next to one of the Israeli Army chaplains. I said, "I don't understand all the fuss." One of the reporters turned to me and said, "You have no idea what you've done for us." He was telling me, "You did something that we don't do for ourselves. You haven't blamed us for what happened to your daughter. Instead, you gave us the gift of life."

You have to remember that in those days, in 1995, the government was pushing the Oslo process at full speed. Alisa had become another "sacrifice for peace." But I didn't have negative thoughts about the government or the situation. I know the government didn't kill her. I haven't read of a single parent of a terror victim accusing the government for what's happening, even at the height of Oslo. You know who to blame. You blame the Palestinians, not your fellow Israeli.

We came out of the VIP room and the casket was there, surrounded by a color guard, draped in an Israeli flag. She was 20 years old.

God and Alisa's soul were saying, "I got you to this point. Now we're moving forward."

When we arrived at Kennedy at 6 a.m., they brought me out to speak to the press. And at that point a switch clicked in my head. All I know is that when I opened my mouth, things made sense. And suddenly, unexpectedly, I had become an activist -- for the Jewish people and for Israel, and against the scourge of terrorism. It was either Alisa's neshama (soul) pushing her way through, or God saying, "I got you to this point. Now we're moving forward."

You have to react to a loss of a child, especially in a terrorist attack. If you don't react, it's just going to stay inside you and eat away at your psyche and your physical being. Every parent has to deal with their loss in a different way. I can go out publicly and talk about Alisa twice a day. But Roz has a difficult time even mentioning her name.

So I began flying to different cities -- in Waco, Texas, San Diego, Denver, and Erie, Pennsylvania -- speaking about Alisa to senior citizens, high school kids, whomever invited me. And in the process I'd like to think that I helped knock down some of the "bugaboo" that had developed about the orthodox in this country.

My message is that there's more to life than just walking around. We're all put on Earth for a purpose, and out of the simplest acts of kindness, we can transform ourself and our world. I was doing something constructive, as opposed to destructive. The work can be exhausting, but the adrenaline keeps pumping because to an extent I am keeping Alisa alive -- talking about her and working on her behalf.


Let me try to add some context. Growing up in Queens, New York, my family wasn't observant; we ate "kosher in" and "Chinese out." I went to Hebrew school and it was torture. I remember vividly an Israeli teacher. It was exciting to hear him talk about the Israeli wars and the struggles, but he didn't teach much. And then after my Bar Mitzvah, my formal Jewish education came to an end. The most "religious" thing I did is when my father died and I decided to say Kaddish for the full year. I went to shul at least once a day to say Kaddish. If I couldn't make it during the day, when I got back home at night I'd run out to a neighboring town. But I made sure I said Kaddish.

We had moved to West Orange, New Jersey, and when Alisa was ready for nursery school we enrolled her in an orthodox school. This is just how it worked out. Alisa was doing great, learning Hebrew songs, serving as the "Shabbat eema," and the designated "chazzan," too.

Then when she was almost five, it was time to go to public school. One day I came home, and my wife said that Alisa was driving her crazy. When Alisa heard that she'd be going to a public school, she put her foot down and said, "No, I'm not. I'm going to the Jewish school with my friend Becky. And Mommy has to call up Becky's mommy and find out about it, because I'm not going to public school." And then this 4-year-old girl walked out of the room.

Two days later, we were looking at the orthodox day school. We took a tour of the facility with the principal, who was extolling the virtues of day school education. And I was thinking, we have a problem here because, sure, we say Kiddush when I get home Friday night, and the Shabbat candles are lit before sunset. But after dinner the TV goes on in the den, and on Saturday we take the girls out shopping. So when the principal asked if I had any questions, the second question (after: "How much is this going to cost?") I asked was, "If I send Alisa to this school, will my lifestyle change?" He looked me right in the eyes and said: "No."

Technically, he was correct. The school would not change my lifestyle; it's just a building, an institution. But the principal knew that the education Alisa would get would one day make us realize that we're going to have to change our lifestyle to accommodate a five-year-old, or drive everyone crazy in the process.

So we slowly changed. We realized that if our child is going to school five days a week to learn about Shabbat and kashrut and the weekly parsha, then how can we say to her on Saturday morning, "Let's go to the hardware store"? We didn't become observant for several years after that. But we tried to move along as Alisa grew in her own observance.


When Alisa finished her first few weeks in school, we had parent-teacher conferences. We went in, not knowing what to expect, because Alisa had a mouth that could talk without interruption. So my wife and I sat down and the two teachers said, "We want to thank you for sending Alisa to our classroom."

Roz and I looked at each other, figuring there must be some mistake. We looked at the teachers and said, "We're Alisa Flatow's parents." They said, "Oh yes, we know. And she's an absolute joy to have in class. She volunteers, raises her hand, asks questions, has answers, is very helpful, outgoing, and gets along with everyone!"

This continued throughout her school years. She'd always get "A's," though more important for her was developing a wide network of friends, who depended on her to keep their spirits going. Alisa was what you would call a people person. In high school, the bus would pick her up at 6:50 a.m. She'd arrive early to school and would wait in the hallway for her friends, on duty to cheer them up if they were feeling "down."

When she first started high school, the phone in her room used to ring on Friday nights, and her friends would leave messages on the answering machine. I said, "Alisa, since we're keeping Shabbat it's not appropriate for your friends to call." So she said, "Okay," and the phones stopped.

I found out after she died that she didn't want to tell her friends not to call if they felt they needed to. So she shut off the ringer and turned the sound off the answering machine.

She needed to teach them in her own way, which was: Don't lecture, do by example. And it went hand-in-hand with her wanting to show young people that there's more to being Jewish than restrictions on behavior and eating habits, and that you could be Jewishly observant and still be in touch with the world.

Alisa had friends on both spectrums -- those who were more observant than her, and those who were less observant. She wanted to learn from those who knew more, and teach those who knew less. But she taught and learned only by action. Never a pointing finger, never a click of the tongue.

It was always that way. I recall one day when she was in elementary school, and she said to me, "We have a problem with a girl in class. She brings in non-kosher food snacks." So I asked, "What do you do when she offers it?" Alisa answered: "Oh, we pretend we're taking it, but we put it in our pocket. We don't eat it. But we don't want to make her feel bad."


It's always tragic to lose a child. But Alisa was so much more. She was a role model for me, a guiding light for how to conduct oneself on a daily basis. She made a better person.

After my press conference at the airport, I arrived home in New Jersey to find my house under siege -- media, neighbors, friends. It was two hours till the funeral and I couldn't focus with all the commotion. My rabbi put up his hand like a policeman, and said, "Alisa died al kiddush Hashem, santifying the Name of God. That's all you need to know."

What he said clicked. Because of that remark, I've gotten the strength to respond as a Jew is supposed to respond in such a situation. And that is: Do what you can to make life a Kiddush Hashem. Not just through death, but through life as well.

Alisa never saw herself in harm's way being in Israel. She felt comfortable there; I was more comfortable with her there than when she was visiting certain parts of Manhattan. We're Jews and this is our home. And that's why we've not hesitated to send Alisa's younger siblings for extended stays in Israel.

I am always alerted to terror attacks in Israel by persistent phone calls from reporters. They ask, "Having lost a daughter, what do you think about sending kids to Israel?" That's the opportunity I'm waiting for, for them to walk into my trap. I say, "Go, because it's the right thing."

We have to send a message to terrorists who want to scare us away from Israel. We're still going to go. We're not going to become victims. If we allow fear to rule their lives, then the terrorists will have won.


That idea motivated me to get involved politically. As a lawyer, I thought we could create a legal disincentive for those who sponsor terrorism. In 1996, Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism Act which stripped away the "sovereign immunity" foreign countries enjoyed from prosecution by Americans.

The law was important because it empowered the victims. I'm not a country and I can't wage war against Iran or Islamic Jihad, so I rely on the tools we have at hand -- the legal system. As a father, when you know the resources of your government are committed to right the wrong committed against your daughter, you can't ask for anything more.

Unfortunately, once we looked deep into the statute, we realized that it was impractical. It didn't define where the jurisdiction was going to be; what law was going to be applied; how you obtained service; how you went through a judgment; or a myriad of procedural things. That's when we realized we were in for a fight.

So I set about working with Congress to get the bill structured in such a way that it actually had teeth. To get those changes took a lot of work, a lot of trips to Washington, and a lot of convincing that this would be good for America. I testified before both the Senate and House Judiciary Committees, in support of legislation that would allow the victims of terror who prevail in court to recover the frozen assets of the countries who sponsored the terrorism.

I met personally with President Clinton three times, and things finally came together in October 1999 with the signing of the "Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act." This led to my filing a lawsuit for the purpose of embarrassing the Iranian government. We wanted to expose the underbelly of Iran, to show that no country should be permitted to sponsor terrorist attacks against innocent civilians. And personally, we were looking for closure in seeking justice against those who murdered our daughter. The wound never heals, but we felt this would be a step in the healing process, in allowing us to get on with our lives.

In the two-day trial before a district court judge, we demonstrated that Islamic Jihad took responsibility for the bomb that killed Alisa, and that their support money came directly from the Iranian government. The judge awarded us $247 million, a default judgment because Iran did not appear to contest the lawsuit. So although we won, in terms of going head-to-head to defeat them, a lot of the wind was knocked out of our sails.

The award money was to come from $400 million in Iranian assets held in America, a down payment years earlier by the shah of Iran for the purchase of U.S. military equipment. After the shah was overthrown by Islamic fundamentalists, the U.S. froze the money.

If someone sues you for $247 million, you're going to think twice about spending $75 million on terrorism.

But then we hit an unexpected roadblock. The U.S. government, for diplomatic reasons, opposed our efforts to collect. Clinton signed a directive overriding the law on grounds of "national security." The administration argued that frozen assets provide leverage for U.S. diplomats negotiating with terrorist states. And it claimed that permitting such assets to be seized would endanger U.S. properties overseas. So unbelievably, I found myself up against U.S. Justice Department lawyers in a federal court!

But we kept fighting, and in the end, 95 senators voted to release the funds, and Clinton signed it into law on a Shabbat afternoon. Roz had been putting our name into the search engine on the AP wire each afternoon and evening, and that Saturday night when she put it in, up came our name in a story about the signing. Right there we said Shehechiyanu, the prayer for thanksgiving.

Then on January 4, 2001, the Treasury Department transferred to us about 10 percent of our award -- $26 million, representing the compensatory damages. I'm still determined to find a way to collect the $200 million in punitive damages, because that's the portion intended to deter Iran's future conduct. If someone hits you up for all those millions, you're going to think twice about spending $75 million on terrorism. It's not a very good return on your investment.

Of course, we've used the money to perpetuate Alisa's memory. We have the "Alisa Scholarship Fund" which in its eight years of existence, received 2,000 applications from college-age kids to study in Israel. We've endowed a program at Nishmat for overseas students. We're doing some work with Israeli hospitals, including Soroka Medical Center. And there will be other projects down the road, all in the merit of a little 4-year-old girl who insisted on being given a Jewish education.

And I've continued to be an activist. I testified at the House Judiciary Committee, speaking about associates of Islamic Jihad who were freely operating in Tampa, Florida. We want to put terrorists wherever they may be found out of business, so that no other father, mother, brother or sister should have to experience what my family and many others have gone through these past years.


When Alisa was five, she got into a bicycle accident. As I drove her to the hospital, she cried in the back seat, asking why these things always happen to her. It was her third trip to the emergency room in three years.

I tried to explain that things happen that we don't understand. She didn't expect her friend to ride over her foot. She shouldn't let it bother her, because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Now, when I travel around the country speaking about Alisa, I sometimes hear her saying, "Daddy, why did this happen to me?"

I gave a speech last night at a synagogue and somebody asked, "I lost a child in certain circumstances. Do you believe in God?"

I said, "Yes, very much so."

"So why are there babies dying?"

"I have no idea. All I know is that our question is not to ask 'why.' Our question is: What can I do to make life better?"

While I believe there will be a redemption and a resurrection, at the same time, we have to fix the world here and now. "As Jews, it is our responsibility to help Jews less fortunate than we are," Alisa once wrote.

That's where Alisa was heading. She'd probably have become a physical therapist, or occupational therapist. Or she'd have gone into Jewish education. But most importantly, she would have been the mother of a strong Jewish family.

Alisa loved Israel and was very proud of being Jewish. She stood up with the seven soldiers who were killed along with her, as if to say: "I am a Jew. I am here with you." So I came to realize that at that time, she was not in the wrong place. She was in the right place.


The last time Alisa and I were together was for a family dinner in Jerusalem. In January 1995, we took the whole family to Israel on a 10-day trip. We all enjoyed the time together, especially walking around the Old City of Jerusalem. We took one final picture of the whole family together, smiling and wind-blown, from the promenade in Talpiot, with the Old City in the background.

Before snapping the picture, the guide asked us, "Who do you think stood on this very similar spot?" We were looking and thinking, and nothing was registering. Then I raised my hand and said, "Abraham." At the Akeida (binding of Isaac), father and child had walked for three days, and came to a point where they saw the Temple Mount. And we were standing at what could have been that very spot.

In retrospect, I think of the similarity of me standing there with my daughter. And in fact I think all Jewish parents are like Abraham. We encourage our children to be Jews; we encourage them to go to Israel. At the same time we recognize that they might wind up as a korbon, a modern-day sacrifice.

As hard as it's been, you put one foot in front of the other. And I'm many, many steps beyond April 9, 1995. I knew at the end of the first year that things were getting better, because I stopped crying every day.

The hardest time of the week is still Friday afternoon. It can be difficult to start Shabbat, because Alisa introduced it to us. Sometimes it's difficult for me to complete the Kiddush without crying, because I know that I'm supposed to bless the day, to sanctify God's Name. And I have sanctified His Name with my first-born child. She taught me so much about how to live. May her memory be for a blessing.

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