JNF Wire: Family of Slain American Ezra Schwartz Journeys to Israel to Remember Son
December 31, 2015
Adam H. Brill, Director of Communications
'His Soul Will Grow Roots Here':
Family of Slain American Ezra Schwartz Journeys to Israel to Remember Son
By: Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
The atmosphere was palpable and emotional this week. There were tears, smiles, sadness, and love. It has been an overwhelming and tearful experience for the Schwartz family who visited Israel this week to remember and honor their 18-year-old son Ezra, who was killed in a terrorist attack last month in Gush Etzion.
"The goal was to come and see the places that Ezra went, where he hung out, what he enjoyed, and how he spent time with friends, as a way to feel closer to him,” said the young man’s mother Ruth Schwartz . “He was here for two and a half months and we weren’t with him. Every time I write a speech or talk about Ezra, it is good for me–I feel good. It helps deal with our sadness."
Ezra, an American from Sharon, Massachusetts, was murdered on November 19 when a Palestinian gunman opened fire on cars at the Gush Etzion junction. In addition to Ezra, an Israeli educator, Yaakov Don and Shadi Arafa, a young Palestinian man from Hebron, were also killed in the attack.
Mrs. Schwartz said she is still trying to understand why this tragedy happened. "I have decided there is no way to make sense of it. It doesn’t help me to think 'what ifs' or 'why him'? Ezra was targeted because he was Jewish," said Mrs. Schwartz.
During the trip, the family met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. They also took a tour of the Knesset with Israeli politician Dov Lipman and visited with President Reuven Rivlin at his Jerusalem home.
They later visited the Oz Ve'Gaon Park near the Gush Etzion junction where they helped to finish a new path in the park in honor of their son. The story behind the name of Oz Ve'Gaon Park is similarly somber. It was built in memory of Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel, and Eyal Yifrah, the three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped on their way home after school and murdered by terrorists at the Gush Etzion junction in 2014.
On the evening of Tuesday, December 29, Jewish National Fund (JNF) arranged for the Schwartz family to attend an Israeli baseball game at the Baptist Village near Petach Tikva where Ezra's younger brothers, Avi, Elon, and Hillel, threw the opening pitch. An avid baseball fan, just days before his murder Ezra had contacted the Israel Association of Baseball to inquire about joining a team.
The following morning the family attended a tree planting ceremony at Yad Kennedy, a memorial in the John F. Kennedy Peace Forest in Israel. At the ceremony, Eric Michaelson, Chief Israel Officer for JNF, spoke of how a tree is a symbol of life and continuity. "Today, you will plant a tree in Ezra’s honor, to commemorate him. We will continue to remember and remind all of Israel," he said.
Ari Schwartz, Ezra’s father, told stories of his son's love of nature, including one about their last family trip together to Virginia where Ezra rode his mountain bike among the bald cypress trees. "He was pedaling with everything he had, just flying. He was smiling and laughing and we just loved it," he said in between moments of silence and tears. "It's an incredible memory and that moment was so special for us. It is a beautiful thing to come to Israel where his soul is and grow roots here."
Mrs. Schwartz likened the moment to the poignant story of "The Lone Tree," a centuries old oak tree located at a strategic Judean road junction. During the era of the British Mandate, the area was under frequent siege by the Jordanian Legion, and as the conflict escalated, the men sent their wives and children to Jerusalem for safety. Three days before the end of War of Independence, 130 men and a handful of women who stayed were overtaken by the Jordanian Legion and murdered; there were only four survivors.
She recalled how when Gush Etzion was under Jordanian control, the wives and children of the Gush Etzion fighters would gather on a hilltop in Jerusalem to view “The Lone Tree” from a distance. The tree came to symbolize what was lost and the living desire to return to and rebuild Gush Etzion.
"They lost their fathers, their husbands, their homes, changing their lives forever. We lost Ezra and that has changed our lives forever. Yet these young children believed they could make their world right again and that dream was realized in 1967. I will follow their lead," said Ruth Schwartz. "I am forever connected to Gush Etzion, where my Ezra worked hard, prayed hard. I am happy Ezra's tree will overlook Gush Etzion."
The tree planting was attended by more than 30 people, including some of those students who were in the van with Ezra when he was murdered. Ezra’s friend Adam Gorenstein said having the Schwartz family there has helped him and his classmates get through their personal pain.
"We talk about him a lot, listened to his favorite songs," said Gorenstein. "It is not easy, but we are trying to get through this together."
"In the Modern Orthodox Jewish community, the vast majority of kids come to Israel right after high school. This could have been any one of our children," said Spellman. "But I don’t think it will deter anyone from sending their kids to Israel."
Beth Mor, a family friend who lives in the Israeli city of Hashmonaim added, "The family has been so strong. It is amazing that they are able to stand with Israel through all of this."
At the time of this article’s publication, over 1,000 trees have been donated and planted through JNF in Ezra's honor.
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JEWISH NATIONAL FUND (JNF) began in 1901 as a dream and vision to reestablish a homeland in Israel for Jewish people everywhere. Jews the world over collected coins in iconic JNF Blue Boxes, purchasing land and planting trees until ultimately, their dream of a Jewish homeland was a reality. JNF gives all generations of Jews a unique voice in building a prosperous future for the land of Israel and its people.
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