When a terrorist bomb exploded in the Frank Sinatra Cafeteria at Hebrew University, former Steinhardt Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellow Jamie Harris Gershon was having lunch with former Hillel student leaders Benjamin Blutstein and Marla Bennett. Janis Ruth Coulter, who had visited many Hillels as a recruiter for Hebrew University's overseas student program, was also in the cafeteria. Meanwhile, across a small plaza, Hillel professionals at the Meyerhoff Beit Hillel building were conducting a staff meeting. The bombing left seven dead - including Benjamin, Marla and Janis Ruth - injured Jamie and many others, and violated the sanctity of this treasured institution of higher learning.
"This atrocity was not just about killing the Jews. It was about killing the lyric poetry of ideas -- everything a university is supposed to represent," said Hillel President and International Director Richard M. Joel. "When they return to campus this fall, students will try to make sense of this tragedy and remember the victims in a way that honors their memory. This chorus of student voices, through their learning and debate, will repudiate the forces of repression and darkness. It must. We are all Hebrew U students."
Hillel professionals were among the first people on the scene. "What had been just moments earlier a busy eatery with hundreds of faculty and students enjoying lunch was now a place of carnage, blood and gore," said Hillel Associate Vice President Rabbi Yossie Goldman, director of Hillel in Israel and the Former Soviet Union. "We began to carry the dead and wounded out of the violated cafeteria. In those first few moments there was an eerie silence in the air -- no one was crying or screaming, the wounded just lay there waiting, without speaking."
Former JCSC fellow Jamie Harris Gershon was taken to nearby Hadassah Hospital where she continues to recuperate. Esther Abramowitz, associate director for Israel and the former Soviet Union, accompanied many students to the hospital and stayed by their side. A few years before, Esther had traveled with Marla Bennett to Ukraine to participate in our Pesach Project which enables Jews to experience a Passover Seder.
"I saw 'malachim mey'hashamayim,' angels from God, as I ran out of my office at Hillel after hearing the blast," said Esther. "I saw them taking care of the wounded at the scene and later at the hospital. The nurses, the doctors, the people who brought us food, all of my wonderful friends who called me all day, the anonymous person who sent us a pizza while waiting for a friend who was in surgery, the social workers and psychologists who unfortunately know how to deal with this all too well, and on and on. Thank God for them. I saw them at the same time that I saw horrors that I pray no one else ever has to see or feel. Ever."
Halfway across the globe, students and Hillel professionals, shaken by the tragedy, began planning responses. The Hillels of New York, in cooperation with the Jewish Community Relations Council, organized a vigil at the Edgar Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University. More than 150 students from several universities crowded into the first floor of the Bronfman Center to remember those who were killed and to pray for the speedy and complete recovery of the injured.
"When I thanked students for making the effort to join us, every single one of them thanked us for providing them with a meaningful opportunity to express their grief, to stand with Israel, to engage in a meaningful act that helps to move them along in their self-discovery as Jews," said Hillel Associate Vice President Robert Lichtman, the executive director of Hillels of New York.
In Washington, D.C., students at the Georgetown University also held a vigil. Shira Landau, Hillel's new Campus Israel Affairs Fellow, addressed the group. "By striking at a university, at a place of higher learning where people go to exchange ideas, to learn, to grow, the terrorists were trying to silence our voice. On our own campuses, anti-Israel groups are using intimidation tactics to try to silence our message that Israel has truly always sought peace. But in honor of these victims, some of whom we know, and in face of this tragic reality, let us reaffirm our commitment, right now. We will not be silenced. And Hillel is willing and committed to work with any student who believes in Israel's right to exist and flourish as a Jewish state within secure and recognized borders. The students of America stand with you, Israel, because we believe in a future of freedom and our hope will not be silenced."