War stirs up memory of the day when everything changed

I can’t read the news about Israel and the Middle East. It is too violent. Too heartbreaking. Too familiar.

But I also can’t stop reading the news about Israel and the Middle East. It is too important. Too urgent. Too familiar.

The situation is complex. There are no easy answers. There is no clear right or wrong anymore, except for this: Too many people are dead. Too many people are grieving and mourning those they love. Too many fathers are without their children, too many wives are without their spouses, and too many young people have lost their parents, friends and siblings. Enough is enough. There has to be a better way.

Wednesday, July 31, 2002. The world woke up to news of a bombing at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. It was the first time a place of learning had been hit by a terrorist attack. I heard the news on the radio on my way to work that morning. I was the camp director at the PJCC at our Belmont campus. It was a regular camp day with swimming, games and song. At 2:30 p.m., as I stood outside singing “Boom Chicka Boom,” urgent messages on my walkie-talkie instructed me to immediately return to the office for a phone call. On the other end of the line was a college friend who said, “No one can find Marla. We think she was in the cafeteria when the bomb went off.”

And just like that, everything changed. A day that had been quite normal suddenly became surreal.

It was the day before my 24th birthday. The day before Marla was supposed to fly home to California for a visit. I spent the evening on the phone with friends across the country and with Marla’s family. Eventually a body was found. A friend who worked for the Anti-Defamation League in San Diego helped in transmitting Marla’s dental records to authorities in Israel. And late that night, the thing we had all hoped was not true became true.

Stephanie Levin (right) with her best friend Marla Bennett, killed in a 2002 terrorist bombing in Jerusalem

Marla Ann Bennett, age 24, was killed in the Hebrew University bombing, along with eight other people. 100 people were wounded, Arabs and Jews.

This week marks 12 years since Marla’s death. Twelve years since I buried my best friend. When her body arrived from Israel, my friends and I sat with Marla in the mortuary until her funeral began. We tried to comfort her family, but there were no words. We were barely adults. We didn’t know what to say or do, but we knew we had to be together to survive this horrific event. We held each other close and collectively mourned the loss of an amazing young woman. Over 1,000 people attended Marla’s funeral.

I grow anxious this time of year. I think of all the things that Marla has missed. Would she be married? Have children? Would she and I have opened our own overnight camp, like we dreamed about doing when we were in college? Would she still be living in Israel?

Today, there are memorial funds, gardens and even concerts honoring Marla’s life. I wonder how the death of this one young woman, who was cherished and loved by so many, could not have been enough to stop the ongoing violence. How can the deaths of the nine people who died from that bombing not have been enough? How can the thousands of other people who have died from acts of terrorism and retribution not be enough? How many lives will be destroyed before both sides finally “beat their swords in plowshares” (Isaiah 2:4) and find peace?

Each person who has died — who has been murdered — is a part of a larger network of family and friends. For the thousands lost, there are tens of thousands left behind to live in a world without the person they loved.

The situation is complex and there are no easy answers. But enough is enough. No more children should have to bury their friends, their siblings, their parents. No more parents should have to bury their children.

There has to be a better way. There has to be a path toward peace.

Stephanie Levin is the director of programs at the Peninsula Jewish Community Center in Foster City. This essay originally appeared as a PJCC blog post on July 31 at blog.pjcc.org/yearning-for-peace.