Israel cafe bombing shakes JCF visitors

JERUSALEM — As Laura Yecies scanned the scorched chairs, overturned and scattered, within the debris-filled skeletal remains of Moment Cafe her brown eyes brimmed with tears.

The Los Altos resident and mother of four told me she'd imagined the chairs full of people, just as they had been Saturday night, only moments before a suicide bomber detonated explosives in the crowded garden cafe, killing himself and 11 young adults, and wounding at least 40.

Late Monday night, Yecies and I — along with three others from our solidarity mission — visited the Rehavia neighborhood where the cafe had previously thrived. Our 43-person delegation from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation was staying at a nearby hotel, barely a five-minute walk away.

Although it was almost midnight, several young Israelis and our small group wandered about the site. We lit memorial candles that flickered in the cooling breeze and cast shadows across our faces. Some of us wept as we stared at the bleak remnants, which were offset by colorful flowered wreaths, memorial notes and an Israeli flag. The voices of several men reciting the Kaddish arose from the silence, honoring those young souls whose lives had been brutally cut short.

"Part of the tragedy is that someone, one person, made this happen; and I can't help but think that he probably had a smile on his face when he did," said mission member and urban planner Dan Cohen, following a somber examination of the scene.

"Nothing can replace coming here to see this. Now, I really feel the brunt of the tragedy. Not just for the loss of lives but in the way it really does terrorize Israeli society."

On Wednesday, the entire JCF delegation returned to the site of the cafe to hold a memorial, placing a sign on behalf of United Jewish Communities, the North American federation umbrella organization, in memory of those who were killed or injured there. Hundreds of flowers and molten wax from extinguished candles filled the site.

"We're crying with you," read the sign, which contained the signatures of all the delegates plus our two security guards. Paul Klopper of Santa Rosa, visiting Israel for the first time, read a poem he had written about the attack.

Though the Moment Cafe bombing was only one of many bloody incidents to take place in Israel since our March 7 arrival, this one in particular deeply affected our entire group, which was in Israel in conjunction with a larger UJC mission. You see, we learned of the others much like our colleagues, friends and family in America — by watching CNN or listening to the radio, usually several hours after the attack.

But in this case we knew of it almost instantly. Most of us heard it happening.

"I heard a loud boom, just one big loud noise," said Lisa Hawley, a teacher at Brandeis Hillel Day School in Marin.

"We knew it was something bad."

Hawley and some other mission members had been visiting a Jerusalem couple as part of a "home-hospitality" program. Their discussion was cut short when, due to the tragedy, the visitors were immediately put in taxis and sent to the hotel to reunite with the group. "But we had trouble getting through," said Hawley, "because the ambulances were coming fast and furious."

Yecies and Cohen's group had been sitting in the home of another Israeli couple and their friends. Yecies, a former board member at the Albert L. Schultz Community Center, said they were in the midst of a "general political discussion" about the peace process when one of the Israeli men received a call on his cell phone and excused himself.

"When he returned he was clearly shaken," said Yecies, who works as vice president of the client product division at Netscape/AOL and is also involved in the federation's leadership development program. "He whispered something to his wife and they quickly left."

The man, a doctor at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, had been paged to attend to victims of the cafe attack. The mission group headed back to the hotel.

"It didn't really hit me right away, at least no more than any of the other attacks," said Yecies, whose group had not heard the explosion. "But when we drove back and I realized how close it was, it became much more upsetting. It was so many people, and then just seeing the site, you realize the power of that explosion."

I'd been in the home of a warm, welcoming woman and Wexner Fellow, Barbara Morginstin. She and her husband, Phil, a talkative, white-haired attorney, had invited other Wexner Fellows to join our group for what became a lively and heated discussion.

For my group, however, the profundity of the night had begun earlier, in the cab ride to the Morginstins' home. As I sat in the back with mission members Helen Cherry and Eva Seligman-Kennard, the driver turned on the radio news. Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco, translated for us from the front passenger seat.

That's when we learned, following a peaceful pasta dinner, that three Palestinian gunmen had killed two Israelis, including a baby, and wounded at least 50 in Netanya.

"We had such a lovely Shabbat," Seligman-Kennard, a Jewish community volunteer, told me. "This is a complete disruption. A violent disruption."

But our spirits were lightened and also enlightened once we arrived at the Morginstins' residence: Our group of 15 sat in a circle and debated the Mideast conflict, with opinions ranging from far left to far right. I sat on a sofa, next to mission chair and the federation's campaign chair, Michael Jacobs, along with Gerson Jacobs, Marilyn Jacobs and Cherry. My back was to a large window, which overlooked a glorious nighttime view of Jerusalem.

Not long into the conversation, however, our coziness was disrupted by the loud pitter-patter of helicopter propellers.

"I hear all the helicopters and it tears me up inside," commented Wexner Fellow Sharon Avigad.

It was as if Avigad, whose son is currently serving in the army, had predicted the horror to come. Soon, ambulance sirens mixed with the helicopter noise and, like clockwork, the Israelis began to pull out their cell phones and call family members. When everyone's suspicions of a suicide bombing were confirmed, I felt my stomach drop to my feet and I fought back tears — much like I do now, as I relive the experience.

Our group immediately broke out of our circle and intermingled, comforting one another. Otherwise high-profile professionals quickly transformed into worried mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and friends.

"This is going on every day," Barbara Morginstin told me. "It's like a bunker here."

Overcome by the continuous sheer success of the terrorists, Racheli Merhav, a spunky, leftist Wexner Fellow, said: "They operate us like puppets. I'm so scared. I'm so terrified. I'm so frustrated."

Two evenings later, standing in what was left of the Moment Cafe, Cohen told me that rather than hopping on the first plane out of Israel, he felt extremely gratified to be staying. Our mission, he said, was "the epitome of solidarity."

I knew exactly what he meant.

"How can we leave now?" he asked. "This is why I came here. And when we do go back, we have to share what we have learned."