Tuesday, July 14, 2020 -
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An Israeli community struggle to respond to a murder

Rabbi Kenneth Brander

His rabbi would like the world to know that Dvir Sorek was not just a name.

The 19-year-old yeshiva student was not just a statistic, yet another casualty in the seemingly endless violence that plagues the West Bank of the Jordan River and the Jews who dwell there.

Although to the vast majority of the millions of people who have heard or read Sorek’s name in the last few days he was a faceless abstraction, a stranger who fell victim to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rabbi Kenneth Brander knew him as a human being.

Sorek, who lived in the Ofra settlement, was a student at the Machanaim yeshiva in Migdal Oz. He was reported missing on Aug. 7 when he didn’t return after a shopping trip to Jerusalem. His body was found the next day near his yeshiva, stabbed to death. Two local Palestinians, one of them a member of the Hamas terrorist organization, were arrested for his murder last weekend.

Those cold facts constitute the hard news concerning Sorek’s death, but to Rabbi Brander, president and rosh yeshiva of the Ohr Torah Stone network of modern Orthodox schools that includes Sorek’s yeshiva, they barely scratch the surface of the story of a young man whose life was cut short.

“He was a person who was always there to help others,” Rabbi Brander told the Intermountain Jewish News in a telephone interview this week.

“With his personality, he was someone who had a certain light in his eyes. He was always there to be really concerned about another person, Jew or Arab alike. He was not just concerned about people, he was concerned about the environment.”

The rabbi was touched recently when Sorek took it unto himself to plant a small garden at the yeshiva and committed himself to caring for it.

“One time, he saw an Arab with a donkey that was quite ill. He told the Arab that he wanted to buy the donkey from him, which he did, and then he nursed it back to health — between a 12-hour learning day.”

Last week, Rabbi Brander said, Sorek went to Jerusalem to buy a gift for his Talmud teacher at Machanaim, “to thank him for the wonderful year’s experience that he had.”

Sorek chose to give his teacher a novel by the popular Israeli author David Grossman, known for his liberal views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“On his way back, Dvir was getting off the bus, pretty close to the yeshiva, and he was grabbed and murdered. He was found with the book that he had bought for his teacher.”

Sorek was one of some 5,000 students, male and female, high school and college level, who attend the Ohr Torah Stone network of 27 schools throughout Israel. A portion of those students are in the Israel Defense Forces hesder program, in which religiously observant youths combine their education with military service.

Sorek was among the hesder students. His military service would have begun next March.

Grief has spread throughout the Ohr Torah Stone system, Rabbi Brander says, especially at Machanaim, where Sorek was known personally.

“It’s a very hard time for all of us, the students and the faculty,” the rabbi says. “We are singing together, crying together, recollecting together. But we’ll also move on together and take his energy and his light and make sure that becomes internalized in each and every one of us, in the way that we act and the way we engage.”

Brander says he and the rest of his staff have been working hard to communicate with the students and the alumni about the incident. He is gratified that the IDF gave a three-day leave to all Ohr Torah Stone students currently serving — last Thursday, Friday and Saturday — to mourn Sorek in whatever way they felt appropriate.

“The Talmud has a statement that when somebody from the chavurah, the community, passes on, the entire learning community are mourners and that’s what we feel. Some are handling it more alone, some are handling it more together.”

The official regional council is providing counselors to the network’s students and faculty. Rabbi Brander says that he’s actually more concerned about his teachers than his students, who seem to be handling the tragedy quite well.

“Although the teachers are playing a leadership role,” he says, “they’re also going through a difficult, challenging time.”

Rabbi Brander has been pitching in himself.

“I’ve said words of counsel,” he says. “I’ve had 30-plus years in the rabbinate, and it’s important for rabbis to know what they are experts in. I am not an expert counselor; I’m a 911 responder in counseling issues.”

The rabbi says he has mentioned Tisha b’Av, the traditional day of Jewish mourning, which was observed a few days after Sorek’s death.

“I’ve spoken about Tisha b’Av and how it starts with the word Eicha, which means we ask the question — how could this happen? — but we don’t answer it. We can also ask, where are we, where will we be, how will we carry the memory of Dvir into our lives, into the school?”

The rabbi pauses, considering the unanswered questions.

“That’s something we’re working on.”

In Rabbi Brander’s view, Sorek was “a young man who always had light in his eyes” while his murderers were “people who had evil and darkness in theirs.”

He expresses gratitude to the Israeli security forces who captured the alleged killers some 48 hours after the crime.

“I pray that they’ll never see the light of day outside a jail cell,” he adds.

Although the Palestinians who murdered Sorek might have seen their deed as a political act, part of the Hamas-inspired movement to drive all Jews out of what they consider exclusively Palestinian land, Rabbi Brander won’t concede the point.

“Dvir was a young man studying in an academy,” he says. “I’m not sure what’s political about that. It was an act of terror, nothing more, nothing less.

“This young man was not some kind of fringe person. He was a well-adjusted young man who did everything to celebrate life. He treated every single human being and animal and every blade of grass with respect and dignity. He was a totally sweet soul; someone with great darkness snuffed out that beautiful life. It’s pure evil. I would lessen it if I described it as political.”

No matter what agenda might have compelled the slayers, the rabbi insists that their act of murder will not lessen Ohr Torah Stone’s idealism nor shake its hopes for peace.

“Machanaim is the type of yeshiva that speaks about the capacity to live in peace with our neighbors, both Jews and Arabs,” he says. “We’ve had interfaith conversations between our young men in the yeshiva and our Arab neighbors. Leaders of the Arab community come and speak at the yeshiva.”

Sorek’s death will not “shake our responsibility or the dream,” Rabbi Brander says.

That dream is that Jews and Arabs will one day find a way to live in peace on the same land.

“But any time you have a dream, there’s unfortunately a price to pay. We feel that we’ve paid that price already.

“After 2,000 years we’ve come home to our land, we have a governing body on that land and we have, under that governing body, a responsibility to treat minorities with respect. There are going to be hateful people who are involved with acts of terror, but we are not going to whitewash the identity of millions because of those heinous few.”

Many of Ohr Torah’s Stone’s students are, or soon will be, serving in the IDF, the rabbi says, “and we’ll do whatever we need to do to make sure that we live in safety and security, but we’re also not going to surrender our dreams in the process.

“While this is a tragedy of enormous proportion, where we are all feeling the pain, it also compels us not only to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to protect, to be security-focused, but also to be vision and dream-focused.

“If we’re going to pay such a precious price, we better make sure that we’re doing it to achieve the right dreams.”

Chris Leppek may be reached at IJNEWS@aol.com.

Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor | ijnews@aol.com

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