The Mercaz Harav yeshiva was supposed to mark the first day of the Jewish month of Adar with a party last night. Some 300 students of the Yeshiva L'Tze'irim - the yeshiva high school attached to Mercaz Harav - had waited eagerly for the event known as one of the high points of the year. The food and the musicians had already arrived, as had guests from other yeshiva high schools. Then the shots were heard.
"At first, we thought it was firecrackers that someone was setting off in honor of Rosh Hodesh," said one student, referring to the minor holiday celebrated on the first day of every Jewish month.
Mercaz Harav, the ideological cradle of the religious Zionist community, has been the scene of many historic events. But yesterday's was surely the most tragic.
"You see students sitting, deeply engrossed in the Torah, and the next minute, you see them lying on the ground, bleeding," said a student who was in the library at the time but escaped unhurt.
As if a spring had been released, it seemed that half of Jerusalem poured into the streets of Kiryat Moshe, the neighborhood where the yeshiva is located: dozens of ambulances and police cars, volunteers from the ZAKA first-response organization, journalists, rubberneckers and, later, an enraged crowd screaming "revenge!" and "death to the Arabs!"
Meanwhile, the yeshiva students clustered around the building, using their cellphones to reassure worried relatives, hugging each other, discussing what had happened. Some recited psalms. They prayed for the wounded and, as more news emerged, for the souls of the dead. "God preserve us, will they continue to kill while we continue to bury our dead?" asked one.
At Yeshiva L'Tze'irim, teachers and counselors tried to calm the students - and make sure that all were present and accounted for. "Who's seen Neri? Who's seen Neri?" they demanded insistently. In the background were walls plastered with colorful posters describing the events of the coming month - a month in which, according to Jewish tradition, "joy is increased."
Aryeh Katanov, a student at Mercaz Harav, was attending a lecture on the floor above the library. "Suddenly, we heard bangs, and someone said it was a few wild kids from the yeshiva high school shooting off firecrackers in honor of Rosh Hodesh. But I said it sounded like shots," he said. "I thought to myself, could it be a terrorist attack? At Mercaz?"
"But it's clear to me that this is a strategic location for the Arabs," he continued. "This is the most ideological place in the world. This is where the true Jewish ideology is sprouting. For this evening, they've interrupted our joy, but no terrorist will succeed in destroying our values."
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