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Time: 6 p.m.
Simcha: Torah scroll induction ceremony (Hakhnasat sefer Torah) in memory of Gad Ezra, an Israel Defense Forces officer killed in 2002's Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank
Home: Gad, who was 23 years old at the time of his death, was the fifth child of Solomon ("Soli") and Rosaline Ezra. He grew up in a national religious home in the central city of Bat Yam, along with his four older brothers and sisters Vitoria, 48, Yaakov, 47, Yossi, 43, and Viviane, 41. The family came to Israel from France, where Soli and Rosaline met after being forced to leave Egypt and Algeria, respectively. The only of his siblings born in Israel, Gad studied at the Ohr Etzion Yeshiva and later joined the Golani infantry brigade. He chose to serve a full term of service, rather than the shortened period offered to yeshiva students (Yaakov: "He wanted to do the three years, nothing less").
Jenin and Bat Yam: Gad was killed trying to evacuate a wounded officer in the Battle of Jenin – an act for which he was posthumously honored. It was a turn of events that dumbfounded the Ezras. Vitoria: "We never even thought it was an option. We were shocked. In the first moments, it was like the sky had fallen on our heads."
However, as early as the shiva in Bat Yam, Gad's family found a way forward. They discovered a letter he had written to his girlfriend Galit to read in case anything happened to him. In it, he urged her to move on with her life and find the silver lining in everything, even in his own passing. He summed up his message with a single slogan: "Ein ye'ush, tamid le'hi'yot be'simcha," "There is no despair, always remain in happiness!" More than comforting Galit, it mobilized an entire family.
Within days, the Ezras began working to ensure Gad's positive legacy, launching several commemorative projects. At first, they distributed bumper stickers bearing Gad's slogan. Later, they formed the Ezra Me'Gad ("Aid from Gad") NGO, which helps disenfranchised families break free of the cycle of poverty. Yaakov: "It’s part of our therapeutic process. As an older brother, I feel I have an obligation to continue his life." Most recently, the family found a donor to induct a Torah scroll in Gad's name in Modi'in, where three of his brothers and sisters now live. Vitoria: "This is the part of his commemoration that has to do with eternity. This Torah scroll will be here even after we cease to exist."
In the neighborhood: A steep, winding street, hugging one of the Modi'in's hillier areas, drenched in orange light emanating from overhead street lamps. Boys and girls, wearing religious Israel Scouts neckerchiefs and all-white clothing, dot the sidewalks, merrily making their way down to a small side street – the first stop of the evening. A van covered in Rabbi Nachman of Breslov inscriptions and flashy neon lights stands at the mouth of the street. Bearded Breslov Hassidim clamor up and down the battered vehicle, blasting cheerful religious songs into the night.
Venue: Rows of tables holding light refreshments stand at the heart of the small street. Men, women, youths and children huddle excitedly in groups. To the side, photographers and visitors crowd a small table, groaning under the weight of a Torah scroll covered in an ornate silver case.
Number of Guests: ~400
Rites: Outside the Ezra residence, a tall rabbi, dressed in a black frak, blesses the crowd, emphasizing the importance of the Torah as a means of continuing Gad's life ("the Torah serves as the seed of the unmarried man"), followed by a few words by IDF Major General Avi Mizrachi (Gad's division commander at the time of his death), who blesses the crowd ("this special Torah scroll will accompany the people of Israel forever"). The head of the local chapter of the religious Scouts youth movement hands out sparklers to excited boys and a woman passes around large Israeli flags ("guys, guys, take the flags!"). A short round of applause later, a chuppah is brought to the fore and raised to cover the gleaming Torah, and, with a flourish of Hassidic dance music, courtesy of the Breslov van, the parade commences.
A sea of white, dotted with covered heads and kippas, floods into the main street. Police cars hold off traffic at every intersection, flashing blue and red on the moving procession. Around the chuppah, men and boys begin dancing feverishly in a tight ring, perspiring in the warm autumn air. To the sides, girls from the local Scouts' branch form smaller, yet, impossibly, more enthusiastic circles. A secular-looking young woman in short pants and a tank top passes by, pressing her pink-covered iPhone to her ear in a futile attempt to hear anything over the joyous clamor. Gad's brothers and sisters, along with a private army of children, lead the joyous charge with a heavy heart. Vitoria: "We're a big family. Each of the remaining brothers has five kids. It's a lot of noisy happiness. But it's just when everyone's together that you suddenly say: 'Hey, but where is he?'" The chuppah and the person holding the Torah scroll bring up the rear.
Finally, after a long, happy march through the city's streets, the procession halts near the Scouts' center, which will serve as the Torah scroll's future home. Some revelers treat themselves to fruit from stands set up for the hungry marchers, while others resume their Torah dancing, each boy seemingly trying to out-dance his peers. Tired from all the commotion, Rabbi Haim Druckman, a leading figure in Israel's national religious community and the one-time principal of Gad's yeshiva, takes a breather on a plastic chair nearby.
Next, the joyous crowd slowly filters into a nearby amphitheater, with a long line of plastic chairs set up for the event's dignitaries, who include, among others, Modi'in Mayor Haim Bibas, rabbi Drukman, Modi'in's two chief rabbis (one Ashkenazi, David Lau, and one Sephardic, Yaakov Chakotay) and Modi'in resident and religious-Zionist leader MK Uri Orbach (The Jewish Home). Set on a table on the side, the Torah stands slightly askew, with one gilded caption dominating the ornate holder: "There is no despair, always remain in happiness."
To the side of the forming row of chairs, a tired-looking Soli sits with one of his older granddaughters, reflecting on the event. "It's a mix of joy and sadness. Like a wedding, only the groom isn't here." Vitoria: "He was a happy man, who loved making others happy. In weddings, in events like these, he'd be the first to dance."
The speeches then begin, with Vitoria speaking first, followed by rabbi Drukman ("We see today that all of the idols have been shattered and that Torah is alive and well"); Modi'in rabbis Lau and Chakotay; the mayor; the head of Modi'in's yeshiva, Rabbi Eliezer Scheinwald; MK Orbach, and, finally Gad's sister Vivian. Afterwards, the crowd again rises, this time to follow the travelling Torah to its final resting place, the ark of the Dror chapter of the religious Scouts.
Music: Hassidic music, with a stress on the (recorded) vocal prowess of Yaakov Shweiki.
Food: Pre-march: Cakes; post-march #1: fruit; post-march #2: burekas, pickled herring, salads, pickles, kugel, vegetables and some pound cake.
Drink: Sodas, juices and coffee.
Word in the ear: Yaakov, on the choice to commemorate Gad through public activities: "We could have done things differently. You can get mad at the system, turn to the courts to indict those responsible. You can take that energy to all kinds of negative places of anger, of guilt. And then you can take it to positive places. I feel like the more you take it to a positive place, the more you yourself grow."
In my spiritual doggy bag: To celebrate life in spite, and maybe because, of the specter of death.
Random quote: Cheerful religious teens approach a friend who's standing outside the frenetic dancing circles: "Aren't you dancing?" To which she wryly replies: "I'm dancing, on the inside."
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