For Stricken Yeshiva, the Trauma Is Likely to Linger

Late Thursday night a few teenage boys entered the deserted classrooms of the high school at Jerusalem's Mercaz Harav yeshiva. On the street and in the courtyard, the crowds were still gathered. In the nearby library the rabbis were still identifying the bodies of their classmates. Each new name was whispered from student to student.

"Who saw Neria Cohen," they asked, and no one answered. His body was identified later, but in the meantime the students in the classrooms and the beit midrash tried to distance themselves. They embraced, talking about their feelings, their faith, and then someone began to sing. The melancholy melody drowned out the talk, the boys' attempts to describe their feelings, and for quite some time they sang together.

The massacre at Mercaz Harav was not the first at a national-religious yeshiva. Five years ago a terrorist entered a pre-army academy at Atzmona, in Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip, and murdered five students and injured 23. In similar attacks in 2002, three students at a yeshiva in Othniel were killed, and three died in an attack at a yeshiva in Itamar. Six weeks ago a similar attack was foiled at Mekor Haim yeshiva in Gush Etzion.

Rabbi Rafi Peretz, principal of the Otzem military preparatory school in Atzmona, which after the 2005 Gaza disengagement moved to Yeted in the Negev, said that his experience shows that the latest attack will occupy a central place in the life of the yeshiva.

His school houses a memorial room to commemorate the lives of the five students who were killed. The annual day of memorial, whose Hebrew date comes in about three weeks, has an important place in the school's calendar - no less than the school's evacuation from Gaza in August 2005.

"For us, this event made us see our role more clearly, and our way was to invest a lot more in studies and in the students. Our way is not tactical, it is of the essence," Peretz said. "It is to know that our suffering is meant not to bring us down but rather to strengthen us in our work."

Since the Atzmona attack in 2003, the rift between Israel's national-religious society and society as a whole has only deepened. The students in the Zionist yeshivas grow up with a sense of alienation, not only from the government and its branches but also from the overall culture. Even before the attack, many of the students at Mercaz Harav no longer saw themselves as part of the institutions of the state, which was always a sacred value at Otzem.

"It's a high-school yeshiva but there are guys with a very high awareness of ideological issues," said an 11th-grade counselor at Mercaz Harav's high school, Ze'ev Haim Adler.

"You hear it in talks among the students and in many activities and demonstrations. A lot of the students were Gush Katif evacuees, maybe 20 or 30 in the whole yeshiva, and I know that they took what happened very hard. They are very sensitive to trauma, a few of them were completely overwhelmed on Thursday. I think they saw it as a direct result of what happened to them. They have enormous amounts of anger and frustration."