The friends of an American yeshiva student shot dead in a terror attack earlier this week gathered in a circle at a memorial service on Saturday, embracing each other, singing songs and passing around a bottle of his favorite brand of soda.
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Some 500 mourners gathered at Ben-Gurion International Airport to bid farewell to Ezra Schwartz before his body was flown back to the United States for burial.
Schwartz, an 18-year-old resident of Sharon, Massachusetts, was in Israel on a gap year with MASA on a program that combines yeshiva studies with community service. On Thursday, he and five other students were on their way to Oz Vegaon, a park built in memory of three teenagers who were kidnapped and killed by Hamas militants in the summer of 2014, to do community service, when they got stuck in traffic at the Gush Etzion junction. A Palestinian terrorist fired at their taxi van, hitting Schwartz, who was asleep and resting his head on the window. The other five were not wounded, but the attacker killed two other people, Shadi Arafa, 24, a Palestinian from Hebron, and Yaacov Don, 51, an Israeli from Alon Shvut, before he was apprehended.
For almost an hour before the evening ceremony began on Saturday, dozens of young men from Schwartz’s Ashreinu yeshiva, in the central Israeli town of Beit Shemesh, stood in a circle embracing one another as they sang songs of brotherhood and hope as well the Israeli national anthem. In the middle of the circle were a New England Patriots football jersey, a bottle of Apple Schweppes – his favorite drink – a bible, and an Israeli flag.
Students from other Beit Shemesh yeshivas were among the mourners, as were friends and acquaintances of Schwartz’s from the Maimonides School in Brookline, MA, from which he had recently graduated.
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky spoke at the ceremony, along with a representative of the U.S. Embassy in Israel and the head of the Ashreinu yeshiva, Rabbi Gotch Yudin.
"There was something in his eyes and something in his smile," recalled Yudin. "It was not just a smile, it was a smirk; it was a grin. It was a little bit of something that said, 'there's more to me than what you see.'"
"I can't help but be happy for Ezra," Schwartz's father, Ari, wrote in a letter that was read out at the service, "We know he's okay right now, and that gives us peace." He added: "Some people live long lives but have unfortunate circumstances that make life hard. Ezra had a wonderful life and he died a happy person."
A message from U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro was read out at the service. "Innocent of any wrongdoing, [Schwartz] was taken cruelly from his family and his friends by an act of terror, which we condemn with all our strength," he wrote.
After the ceremony, Schwartz's friends gathered around his coffin outside the terminal hall and quietly parted with him one by one. They then regrouped in a circle, arms resting on each other's shoulders, and passed around the bottle of Schweppes, which they poured onto the grass to leave a trace of their friend on Israeli soil.
Schwartz's body, escorted by his aunt and uncle who live in Ra'anana, was flown back to Boston for a funeral to be held on Sunday.