A little over a year ago, five members of the Fogel family from Itamar were murdered in their sleep by two Palestinian terrorists. The terrorists entered the Fogel home on Shabbat eve, March 11 2011, and slaughtered the father Ehud, the mother Ruth, and three of their children, Yoav 11, Elad, 4, and baby Hadas, only three months old. Three siblings survived. Twenty-five thousand people attended the mass funeral. The terrorists, aged 18 and 19 were arrested a month later, and recently received life sentences. This incident is one of the most horrifying in recent memory.
Leah Zak, 36, mother of five and resident of Itamar for the past seven years, remembers that night vividly. She remembers that her family slept until about two in the morning. Initial reports came through the emergency message system, but they did not hear them. They awoke to hear loud banging on their front door. The RRT (Rapid Response Team), a civilian counter terror unit, was at the door. “They asked us if everything was all right. They told us that there was an infiltration into Itamar, and that we should close all windows and lock the doors. We didn’t know exactly what happened, but the situation seemed grave,” Leah recounts. One of her sons was woken up by the knocking on the door and was very frightened. “We went back to bed. We were told to turn all the lights out, so it was completely dark. I couldn’t read out of a book, so I prayed from memory. At some point we fell asleep. The RRT came back again at four. At that point we were completely awake. We received a message through the emergency message system that sessions would be held later on for everyone. We understood that something terrible had happened.”
Leah’s husband went to Shul, and there, she says, he learned of what had happened. “There was much confusion and the details were unclear, but we knew that the parents and some of the children had been slain. I was totally shocked, and began to cry. I tried to find out who of the children had been murdered. I found out, and we told the children each separately about what happened, not wanting them to hear in a different fashion. One of my sons was a classmate of one of the children murdered; another, a classmate of one of the surviving children. They cried, and later went to the meetings held for the children, on that Shabbat day.”
In the following hours and during the next days the Zaks and the residents of Itamar felt a great surge of support. Many from around the country offered their help. Many Rabbis and leaders came to show their support, offering words of encouragement. Leah elaborates: “Following this devastating event, and taking into consideration the community’s history, many of the adults wondered if the community was being punished, why they have been inflected with so many terrorist attacks and casualties. The Rabbis explained that one could not explain these incidents on a personal level, that the greater scheme of things was to be considered. Many volunteered to come and watch the children, encouraging us to attend the funeral.”
As the weeks passed, Leah’s children continued to exhibit signs of sadness and grief. They spoke a lot about the attack, occupying themselves with the details. They told stories about their lost friends. “One of my sons, the one who was woken up by the knocking on our door during the night of the attack exhibited real signs of fear and stress. During the first week he refused to leave home, was constantly demanding that we shut all the windows and doors. For the first few weeks he refused to sleep in his room or fall asleep alone. He went to group meetings meant to help deal with these fears. As for myself, every time I would close my eyes to fall asleep I would see Ruthie before my eyes. This difficult situation in the family lasted for about a month.”
“My oldest was in the same class as Yoav. The class received psychological counseling. My second oldest was in the same class as one of the children who survived, Roi. He subsequently left Itamar and moved in with his grandparents. My son grieved for the loss. Roi was very friendly, a good kid and my son was sorry to lose him. There was a farewell party arranged for him, but Roi was scared to come to Itamar, so his entire class traveled to Jerusalem to hold the party there for him.” Over time there were a few occasions that he came to Itamar. Every time he came there was great excitement.
Months after the tragedy, people continued come to Itamar to express their support. This created an amazing positive feeling. “Many people who I have not spoken to for a long time contacted me. Rabbis came to show their support, strengthen the spirits of the residents, constantly stressing that this incident was part of a bigger picture in Jewish history, that it was not a punishment for any individual person or act. Many visitors from abroad came as well. Many large events were held, and all these visits and events served as a great source of strength and comfort.”
For the most part, the attack jolted the town into activity. Many invested themselves in social projects. The general trend was a desire to continue to build and become stronger. Many of the supporters from outside offered various initiatives. There was an overall positive attitude. But Leah did not completely relate to this sentiment: “I felt a bit frustrated, it seemed odd to me that everything was progressing as usual, that the State did not avenge this attack.”
A bit more then a year after the attack, Leah still has mixed feelings. At the beginning she had a hard time just believing what happened. At times she imagined that she saw Ruthie. “A year later, am I different? More vulnerable? Definitely not! The opposite is the truth. In a sense, the whole story has helped me grow. I have become more stronger, a stronger believer, a more joyful person. I constantly try to think what I can learn from Ruthie, how I can implement her teachings in my life. It’s a choice I have to make – to elevate myself, or to fall and crash. I didn’t want to crash, so I progressed with it, with a lingering sense that I lacked a choice”.
After the Shloshim, the thirty day mourning period, foundations were laid for a Beit Midrash, a study hall in Itamar, which was named Mishkan Ehud after the father. The study hall was inaugurated on February 29, a year after the attack. Class rooms were also built in memory of Ruth and the children. During the inauguration event a new Sefer Torah was entered into the Hall’s Holy Ark, constructed of rocks and soil taken from the Fogel family garden.
Leah participated in the inauguration. The weather was stormy, but the event was well-attended by people from across Israel. The room was so packed it was impossible to get in or out. The structure wasn’t complete – funds are still being collected to complete this endeavor – but it all recognized the importance of holding the event on the anniversary of their death.
“The event itself was very impressive, very joyful,” Leah remembers, “I was very much moved, chills running through my body. The event was very joyful, but very sad as well. It was very joyful because we had finally established this building which we have been waiting for a long time. It was sad because people had to die to enable its construction.”
Itamar has a complex history, with several terrorist attacks in its past, but Leah has no doubts about living there. She says it’s simply her place, no question about it. She is connected to the people, the land. She feels more connected to the Land of Israel in Itamar. Here she can find the education she sees fit to give to her children. The danger will not cause her family to leave. “I am not making an ideological statement – This is the place that is good for me. Other places are dangerous as well. We live with it, cope with it.”
Leah concludes by inviting everyone to visit Itamar. “From afar is seems dangerous, but it not. It’s clear to me that this is our place. There are massive open spaces. In my eye’s mind I see them being filled with houses. All we need is people to come.”