The 21st yahrzeit of my daughter Alisa Flatow, Hy”d, falls on 10 Nissan – April 18 this year. I’d like to share with readers of The Jewish Press some personal reflections on the events of 1995 and what has happened since.
I have a photo of Alisa on my office wall. Taken at a dinner with a friend and her parents from the U.S. who were visiting Jerusalem, it was one of the last photos of Alisa before her murder by Palestinian terrorists in April 1995.
Alisa’s face is radiant, her dimples are deep. Her thick hair is at her shoulders. A visitor to my office after looking at the pictures of my married children turned back to look at Alisa’s picture and asked, “Do you have anything more recent?” As the words escaped from her lips she threw her hand to her mouth, realizing what she had said.
“No,” I told her, “that’s it, she’s frozen in time, she’ll always be 20 and one day all of my grandchildren will be older than Alisa.”
While I thought our family life would come to a screeching halt after Alisa’s murder, I was wrong. In fact, the opposite happened: it accelerated – with bumps and false starts, certainly, but nonetheless going forward.
One morning shortly after shiva ended, I didn’t want to get out bed. As I contemplated pulling the cover over my head that morning I realized there was a nation where, at that time, more than 18,000 families had gone through the same thing we had –the loss of a child and sibling. Multiply that number by the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins and, well, you get the picture.
As I wallowed in bed, I realized that those families who were affected by war and terror in Israel got up from shiva and began to get back to living. They did so by putting one foot in front of the other. They went back to work. They tended to their homes. They raised their families. Despite the suddenness and depth of their loss, they began again to build the work in progress we call Israel.
And so Rosalyn and I and our children – Gail, Francine, Ilana, and Etan – returned to the normal things the families I mentioned do. We started down the road to rebuilding. While all of us were under a magnifying lens because of what happened to Alisa, we didn’t let that attention get in the way. Gail returned to Israel to finish her gap year program in Jerusalem. Francine, Ilana, and Etan returned to their yeshivot.
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Make no mistake. I began my mornings for the first year after Alisa’s murder with a good cry, usually when I came out of the shower. As I drove to work, I would sometimes have to pull off the highway because I couldn’t see through the tears. At the office, while in the middle of drafting a document, I’d cry again and find myself just staring at the computer monitor but not seeing anything.
I wondered how people on the outside saw us. I had a phone call one day from an attorney on the other side of a real estate transaction. He was bellyaching quite loudly about what he perceived as a delay in releasing money being held in escrow. I wanted to scream back and say “Don’t you realize there are more important things in life than your escrow?”
But it dawned on me that, to him, the escrow was the most important thing in his life right then and he’d have to find out for himself and in his own way that there was no need to get upset over the release of money.
We were told our family was very popular in Israel but a mystery at the same time. Not only because of Alisa’s murder – and the attention it received in Israeli newspapers – but also due to the fact that we donated her organs for transplant and, perhaps more important, we didn’t rant and rave against the Israeli government or the Oslo Accords.
Remember, the national religious parties were still up in arms over the Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn; were upset that Arafat was continuing to say one thing to the Western media and quite another to the Palestinian media; and were outraged that the Rabin government was using administrative detention to suppress right-wing protest. And here I was, a knit kippah-wearing American Jew who would not point the finger of blame at the Israeli government for Alisa’s murder.
I guess the reaction was noticed at high levels because I was invited to appear, remotely, with Prime Minister Rabin on a TV program that would be released a few weeks later on Yom Ha’Atzmaut. Speaking about Alisa at the AIPAC conference in May, Rabin said: “Today her heart beats in Jerusalem.” He then announced that he was coming to our home to pay a condolence call (something he didn’t do with the families of Israeli terror victims).
As a result of our embrace by Rabin, our home became a popular stopping point for Sunday visits by Israeli politicians who were in America. Sunday after Sunday, for many months, Israeli consulate officials with Knesset members in tow would arrive at our home. They’d express their regrets about Alisa’s murder and their thanks for opening their eyes to the mitzvah of organ donation. Photos taken, they were back in the van for the ride to who knew where next.
We began to be invited to events in the metropolitan New York area, too. The New York City Council presented us with a Proclamation lauding the donation of Alisa’s organs. And we found ourselves in attendance at Israel-related programs sponsored by New York City and State and Israel’s New York Consulate.
We traveled to Israel in September 1995. What would it feel like? That was the question we kept asking ourselves. Guests of Nishmat, where Alisa was a student at the time of her murder, we arrived to a hotel room full of flowers, including from Prime Minister Rabin, who regretted he couldn’t meet with us because he was leaving the country.
The Jerusalem Post interviewed us and ran a story about Alisa that included a nice photo of Rosalyn and me. It was the first one we had taken together since Alisa’s death. As we were getting our luggage after our return to New York, a woman came up to us and said, “It’s nice to see that Alisa had a mother, too.”
Our plans while in Israel included a meeting arranged by the Maariv newspaper with the surviving recipients of Alisa’s organs – something that had not yet been done in Israel or the United States. We met them, two middle-aged men and a woman, in our hotel’s lobby. Over a one-hour period they related how their lives had radically changed since the transplant. The heart recipient was able to attend his first grandson’s brit, the kidney recipient was off dialysis, and the lung recipient was able to leave her apartment for the first time in a year without the need for oxygen.
As a result of that meeting I understood for the first time the power of the mishnah that reminds us of the effect of saving a life.
Stephen M. Flatow