Photo Credit: Courtesy, via JNS
Azi Koltai

Mourning the Deaths of
Aryeh Schupak and Azi Koltai

 

Saturday night, 11:20 p.m. I walk out of my house, headed for a funeral that no one could believe was happening. Azi (Eliezer Yitzchak) Koltai, ob”m, a 13-year-old boy full of life, dead? Azi, whose family many of our friends were very close with? I noticed my neighbor climb into his pickup and with the premonition that he was also heading to the funeral, I asked for a ride. I was confused by his reply, something to the effect that he is going to the same place but no, he doesn’t know who the Koltai family is. It turned out there would be not one funeral on Katzenelenbogen Street that fateful night, but two.

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And so it was. We parked and walked down the street. I turned right toward the Koltai funeral and my neighbor continued straight, to the funeral of Elazar Gefner, ob”m, his son’s second-grade teacher. At the Koltai funeral, most eulogies were in English but little was understood verbally. It was instead the incessant, anguished wailing that gave voice to the unspeakable. The walk home had me pass through the Gefner funeral. I did not sleep much on that bitter, eerie night.

The night I speak of was the night after the tragic crowd crush at Meron. Before the enormity of the tragedy was fully known, Azi’s mother sent out an innocent enough email to our neighborhood group Friday morning asking if anyone had seen him or come back with him from Meron. We prayed that day, but surely he would be tracked down eventually, right? Azi, who studied Torah well beyond his school hours yet was sufficiently attuned to the world and considerate enough to regularly thank the Arab municipal street cleaner – that precious soul was no longer with us?

Aryeh Schupak

I couldn’t bring myself to put pen to paper in the wake of that unspeakable tragedy then, so why are these memories flooding me now? Because Aryeh Schupak, Hy”d, the 15-year-old boy murdered last week, was Azi Koltai’s classmate. Murdered, at a bus stop I have stood at hundreds of times in the past three years. Azi Koltai’s classmate. Ten percent of their grade – no longer? An elementary school teacher burying two students within eighteen months?

With a herculean effort, eighteen months ago their teacher eulogized Azi. Searingly, he pointed out that being killed in such a sudden and cruel fashion robbed him of the sacred opportunity to recite Vidui, the confession composed for one’s deathbed. In a deeply emotional fashion, he invited Azi to recite the Vidui together with him, which he proceeded to say aloud using G-d’s sacred name. Next, he gathered his students around Azi’s casket to guide them through some final words and a plea for forgiveness.

This time, for Aryeh, just the eulogy and the confession. I wonder why. Some questions are better left unasked.

In just five minutes in the Schupak shiva house, I was witness to two small rays of light. The first was when a senior Knesset member (MK), whose politics I am not enamored with, to say the least, asked what he could do. When the father mentioned that Aryeh’s grandmother could not currently enter the country, the MK took down all the relevant information and committed to doing what he could. Politics in its most noble form – serving the needs of the people.

The second came through a visibly shaken teenager. He introduced himself as a friend of Aryeh’s who would roam the streets drinking and partying Thursday nights with other at-risk teens. That night, the group would instead gather for an evening of Torah study with good food and committed to continue doing so throughout the year of mourning. The father’s spirit was noticeably lifted, even if only a bit. By contrast, the next person took the initiative to launch into a discourse on how the family was incredibly privileged, how special it was that their son was a sacrifice to G-d. The father’s spirit appeared to wane once again. While well-intentioned, such comments often inflict more pain than they provide comfort.

I have spent the past two years studying childhood trauma. I did not imagine that within the short time span of acquiring the degree I would bear witness to childhood trauma in such a gruesome fashion, so close to home. What the remaining classmates are grappling with is simply unfathomable. One tragedy plus one tragedy does not equal two tragedies. A distinction has been developed in the field between trauma and complex trauma. The latter connotes a trauma that repeats itself and is most frequently associated with war or prolonged abuse/neglect. Thankfully, these teenagers have not quite been subjected to that. But neither can it any longer be said they’ve only experienced “regular” one-time trauma. One plus one does not equal two. The whole leaves an exponentially deeper imprint on the psyche than the sum of its parts.

Twisted is this piece of writing. I set out to write about Aryeh Schupak, hy”d, yet primarily managed to write about Azi Koltai, whose loss I’ve had eighteen months to process. I can only pray that it be some measure of comfort, and not another tragedy, that brings me to reflect further on the murder of Aryeh Schupak, hy”d. 

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Rabbi Chaim Goldberg is completing a graduate degree in child clinical psychology at Hebrew University and lives in Har Nof, Israel with his wife and children. He served as programming director for the Bar Ilan/YU Summer Research program from 2018-2021 and has written for Jewish Action, aish.com, YU Torah-to-Go and Intermountain Jewish News.