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Moving On in Sderot

By Judy Lash Balint

Sima Abukasis looked on quietly as Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger and Knesset members joined dozens of her Sderot neighbors and friends yesterday at a modest commemoration of the second anniversary of the death of her daughter, Ella, 17, who died of wounds suffered from a Kassam rocket attack on Sderot in 2005.

Sima, a slight woman with olive skin and short auburn hair, managed a wan smile as she greeted her daughter’s friends and family members who came to take part in the ceremony in the center of Sderot. The pain of the loss of her middle child is firmly etched on the face of this bereaved mother. Ella died shielding her younger brother, Tamir, as the siren sounded on a Shabbat afternoon on a cool January afternoon two years ago.

That day, the Abukasis family was at Ella’s grandmother’s home celebrating the birthday of one of the granddaughters. From there Ella went with her younger brother Tamir to their Bnei Akiva youth movement activity. They were on their way home when the siren sounded, giving them 20 seconds warning of an incoming Kassam rocket. With no time to take cover, Ella lay on top of Tamir, who escaped with relatively minor wounds when the rocket fell and exploded alongside them. Ella was fatally wounded and died a week later without ever regaining conciousness.

Ella’s older brother, Ran, did most of the organizing of yesterday’s memorial ceremony. Held just a few days before Tu B’Shvat, the memorial was also a dedication of a new Bnei Akiva building named for Ella. Outside the bright new facility that includes several meeting rooms, a kitchen and main hall, six saplings were planted in honor of Tu B’Shvat and to signify new beginnings. The fresh earth was dug by a few of Ella’s male friends who are students at Sderot’s Hesder Yeshiva. The young men, who combine Torah learning with army service, include representatives of every ethnic group in Israeli society–Ethiopians, Russian speakers, Sephardim and Ashkenazim. Their cameraderie and cooperation is evident as they greet each other with warm hugs and slaps on the back before they get down to the digging.

Many teachers from the the yeshiva and Ella’s AMIT high school show up too, and the respect and warmth they elicit from the students would be the envy of teachers anywhere. Maybe it’s the simple solidarity born from the terrifying experiences they’ve shared over the past six years since Sderot has been under Arab bombardment: several schools in Sderot have taken direct hits from Kassam rockets and now they’re commemorating the death of one of their friends.

Chief Rabbi Metzger affixes a large mezuza on the external door of the new building, noting that at the request of the family it’s a mezuza that was blessed by Rabbi Kedourie, the centenarian kabbalist who passed away a few years ago.

Inside the main hall, a huge banner with a picture of a smiling, relaxed Ella adorns the wall. At the head table, a single memorial candle burns in front of the seated dignitaries. In addition to Rabbi Metzger there’s Rabbi Benny Lau; Knesset members Hanan Porat, Tzvi Hendel, Uri Ariel; former Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai–a family friend; the principal of the AMIT High School; Ella’s father, Yonatan and the head of Bnei Akiva for the southern region.

Each of them speaks lovingly of Ella, her brief life and her heroic death. For a change, it’s a quiet day in Sderot with no Kassam attacks. But for Yonatan and Sima Aubkasis and their remaining children, Ran, Tamir and Keren as well as the families of the other seven Kassam fatalities in Sderot, there’ll never be a quiet day.

© Judy Lash Balint 2007 (Photos available at http://flickr.com/photos/jerusalemdiaries/)

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