It is not yet three months, though it seems like the tragedy that abbreviated the lives of Elisheva Kaplan and Yisroel Levin, a’h, is something that we have been living with for a very long time.
The event that ended their lives took place on the morning of April 4, chol ha’moed Pesach, and as the news became known, it rapidly developed into one of those things that was seared into your psyche, and in all likelihood, you will always remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about it.
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to sit for an hour or so with Elisheva’s parents, Leah and Joel Kaplan, and talk about what happened and how they are dealing with this life-altering matter at this point in time. Over the past few weeks, I have also been in touch with Shaya Levin to discuss the aftermath and how he and his family are managing to pick up the pieces and deal with the reality of what has occurred.
First, it needs to be stated that regardless of the passage of time, and as many commented in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, there are really no words that can be strung together to capture the enormity of suddenly losing a child and the impact it will always have on these families and so many others as well.
As many of the readers know, the story of Elisheva and Yisroel, a’h, is a modern-day yeshivish love story. Let me digress and say for a moment here that those are my words, not any of the family members’, though I feel that after speaking with Leah and Joel there is no need to circumvent that reality.
Leah said it, and I heard it before, that Yisroel told Rabbi Yaakov Bender of Yeshiva Darchei Torah that he was going to marry Elisheva; he said that almost three years ago. At the time that they passed away in a horrific motor-vehicle accident, Elisheva and Yisroel, though they knew each other for years (but did not date), were engaged for 10 days.
Now in memory of Elisheva, the Kaplan family, along with their friends and neighbors and the many friends of their daughter, have launched “Simchas Elisheva” in her memory. The idea, Joel says, is to assist young brides by helping to defray some of the expenses that are associated with getting engaged, being a kallah, and getting married.
“We believe two things,” says Joel Kaplan. “Elisheva and Yisroel are in a better place, and they are together,” he says. Sitting opposite the Kaplans, I see that Leah manages to maintain her composure while Joel, when he speaks about what they have endured, is more prone to tears, stopping himself halfway through talking about an idea that would be too much for any parent to handle.
“It has strengthened our emunah and bitachon,” says Leah Kaplan. “We feel that we are sending Elisheva and Yisroel packages to a different realm by the good that we are able to do for others down here in our everyday, mundane world.”
For Shaya Levin and his family, the project in memory of their son and his kallah is through a program called “10K Batay Yisroel.” The object here is to facilitate 10,000 shidduchim at a time when there is a mounting crisis of sorts in our community where young men and women seem to struggle to find their intended match.
The interesting part of the Elisheva and Yisroel story is that their relationship transcended the shidduch crisis, as the fact that they seemed intended for one another was clear when they were still teenagers.
Leah and Joel say that despite the tragedy that has occurred in their lives, they feel that the way it all unfolded on the fateful morning of chol ha’moed Pesach was wrought with care and chesed from above. “Listen, we could have easily received a call from the police saying that our daughter had died in an accident and asking us to come down to identify the body,” Joel says. He explains how those around him, and especially Baruch Ber Bender of Achiezer, made a painstaking effort to shield the Kaplans from some of the more sensitive and difficult aspects of what had occurred.
As that fateful morning unfolded, neither Joel nor Leah suspected anything was amiss. Joel was in shul earlier in the morning and heard about a car accident on Route 878 but did not think much of it. When he arrived home he checked Elisheva’s room and saw that her bed was not slept in, or perhaps it had been and she made it up neatly before going to work. But Joel could not reach her on her cellphone, and he also received a call asking if he knew where Yisroel was.
Joel and Leah decided that it might be best to take a ride along the route that the couple was supposed to be traveling the night before — the trip from Monsey back to Far Rockaway where Yisroel would have dropped Elisheva off before going home to Flatbush. “We thought that maybe they got stuck in a ditch on the side or something like that,” Joel explains.
By that time the young Rabbi Bender of Achiezer was working with officials to identify the occupants of the car that was hit head on by one of two cars drag-racing in the opposite direction. “When Baruch Ber told me over the phone that a police official needed about an hour to get him information that could identify the vehicle,” Joel says, “I knew that something was terribly wrong because that kind of information can be retrieved almost instantly these days.”
When they arrived in Far Rockaway at about 2:30 p.m., their rav, Rabbi Moshe Brown of the Agudas Yisroel of West Lawrence, his wife, and their son, Zev, who is a psychologist, were there waiting for them. That’s when it hit them and they realized what had occurred.
Both Joel and Leah cannot heap enough praise on the role Achiezer played throughout this most trying time for the families involved. “During the shivah, we were visited by a number of elected officials and all of them asked the same question: is there anything we can do for you?” Joel says. He adds that his response was always the same, to make sure Achiezer is properly funded so Achiezer can help others the way they helped his family during that stressful period.
Then there is the matter of dealing with the prosecution of the two people who were drag-racing that night on Route 878. The perpetrator’s car was traveling in the opposite direction of the car in which Ms. Kaplan and Mr. Levin were riding. The car that made direct impact with Yisroel’s car was a BMW traveling at a speed of close to 100 MPH when it made impact.
The two, Zakiyyah Steward, 25, and Rahmel Watkins, 21, were arraigned in Nassau County Court on Wednesday. Considering their prior criminal records, a conviction could result in sentences of as much as 20 years behind bars.
I asked Leah and Joel whether this pursuit of justice is a source of comfort or assuages their emotional pain in any way. They were both silent for a moment. Then Joel said that this level of involvement is just something that needs to be done. “The DA wants to prosecute them; it is certainly the right thing to do and it requires our involvement,” he said.
What he meant is that if and when they choose to go to trial, they and perhaps other members of their family will have to attend the trial. They are willing to do so as it is a matter of making certain that the two perpetrators do not inflict this kind of damage or pain on anyone else in the future.
As many here in the Five Towns know, Joel is the chazzan at Congregation Beth Sholom in Lawrence. As he was dealing with this crisis over yom tov, and considering that the shivah for his daughter would not begin until after the holiday, he did not lead the services in the shul over the second days of the chag. Eventually, he did resume leading the services in the shul, but there are aspects of the liturgy that he still finds challenging. He refers specifically to the part of the prayer on the blessing of the new month that refers to “chaim aruchim,” the blessing for long life.
The Kaplan and Levin families are dealing with the loss of children under extremely unique circumstances. Their neighbors and friends and even strangers they may encounter are supportive, and that means a great deal to them.
At a gathering at Beth Sholom to mark the shloshim for Elisheva and Yisroel, Joel spoke with deep emotion, from the heart. At that time he said that each day when he awakes he feels like there is a heavy weight lying on his chest and he just desperately wants that feeling to go away.
Now almost three months down the line, I ask Joel if that feeling that he described as a stone or weight, a crushing feeling that is bearing down on him, has dissipated or been lifted. “No, it hasn’t, not yet,” he said.