In one way it is now all over, but in another sense it is all just beginning. We are at one of those key junctures on our calendar that requires recalibration or resetting our sights on the days and weeks that lie ahead of us.
Over the just-concluded Pesach holiday, we not only traveled back into the history of Am Yisrael, but we also explored a place where it seemed that time, in a way, stood still for a prolonged period. Sure, it was only a bit more than a week, but while I cannot definitely say it felt like a much longer stretch, looking back at a week spent with close family and friends, it was, if only briefly, as if time was suspended.
On the subject of time, it seemed that over this eight-day yom tov here in the Northeast, we experienced all four seasons rolled into one week. It was freezing cold, and then there were flashes of sun and a scent of spring before a snowy yom tov morning, an impossibly thick fog, and basically just plain cold when our hearts and minds were thinking springtime and hoping for a hint of warmth. But that was not to be — not this year.
On Sunday, just as I was complaining about the yom tov weather to a young man on line behind me in a supermarket, he listened intently before informing me that where he spent the holiday, in Miami Beach, it was sunny and 85 degrees every day. I said that was really nice and thought that this was a good place to allow the conversation to just fade.
As the reader knows, the yom tov also had its unfortunate fill of sad and tragic events that hit close to our home base. Our contention here all along has been that we are a worldwide community without walls or borders, real or imagined. To that end, when members of the community celebrate, we do so with them, and when they suffer pain, we feel that pain and suffer with them —whomever they are and wherever they are located.
We came out of the first days of yom tov and the Sedarim to the news of the death of a young child — Yakov Rafael Renov, son of Eli and Danielle Renov and grandson of Ruki and Kal Renov and Nicole and Marc Gleitman. Both are prominent, philanthropic Five Towns families, and the news was a shock to us all as we opened our phones and computers after two days.
The reaction was astonishment and pain. Yakov Rafael was just a few months old, and we were all aghast, numb, and speechless. At the time, we could not have anticipated that this would be somewhat of a prelude to what would happen later on the week on a stretch of road at the edge of the Village of Lawrence.
As the readers know, Yisroel Levin of Brooklyn and Elisheva Kaplan of Far Rockaway got engaged on March 24. He was 21 and she was 20. The police investigation into the accident continues, with the preliminary findings that Zakiyyah Steward and Rahmel Watkins, both of Brooklyn, were drag-racing at the entrance to Route 878 near Rockaway Turnpike in a part of Nassau County that is technically the Village of Lawrence.
Both had criminal records. Steward was out on bail and awaiting sentencing on a 20-count burglary charge. Watkins had recently completed serving six years in prison for assault and there was a warrant out for his arrest for violating his parole at the time of the accident.
According to sources that spoke to the Nassau County Police Department, both Steward and Watkins were intoxicated at the time and there was an undisclosed amount of marijuana found in each car.
On Sunday after Pesach, on the stretch of roadway where the tragedy occurred, police closed down the area as they sought to reenact and reconstruct what happened on that fateful early Wednesday morning. Police sources tell us that the Nassau County District Attorney’s office is investigating and aiming to upgrade the charges against the two possibly to vehicular manslaughter or a similar charge. Since both Steward and Watkins have criminal records, if they are charged and convicted, they will face very long prison sentences.
For Tzvi Gluck of Amudim, that early Wednesday morning was as difficult and as challenging as a day can get. It was chol ha’moed, and two young adults did not come home after an evening out together. That in and of itself is extremely rare and perhaps even unprecedented. They were in Monsey and then driving back to Far Rockaway just after midnight. Chaverim in Rockland County, along with an array of other volunteer organizations, mounted a search for the missing couple. It was only later, in the early hours of the morning, that Mr. Gluck managed to get information from E-ZPass that showed that the car they were driving had paid the toll on the George Washington Bridge after midnight.
The car young Mr. Levin was driving was borrowed from a family friend and had Minnesota license plates which at least temporarily threw investigators off track. The current investigation, police sources say, indicates that the vehicles that Steward and Watkins were driving on 878 topped speeds of about 100 mph. That is the speed at which impact with the car carrying Yisroel and Elisheva vehicle was made, investigators suggest. The impact on the car’s gas tank ignited the fatal fire.
The news unfolded in a particularly ominous and difficult fashion. Just about all of us, in one way or another, were living outside the bubble of our usual weekly routine. We weren’t at work, in our offices, or in yeshiva, and many were on the move and not at home. That notwithstanding, it was painful — if not impossible — to place ourselves in the mindset of the families who had to endure this excruciatingly heartbreaking experience.
I cannot help but view with awe the courage and resiliency of the G-d-given strength and human spirit one must have to live through this type of event in any way. I think we all wonder how, and we pray that none of us are ever tested in a similar manner.
Over chol ha’moed, as we all tried to wrap our minds around and absorb the enormity of what happened here, I turned to Rabbi Zalman Wolowik of Chabad of the Five Towns to share some thoughts on what had taken place, both for the families involved as well as for the community at large.
Since we do not publish an issue on chol ha’moed, I asked the rabbi to formulate some ideas we would be able to post on our Instagram, Facebook, and website pages that are widely viewed around the world. Rabbi and Rebbetzin Wolowik lost their 9-year-old son, Levi Yitzchok, to SADS (Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndrome) in 2009. At the time, the loss shook the community as a seemingly regular, healthy young man was so suddenly taken from us.
On erev yom tov of the second days, as they are referred to, Reb Zalman sent us a five-minute message — which many commented helped them put these shocking events into a bit of perspective — about how we as a caring community, outside of the immediate families, could hopefully cope on our own level for people we may know only casually or not at all.
Rabbi Wolowik’s remarks, which can still be seen and heard on Instagram and Facebook, made poignant reference to the story in parashas, Shemini, about the events surrounding the death of Aharon HaKohen’s two sons Nadav and Avihu. There is extensive discussion relative to the circumstances surrounding the death of these two kohanim. A popular commentary on the matter explains that Nadav and Avihu achieved such a high level and attachment to G-dliness to the point that their physical bodies could no longer contain their G-dly souls.
“At the end of the day,” Rabbi Wolowik said last week, “Aharon was a father who lost two sons.” He adds that the Torah describes Aharon’s reaction to the news of the passing of his two sons with the words, “Aharon was numb and silent.” And as Rabbi Wolowik explained, as one who has walked that path, this is the most instructive reaction, as there are truly no words and no other way to possibly react or respond.
Considering the halachic quirk in the calendar, the full shivah for three families began after yom tov, on Saturday night. We pray that they all be comforted amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem and that they not know any further pain. And as Rabbi Wolowik said in his remarks over the chag, we refer to this sentiment of Zion and Jerusalem because though the Holy Temples that were destroyed are no longer standing, where they once stood there is still an air of kedushah, holiness, even though the Beit HaMikdash is not presently there.
The same is true of those who passed away. Though they are not with us here in the fashion that we knew them, the impact of who they were and still very much are is felt by family, friends, and the worldwide community — just like the Holy Temples. We yearn daily for the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash, for the day when we will experience a new, rebuilt reality together with those young people who share a special place in our hearts and minds.
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.