Horrific Deaths of 10 Outstanding Israeli Teens

Horrific Deaths of 10 Outstanding Israeli Teens

The same societal tendencies that make Israel a tech and military power contribute to a deadly disaster.

Rabbi David Geffen

Rabbi David Geffen is a native Atlantan and Conservative rabbi who lives in Jerusalem.

Get full coverage of the Tzafit River disaster from our partners at The Times of Israel at www.timesofisrael.com/topic/tzafit-river-disaster. (Screen grab from The Times of Israel)
Get full coverage of the Tzafit River disaster from our partners at The Times of Israel at www.timesofisrael.com/topic/tzafit-river-disaster. (Screen grab from The Times of Israel)

The week after Israel’s Independence Day was filled with weather aberrations.

A few days, it was beautiful. Other days, torrential rains exploded.

The outcome of one heavy rainfall produced tragedy of the worst level Thursday, April 26. The water streaming down from the Judean Hills toward the Dead Sea overwhelmed 10 Israeli teens on a hike. They drowned as the powerful flash flood raced through the wadi, catching them before they could get to safety.

I first heard about the disaster from a 90-year-old who follows the news on her iPad. I heard her say there was an ason, a tragedy.

By the time you read this, many of you will have heard prayers for the 10 at Shabbat services. I know the news tugged at your hearts, especially at your celebration of Israel’s 70th birthday on Sunday, April 29. You may wonder how 10 high school students on a hike in the desert were permitted near where two Palestinian boys drowned the day before.

The police will have to decide who was at fault. I would like to explain what type of year study program these 10 students were about to begin in the summer.

About 20 years ago the headmaster, a rabbi, at a pre-army yeshiva in a town called Eli created a program that has had wide ramifications in Israel. Many of us know the name “gap program.” Your children and grandchildren may have attended one. My cousin Peter Geffen, a noted Jewish educator in New York, founded a gap program called Kivunim, which is about to enter its 12th year.

There are today many Jewish gap programs with various orientations.

In Israel, the rabbi at Eli led the way. He received funding from the government for a one-year pre-army program in which religious high school graduates would study, develop leadership skills and hike throughout the country. After being raised to a new level of knowledge and confidence in themselves, they would enter the army.

The religious groups that followed the rabbi’s lead and created programs for religious young men and women found great success. These programs were fiercely competitive and were held throughout the country.

My version of what happened next is my opinion — accept it as you may.

Israel’s secular population understood that the gap year was a wonderful idea, so the number of these pre-army programs grew in the religious and secular arenas. They have succeeded because all the candidates for the programs are screened and the parents have to pay full price for the 12 months in which their children are enrolled.

The program in Tel Aviv that these 10 teens of blessed memory were to enter is highly competitive for admission and has religious and secular students.

Throughout the country, wise leaders have realized that teenagers of both orientations could interact positively in this atmosphere. The Tel Aviv program is considered one of the best of the 150 gap year options in Israel.

During the past year participants have hiked throughout Israel on trips they planned with one of the teachers. They have been volunteers in institutions helping people of all ages. They have brought to fruition innovative ideas of various types.

Pre-army programs like the one in Tel Aviv have inspired Israeli youngsters and created friendships for life. Our own granddaughter was in such a program, based just outside Eilat, before she entered the Israeli navy.

By now, I am sure all of you have experienced the joy of Israel’s 70th birthday at the excellently planned community celebration in Piedmont Park. We all pray that Israel will have many more birthdays. The country continues to grow with all it has to face.

I hope you will pause and direct your thoughts and prayers to the parents of these 10 of blessed memory, whose lives were snatched from them. We cannot bring them back, but may their lives be for an eternal blessing now and forever.

Sadly, after any tragedy caused by negligence here in Israel, the words expressed are yehye beseder, it will be OK. We know it will not be beseder for the families who lost their children.

An editorial Sunday, April 29, made the point.

“The same tendencies to improvise and ignore convention that sometimes give Israel a decisive edge on the battlefield and in high tech become a significant disadvantage when they invade other areas. The ‘trust me’ culture leads many Israelis to cut corners even when it jeopardizes their lives and others. …

“There’s a straight line (incidents most of you have never heard about) connecting the 1997 Maccabiah Games bridge collapse, the 2001 Jerusalem wedding hall disaster, the 2012 Mount Herzl lighting-rig collapse and the 2016 Ramat Hahayal parking garage collapse, as well as dozens of others that occur at Israeli construction sites every year as a result of safety failures, killing and injuring hundreds.”

To deal with a tragedy of this magnitude, what do our leaders do?

“The attempt by the Defense and Education ministries, as well as other agencies that are supposed to oversee teen trips, to absolve themselves of responsibility is also a fairly typical disgrace. Even after such an appalling tragedy, the politicians and petty officials mainly focus on whitewashing their roles in the debacle.”

Now let us listen to the most important problem of Israel in this area.

“The absence of a civilian culture of acting cautiously, admitting errors, drawing conclusions and taking responsibility is one of the reasons for the increased ‘judicification’ of Israeli public life. That’s why we keep making the same mistakes.”

Pray for the families who are mourning. Pray that the government of Israel and Israelis will halt their irresponsible actions.

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