Robin Kahn and her husband Simon have lived in the Jerusalem suburban neighborhood of Har Nof for more than 22 years. Their Tuesday morning began like any other with Simon leaving at 7 a.m. for early morning prayer services at his synagogue.
Normality ended soon thereafter.
“He called me, which is strange because normally he’d be in shul and his phone would be off,” Kahn related. “He said that he heard approximately 20 shots from a gun.”
Simon’s synagogue, Kehilat Zichron Yosef, stands at 10 Agassi Street just steps away from Kehilat Bnei Torah, site of one of the most horrific terrorist attacks in recent memory. What Simon heard was an attack perpetrated by two Palestinian men who, according to reports, entered that synagogue armed with knives, meat cleavers and guns and began slaying worshippers as they were immersed in prayer. They killed four on-site and left another eight men wounded.
Identified as residents of the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber – home to the lone gunman who murdered eight students at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva in western Jerusalem in 2008 – the men claimed the lives of Rabbis Moshe Twersky, 59, a grandson of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and founder of the Torat Moshe yeshiva; Aryeh Kupinsky, 43; Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, 68; and Kalman Levine. Three of the dead held American citizenship.
Zidan Saif, 30, a Druze police officer who responded to the attack succumbed to his wounds later that day.
One of Kahn’s neighbors was among the injured.
“[He is] one of the most seriously injured,” she said. “He was cut with an axe in his head and he was in surgery for I don’t know how many hours today.”
Kahn, who volunteers with the police, said that she was not surprised by the violence, despite describing her neighborhood as quiet, unlike other neighborhoods that border Arab villages.
“I’m just surprised that it’s taken so long to happen,” the New Jersey native said. “Unfortunately, people hire a lot of Arab workers, a lot of the local stores have Arab workers, so it’s not surprising that it happened here, maybe less so because it’s a quiet neighborhood.”
Whether reached in Israel or in the United States, English-speaking Jews like Kahn with ties to Har Nof reacted to Tuesday’s attack with varying degrees of shock, sadness, grief and resilience in the face of tragedy.
Sara Wagschal, whose parents live in Baltimore, made aliyah 10 years ago and lives in Har Nof with her husband Yossi. Like Kahn, Wagschal described a normal morning until ambulances and a fire truck came screaming down her street. No police came by with a warning to stay inside; she found out about an area lockdown from her upstairs neighbor.
“It’s really scary because no one gave us any information, and we’re about a block down from where it happened on a main busy street,” said Wagschal.
Where the attack took place, she noted, is not the center of town. “It’s not a main street, it’s a side street where no buses go down. It’s sandwiched between two main streets.”
Despite the events, however, life went on. Neighbors who had to get to work and school left their young children with Wagschal, who described her full apartment as “cozy, like a snow day.”
“At the end of the day, you get on with life,” she surmised. “You can’t live in fear or you’ll always live in fear.”
Michael Hoffman, former president of Southeast Hebrew Congregation in Silver Spring, made aliyah to Har Nof a year ago. He described the neighborhood as predominantly haredi Orthodox, and was surprised that institutions there would become targets of terrorists.
“They don’t have much to do with politics at all,” he said of residents. “The community is dedicated to Torah and to learning.”
Adam Rabinowitz and his wife Elisheva lived across the street from the Bnei Torah synagogue when they were there 20 years ago. Their son Yisroel Meir Rabinowitz, 18, is in Har Nof studying at Torat Moshe.
“My wife and I have both been there ourselves during difficult times – the First Intifada, the Second Intifada, and I volunteered during the first Gulf War, so we know how the country deals with crisis,” said Rabinowitz, who lives in the Greenspring area northwest of Baltimore. “We are concerned for Yisroel Meir’s safety, but being there and davening there, it helps klal yisrael be more safe.”
The attack has neither derailed plans for the Rabinowitzes to visit their son this winter nor prompted Yisroel Meir to return stateside.
“[Yisroel Meir] calls after incidents happen to let us know he’s okay,” said the father. “Since my wife and I have been in Israel during difficult times, he asks us how we dealt with things in stressful times. We ask him to be prudent, keep his eyes open and be aware, and maybe add a little extra learning time and extra [Psalms].”
Chaim Ziman, 20, a yeshiva student from Baltimore, studies at the Aderet Hatorah yeshiva on Shmuel Hanavi Street 10 minutes from Har Nof. He attended Twersky’s funeral Tuesday
“The whole yeshiva went, it’s a mitzvah to be by the levaya, to show support, to escort the person,” said Ziman.
“It’s been crazy here in Israel, the past three months,” he continued, adamant that despite it all, he still felt safe in Jerusalem. “Two things happened outside my yeshiva. One happened just last week, an Arab driver ran over somebody. … It’s crazy to be in a place where these things happen. In America, these things have happened [before], but not so close to where I live.”
Rabbi Shlomo Buxbaum, director of Aish HaTorah D.C., studied under Twersky at Torat Moshe.
“He was not from this world. I’ve never met anyone like that in my life,” said Buxbaum. “Every single mitzvah that he did, he did with joy, he did it with fire, he did it with passion; he did it with love, with care.
“I’m obviously horrified; I’m broken by this,” added Buxbaum. “I feel very much like I did after many years back when there was an attack on eight boys at Mercaz Harav or when the three boys were kidnaped this past summer. It’s that same feeling.”
Eitan Charnoff, 24, works with the Emergency Volunteers Project that sends needed relief missions of American first responders to Israel. He grew up in Potomac and now lives in Herzilya north of Tel Aviv.
“This is one of the most shocking scenes I’ve ever seen described,” he said. “This is just barbaric. The pure quantity of blood on the ground – people just bled out. This is crazy.”
Noting that the gruesome images from Tuesday’s attack held a raw emotive power that those from other attacks might have lacked, Aaron Mannes, a specialist in terrorism and international security at the University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics, saw an “evolution of tactics” among the various Palestinian groups.
Just the past several months have seen Palestinian drivers killing civilians by ramming vehicles into crowds near light-rail stations in Jerusalem, as well as an attack last weekend by a screwdriver-wielding Palestinian man.
“There’s definitely been an uptick of terrorist attacks in Jerusalem,” said Mannes. “Unfortunately, these terrorist attacks with axes and knives have been done before. Terrorist group tactics are based on their capabilities and what their adversaries, in this case Israel, can keep them from doing.”
According to Mannes, suicide bombings are ideal for terrorists because of the mass casualties and high media visibility, but they take a high level of sophistication to pull off. In building the security barrier snaking its way north and south through Israel’s midsection, the Jewish state has reduced the number of suicide bombings, leading to less sophisticated forms of terrorism.
Among Israelis, “the feeling is that no matter what they do, things like this will happen,” said Mannes. Plus, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “has not been helpful and has really been playing up events in Jerusalem, perpetuating rumors about changing the status quo on the Temple Mount.”
Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, acknowledged that the attack is not quite unprecedented, but the fact that it was aimed at people in prayer stands out and adds to the religious undertones of recent unrest. He also saw in the attack, and others in recent weeks, a lack of central planning, although the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility for the events in Har Nof.
“This is part of a wave of violence in Jerusalem from individuals [and] is not well orchestrated from above, which is very different from the [last] Intifada,” explained Sachs.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu placed blame squarely on Hamas and Abbas, saying, “We will respond with a heavy hand to the brutal murder of Jews who came to pray and were met by reprehensible murderers.”
Hamas and Islamic Jihad praised the attack, claiming that it was in retaliation for the death of a Palestinian bus driver who was found late Sunday night hanged in his bus at a terminal in Jerusalem. An autopsy Monday at the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute in Tel Aviv found that the death was not criminally related, Israel Police said.
In the United States, condemnations came swiftly from Jewish communal organizations, including the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federations of North America.
Secretary of State John Kerry similarly condemned the attack.
“People who had come to worship God in the sanctuary of a synagogue were hatcheted and hacked and murdered in that holy place in an act of pure terrorism and senseless brutality and murder,” he said. “I call on the Palestinian leadership at every single level to condemn this in the most powerful terms. This violence has no place anywhere.”
Melissa Apter is a staff reporter for our sister publication, Baltimore Jewish Times. Joshua Runyan, Dmitry Shapiro, David Holzel, Suzanne Pollak and JTA News and Features contributed to this report.