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Slain yeshiva students inseparable in life and death



“Death has ascended our windows and entered our homes. It has taken children from our roads and youth from our streets.” (Jeremiah, chapter 9)

Last week, two students of Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, who had studied in my shiur, fell during battle in Gaza. It was devastating week for families whose lives were shattered by an unspeakable tragedy. The death of these two boys, lifelong friends, rippled through the entire Jewish world. As their rabbi, I’m in grief.

These two soldier scholars lived similar, tragically shortened, lives. Each of their fathers studied in our yeshiva and raised Torah-committed families upon the values they absorbed decades ago. Their sons profoundly identified with our yeshiva, and relished the opportunity to continue their family legacy by studying in their father’s beit midrash.

Dovid Schwartz’s family are native Israelis, whereas Yakir Hexter’s parents made aliya from the United States. The pairing of these two families provides a sad but fitting metaphor for our yeshiva, which has been a flagship hesder yeshiva (combining Torah study and service in the Israel Defense Forces) for more than 50 years, while also assisting thousands of students in transitioning to aliya.

A part of our yeshiva has been torn away, and there’s a gaping hole. As their rabbi, I mourn, holding back tears and clearing lumps in my throat.

Dovid had an incandescent smile which never left his face, radiated instant happiness, and literally climbed into your heart. He displayed quiet, understated leadership which was never aggressive or controlling. He always assumed responsibility, organising group events or scheduling changes. He was a truth-seeker, possessing deep personal conviction, but always eager to receive helpful input from his teachers. Even after leaving yeshiva, he would periodically check in with me for guidance as he transitioned to the next stage.

His intellectual curiosity inspired him to look beyond his natural setting for religious inspiration and personal growth. Though he was raised and schooled in a national religious context, he was a regular at hassidic tishes and gatherings. Based on his request, I started a weekly shiur in chasidut in our yeshiva, though we don’t typically stress this area of study. He scrupulously maintained this weekly shiur even during the difficult conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic. He deeply enjoyed parshat hashavuah, publishing a collection of his own Torah thoughts in honour of his wedding.

Conscious that religious identity should be simple but compelling, he hung three handwritten Torah verses above his bed. One of them captures his short life: “I will rely upon your kindness, my heart will rejoice in your deliverance.” (Psalms chapter 13)

Yakir was immensely driven, holding himself to extremely high personal standards. He enjoyed learning Mesillat Yesahrim, a classic musar work which lays out a detailed roadmap for religious development. Yet, in spite of his own surpassing standards, Yakir was humble about his achievements and was extremely tolerant of those who couldn’t or didn’t match his own lofty expectations.

Yakir was an exceptional listener and excelled at making other people feel heard and seen. He had embarked on a degree in architecture, which was true to his extraordinary ability to create space for other people. He was a magnet for English-speaking students looking for a shoulder to lean on or in need of a friendly shmooze.

Extremely modest, his smile wasn’t radiant or overpowering, but inconspicuous, charming, and endearing. He never drowned out others in the room.

He was artistic, and an original thinker, who exhibited broad intellectual sweep. Additionally, he possessed strong moral integrity and conscientiously donated to charity from his various side incomes. As he deeply valued time as a commodity, he also allocated specific hours to support the needy.

Though he possessed a strong moral fibre, he knew how to let loose with friends, be mischievous, and have fun. He combined finesse, imagination, modesty, moral integrity, intensity, and sensitivity.

The Talmud concludes that a rabbi also gains wisdom from his students. Obviously, as the study of Torah is centred on give-and-take, interaction with students yields new intellectual perspectives. However, a rabbi is also inspired by observing his talmidim apply his values, often more successfully than he himself is capable of doing.

Obviously, I tried to instil passion and selflessness in Dovid and Yakir, but watching them risk everything for our nation and, sadly, sacrifice their lives, leaves me astonished. I’m expected to provide leadership and inspiration, but I’m humbled by their extraordinary commitment and hope to G-d that I can be worthy of the privilege He gave me to teach them during their brief time on this earth.

A rebbe looks into the future, planting seeds which one day, with G-d’s help will germinate into a life of Torah, morality, family, country, and idealism. Every student brings a world of potential and possibility. Tragically, my hopes and dreams for Dovid and Yakir have now been cut short. All that remains is a gaping hole of potential unfulfilled.

Amidst the gloom, I take one slight solace, knowing that they returned to G-d in pure and unsullied innocence. As Dovid and Yakir were just beginning their life journey, they hadn’t yet been blemished by the pain of this world. They returned to G-d pure and pristine, just as He created them.

Their death is even more painful given the strong friendship they enjoyed throughout their life. Dovid and Yakir befriended each other in high school, and maintained this bond through yeshiva, army training, and officers’ training. They served together until their death. The iconic picture of them studying in our beit midrash captures the exquisite beauty and agonising pain of their friendship, in life and in death.

Our people are recovering from a terrible year of strife and social discord. The war has involuntarily thrust unity upon us, and we’re riding a euphoric wave of national solidarity. We all seek ways to preserve this national unity for the long term. Perhaps we should improve our own friendships, both with personal friends, but also with every member of our nation. Friends can disagree, but their bond cannot fray.

We’re broken hearted by the loss of Dovid and Yakir. Tragically, there’s already half a minyan of gush talmidim in Heaven. Please G-d, end our suffering and protect all our soldiers.

  • The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a Bachelor of Arts in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a Masters degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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