Women of Israel: Marla Bennett
Marla Bennett lived until she was murdered in a bombing in 2002 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Mt. Scopus campus. Although she was only 24-years-old she inspired many people in her too-short life. As my counselor at Camp JCA Shalom, she taught me how to be a happy camper (that sounds cheesy but it’s true). Then when I was finally old enough to be a counselor she was my boss and once again inspired me to be a giving person. I was not connected to my Judaism, but she used her knowledge and her smile to open me up to a spiritual and cultural side of the religion that I had not experienced.
And that was true for Israel. I had not given the country a real thought in my teenage mind. It seemed complicated and obviously conflicted, so with my teenage angst, why would I want to add that to my mood swings (and slamming of doors...my dad just never understood!). But when Marla talked about Israel, a place she had just returned from, and would go back to for another year after camp, well, it was not a conflict zone, or complicated at all. Her love for the country and people was addicting. And although I had never seen Jerusalem stone, it was there in her eyes...the Jerusalem Gold.
Since, as I said before, I was not into the whole being Jewish, I did not have my bat mitzvah when I was 13. She offered to officiate a ceremony for me at camp. I was finally ready to grow into my Judaism and proudly stood before the Torah and connected with my peoplehood. Marla gave me a tallit that day. We danced and she hugged me. My children wear that tallit today every Shabbat at their kid’s prayer time.
There was a moment, captured in a photo, where she stood by our Torah and looked up at the sky. That moment still haunts me. One year later Marla would be up there, a fallen angel on her way home.
I never saw Marla again. She was supposed to come back the following summer, but on her last day in Israel, while joining friends for a meal on campus, she sat at the wrong table. A bomb, inside a cell phone, blew up, killing her and nine others, injuring almost 100 students, from all over the world. I got the news while on a trip with my campers. I was sitting in a van in a parking lot in a random town. My camp director asked me to get out of the car and I thought I was being fired for giving the campers pizza the night before. But when I heard the words, pizza was the last thing on my mind. My Marla was gone. I cried and I cried. And then I felt her presence in the sunshine. Her smile, the rays themselves, inspiring me, guiding me to be a counselor and take care of the children.
She would never really be gone. A presence like that doesn’t ever disappear. She inspired me to come to Israel. And I am not the only one. Dozens of babies have been named in her honor. Her parents continue to support the growth of the top university in the country, and one of the top 100 in the world.
I have met so many people who knew her. I have read about her life in Jerusalem, helping elderly carry their groceries, walking the streets knowing it was dangerous but feeling the warmth of the people instead of the fear. That was her contribution and will passed on for generations to come.
Marla was a giving tree. Her roots have been planted here. She inspires me even today, to be a good person. To give to others. To love this country and make it a place that everyone can see the light of Jerusalem Gold.
If I could tell her one thing it would be, "Marla, it hurts me so much that you are gone, that you will never raise your family or know what snapchat is (ok, maybe it’s better that you don’t know what that is). You were a strong Jewish woman that believed in herself and the good in others.
Whenever I think- it’s too much. Too complicated. Too devastating. Too far from peace. Too far from home. I think of you and your courage. You and your light. You still motivate me after all these years. I still shed these tears for you and the loss for our people and for the world. But I owed you a visit to Israel and I owe you my strength and contributions to making Israel the Israel you loved. I will make sure you never stop smiling."
If I could spend one day with her, I would take her to the Jerusalem Mahane Yehuda Shuk and buy some fresh fruits and vegetables. I would get her NIS 5 ice coffee, and then I would walk with her all over the city. I would take her to my neighborhood and show her the community we are building, of young Jewish families. Pluralistic, determined and full of really cute little kids. Then I would take her to this cute cafe run by the organization Shekel, giving people with special needs the same opportunities to live and work in our society. We would get a light meal and more coffee. Then to the newly renovated Tachana Rishona, Jerusalem’s beautiful outdoor mall, for a pluralistic Kabbalat Shabbat. Then to dinner at my friend’s house (they make the best salads) where we would gather around the Shabbat table for hours drinking wine and playing games.
Although Marla was brutally murdered by terrorists, I believe that she would not be angry. Instead she would find a way to take the dark and turn it into light. This to me is the essence of the Jewish people and our values. We are always searching. Maybe we are trying to figure out why the Chosen People have it so rough, or how to have stability and quiet. But in the meantime we try, we really try, to not let the destruction destroy us. We create, we look forward, we hold on for the ride. Marla would want that for us. Just as she walked the streets during a time of bombings and terrorism, looking to help people and bring good into this world, so do we as Jewish people in Israel. We create new life-saving drugs, become social activists fighting for equality, and fight for good.
Molly Livingstone is a freelance reporter and comedian, not to mention a mother of two, living in Jerusalem. While playing all those roles, the script remains the same, showing the world the Israel that she sees everyday, from the people and places, to the culture and definitely the food.