Tribute to Yoni
given in honour of his Yahrzeit, Tishrei 5771
at Chabad of Burbank, California, USA
by Mitch Fogelman
Thank you Rabbi Shmuly, Rebbetzin and all who are here today on this Shabbat Rosh Chodesh.
On the second day of this year’s Rosh Hashanah observance, Rabbi Shmuly evocatively and movingly entreated us to take to heart our Patriarch Abraham’s unconditional and ready willingness to do whatever Hashem asked of him. As the Torah tells us: Vaya-hi Achar Hadvarim Ha-eh-leh v’ha-Elohim Ni-sah Es Avraham, va-yomer Eh-lay-eeve Avraham, Va-yomer, Hineni. And it was after these events that Hashem tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am”.
Hineni. Here I am.
As Rabbi Shmuly so poignantly illustrated, “Hineni” is Abraham’s declaration of personal accountability to Hashem, and signifies his readiness to fulfill whatever Hashem asks of him. In this case, Abraham is about to be called by Hashem to undertake the most demanding trial yet in their covenantal relationship: the Akedah. Abraham does not condition his response upon the task requested. Instead, his words declare a decisive and proactive commitment of readiness to Hashem, and a willingness and ability to serve, no matter the request. This is not an act of submission or slavish obeisance; this is rather the essence of the covenantal relationship between man and G-d.
Similarly, in his deep and probing theological treatise, G-d in Search of Man, the great twentieth century Rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote:
“To the speculative mind, the world is an enigma; to the religious mind, the world is a challenge. The speculative problem is impersonal; the religious problem is a problem addressed to the person. The first is concerned with finding an answer to the question: what is the cause of being? The second, with giving answer to the question: what is asked of us?”
Hineni. Here I am. What is asked of us? What is asked of me?
Today I would like to speak in honor of the recent Yahrzeit of a young Jewish man from Scotland named Yoni Jesner, who in his tragically short yet blessedly accomplished life, exemplified the values contained in this fundamental precept of Hineni.
In 2002, about a month before the birth of our son, Yoni, my wife Jackie heard a news report about a nineteen year old Yeshiva student in Israel who had been murdered in a Hamas bus bombing. Jackie was at once drawn to the story of this wonderful young man named Yoni Jesner, who had been struck down in the prime of his youth. As Jackie listened to the broadcast and learned more about this exceptional young man, she realized that “Yoni” would be a very meaningful name to give our own son. The decision was confirmed when we learned the meaning of the Biblical name “Yonatan”: G-d has given.
Because there is so much to Yoni Jesner’s story, Rabbi Shmuly wisely suggested that I speak a little bit now, and then again a little later this afternoon. I believe that both parts of Yoni’s story are relevant to us as Jews and I hope you all will be able to stay for the second part of my speech. I especially encourage you to stay if you are planning to take the upcoming JLI course about medical ethics.
Hineni. Here I am. What is asked of me?
Yoni Jesner was born on December 22, 1982 and grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home in the suburbs of Glasgow, Scotland. He was named after the Israeli national military hero Yoni Netanyahu. Like Yoni Netanyahu, Yoni Jesner was a natural leader and a passionate Zionist. Yoni loved Israel and was the Rosh of the Glasgow branch of the religious Zionist youth group, Bnei Akiva. Yoni managed a nightly chavruta with the Av Beit Din in Glasgow’s Kollel and was a top student in his secular academic studies at school. He was a family leader, coordinating weekly Shabbat visits to his elderly Zeide. Yoni loved people from all backgrounds. He had non-Jewish friends, Jewish friends who weren’t religious, friends from Bnei Akiva and Chareidi friends. Yoni Jesner was involved in all aspects of Jewish life in Glasgow and was widely regarded as a pillar of the Glasgow Jewish community. At a memorial service in Glasgow, in a country with only five thousand Jews, more than one thousand people were in attendance.
Yoni dedicated almost all his time and energy to serving the Jewish community in Glasgow. He arranged and ran youth services in shul each Shabbat and helped run adult services as well. He leined nearly every week and taught boys their Bar Mizvah parsha. Yoni was shomer for Kashrut at various Seudot and Smachot and was a member of the Chevra Kaddisha. He ran the Jewish youth council & was the Jewish representative on the Scottish Youth Parliament. Yoni was so involved in Jewish life in Scotland that within a week of his murder, the Scottish Parliament passed a motion acknowledging “the impact of this atrocity on the Jewish community here in Scotland”.
From a very young age, Yoni was a doer, always active, always frowning upon passivity. It was as if Yoni’s soul was stirred by the awe he experienced in seeking the answer to the religious question posed by Heschel: what is asked of me? For Yoni, the answer was to be a leader, to be involved, to support his fellow Jew and guide his family, to honor his faith and community, to fortify his intellect as a means to improve his quality of service and then to serve in both the religious and civil arenas. Yoni asked Heschel’s question and answered with his deeds. And yet, this lengthy list of achievements and involvements somehow fails to capture completely the avodah and the chesed in Yoni Jesner’s service. There is an aspect of Hineni that cannot be captured fully in a mere list of deeds.
As Rabbi Shmuly so carefully explained, selflessness and an ever-ready, dedicated, committed spirit are key components of Hineni. For Yoni Jesner, the opportunity to serve was both motivation and reward. As Yoni’s cousin, Gideon, recalls:
“In Britain, the summer before one comes to Israel after they finish school, many people have the custom to go on holiday with friends. I went backpacking around Europe. Yoni didn’t come. Not because he didn’t want to – he would have loved to – but he had more important things to do. There are no Jewish high schools in Scotland, but to ensure that Jewish students in secular high schools get some religious education, once a week someone from the Jewish community visits these schools and gives a shiur during lunch break. Yoni often did this. However, he realized that by his coming to Yeshiva in Israel, they may have difficulty finding people in Glasgow able to do this chesed. So for that summer while everyone else was having fun, Yoni sat in an office and wrote a year and a half’s worth of shiurim, so that in his absence anyone could go in and give a shiur that Yoni had prepared.”
Hineni. Here I am. What is asked of me?
In reflecting on Yoni’s life, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, referenced young Moshe Rabbeinu’s response to the Egyptian fighting with a Hebrew slave: Vayiphen ko vacho vayar ki-eyn ish vayach es-hamitzri vayitmeneyhoo bachol. He turned this way and that way, and he saw that there was no man; so he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.
As Yoni’s cousin Gideon explains: “What does it mean `AND SAW THERE WAS NO MAN’? Of course there were people around. Moshe realized that there was no person who was man enough, no person who had the courage to come to the aid of the poor Jew and defend him against his attacker. As Chazal say `IN A PLACE WHERE THERE IS NO MAN, STRIVE TO BE A MAN.’ This, said Rabbi Sacks, is the challenge to the youth of today. TO BE THAT MAN. To realize when something needs to be done in the community, and then to go and do it. I think Yoni was the perfect example for us of someone who was that man. He was someone who had the moral clarity and the motivation to do what needed to be done, anywhere, anytime.”
Hineni. Here I am. What is asked of me?
After graduating from high school in Glasgow, Yoni wanted to take a year off to study in Israel prior to starting at University College in London. Yoni dreamed of becoming a doctor in London and then returning to Israel to save lives. But first he felt a need to strengthen his connection to Israel and Judaism by attending Yeshiva.
Yoni attended Yeshivat Etzion, located in Gush Etzion, twelve miles south of Jerusalem, in the heart of Judea. Gush Etzion occupies a historic position in the Zionist narrative and in modern Israeli history. The Arabs overwhelmed Gush Etzion in 1948 and took control of the area, but Israel recaptured the region in 1967. David Ben-Gurion, would later lionize the brave soldiers of Kfar Etzion, saying "If a Jewish Jerusalem exists today, the thanks of Jewish history and the whole people must first go to the fighters of Gush Etzion."
For a committed religious Zionist such as Yoni, Yeshivat Etzion was an ideal place to study, pray and deepen his connection to the Jewish homeland. The Yeshiva seeks out bnei Torah, like Yoni, who are profoundly motivated by the desire to become serious talmidei hachamim – prizing Torah knowledge above all worldly goods - but who concurrently feel morally and religiously bound to help defend their people and their country. Yoni was not a soldier and did not plan to remain at Yeshiva for more than a year, but he did fit the model of a talmidei hachamim, whose life was characterized by public, rather than military, service.
One of Yoni’s teachers, Rav Alex Israel, remembers the way Yoni exemplified this ideal of religious commitment and public service: “It was clear that Yoni was going to educate, and it was also clear that he would build himself up, become strong in his Judaism, so that he would stand firm no matter what challenges confronted him. It was obvious that he would be involved in hadracha, and equally straightforward that he had entered Yeshiva in order to face the world as a knowledgeable and positive force in the Jewish community.”
Yoni so totally connected with the spirit and ideals of Yeshivat Etzion, and felt so much a part of the lives of his teachers and fellow students, that at the end of the term, he decided to postpone the start of his University studies, and committed to another year at Yeshiva.
Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks met Yoni at Yeshivat Etzion while visiting the 300 British students enrolled there at the time. Rabbi Sacks recalls that, of the hundreds of British students: “Yoni stood out - quite clearly - by the depth of his convictions, by his sense of humour, by the way others turned to him, by the capacity he obviously had to inspire his contemporaries. He was a young man who achieved in his brief 19 years more than many of us will achieve in a lifetime…what can I say? - Noach matza chayn - Noach found grace - he found grace in everyone's eyes… My prayer is that Yoni's memory should be an inspiration to young Jews throughout Britain and the world and that what he died for they will live for. Yehi zichro baruch. May his memory be a blessing. Amen”
Hineni. Here I am. What is asked of me?
On Thursday, September 19, 2002, at the start of his second year at Yeshiva, Yoni Jesner prepared to travel to Tel Aviv to meet his family to celebrate Sukkot. As his cousin, Gideon, recalls: “In the morning…before we departed on our journey to Tel Aviv…Yoni, Natan Rickman and I, davened at a shiva house for one of our friends who lost his father to cancer. When it came to Kriyat Ha Torah, there was nobody to lein. Yoni stepped forward and leined Vzot Ha Bracha flawlessly. I thought this was very symbolic and very fitting, that Yoni read the last parsha in the Torah on his last day…”
As Gideon relates, this was not the only mitzvah Yoni would perform that day: “Three weeks before Yoni’s death, we were learning together one day. He was spinning a pen in his hand, and upon realizing it wasn’t his, became very concerned as to whose pen it was. He then remembered that a day earlier, he was in a second-hand book shop with his father, and after signing a check to pay for the books must have accidentally slipped the 5 shekel pen into his pocket. Three weeks later, on the way home from the shiva house, we were walking near the center of town. Yoni asked us to wait on the street corner for five minutes as he had something he needed to do. He returned five minutes later with a smile on his face, so glad he had returned the pen. He had kept it with him whenever he was in Jerusalem for the last three weeks and thus on his final morning he fulfilled the mitzvah of Hashavat Aveida – such was his concern for other people, and their property.”
After he fulfilled this very symbolic mitzvah, Yoni and his cousin Gideon began their fateful journey from Jerusalem. The pair soon arrived at the central bus station in Tel Aviv and learned that they needed to transfer to the Dan number 4 bus which would take them down Allenby Street, through the shopping district, to the hotel where Yoni’s father was staying.
The number 4 bus drove for 15 minutes before turning down Allenby Street where it would make its 6th stop on the route. Yoni’s cousin Gideon recalls not seeing anybody suspicious boarding the bus at this stop.
He only remembers hearing the explosion.
Gideon and Yoni were located near the front of the bus, Gideon standing in front of Yoni, a seeming barrier between Yoni and the bomber. Yet in spite of this positioning, Gideon received just a minor wound, while one of the bolts packed into the bomb missed his head by millimeters only to penetrate Yoni’s skull. Gideon remembers seeing Yoni’s body crouched at his feet, unconscious with a severely bleeding head-wound. He recalls the paramedic shouting at Yoni:
“AL TAMUT!!! AL TAMUT!!!” “DON’T DIE!!! DON’T DIE!!!”
The Hamas terrorist – may his memory be blotted out -- succeeded in killing five people that day on the number 4 bus. Although the bolt that had entered Yoni’s head had pierced his brain and brain stem, the trauma was specifically localized and the rest of his internal organs remained intact. Thus, Yoni did not die at the time of the bombing and was brought to the main hospital in Tel Aviv and put on life support. This hospital would become a world leader in dealing with trauma injuries as a result of over 110 Palestinian homicide attacks that had killed hundreds and wounded thousands in just three years at the beginning of the decade. During that year, 2002, Israel endured more Palestinian terrorist attacks and suffered more resulting deaths and injuries than in any other year of this past decade.
Because of the nature of explosions in super-closed spaces such as busses, where the blast wave bounces off the walls and causes a secondary implosion following the initial explosion, it was uncommon that an individual would survive the attack. Most victims die right away, at the scene. Yoni did not. There was one more act of chesed…one more moment of Hineni…one more posing of the question “what is asked of me?” that even in death, Yoni would carry out.
When Yoni’s family assembled at his hospital bedside, they learned that Yoni’s body was shutting down. Both his brain and brain stem had been ruptured, and an independent medical committee of doctors had confirmed brain death. According to some Halachic authorities and Rabbis, brain stem death may be considered death and thus the harvesting of life-essential organs at this stage is permitted. The position of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel as of September 2009 is that brain death is death, however, the head Charedi-Ashkenazi Rabbi believes that if one’s heart is beating, he cannot be disconnected from life support. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, a former Rosh at both Yeshivat Etzion and at Yeshiva University, and the son-in-law of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, advised Yoni’s father as follows: “I said to him this is an issue in regard to which I was not going to tell him ‘do this or do that’. He should know the different views and take them into consideration. I very much encouraged him, if indeed one acknowledges and recognizes brain death as death, then the donation of organs is not only permissible but a very desirable option because you can then possibly be saving other lives and enriching and enhancing the quality of life for other people who at present are in dire straits.”
Yoni was a perfect organ donor because he was in such good health and because his injuries were so localized. Only his brain had suffered. The rest of his organs were in excellent condition. His family, however, was in shock. They had never even thought about organ transplant and did not like the idea. As Yoni’s father, Joseph, tearfully explained: “It was a difficult decision because on the one hand I could understand why we wouldn’t want to cut the body. On the other hand, the fact that this young body was going to be buried in the ground and after that there would be no opportunity for us or for Yoni to help anybody else made it clear that this would be a final act of kindness to humanity on his part. This would be the last opportunity that he could do this particular good deed.”
Hineni. Here I am. What is asked of me?
The doctors removed Yoni’s kidneys, liver, pancreas and corneas. The family hadn’t given a second thought to who would receive them.
In fact, the next organ recipient on the national list to receive a kidney was a seven year-old Palestinian girl from East Jerusalem named Yasmin Rumila. Yasmin had suffered kidney failure at age 5 and had been waiting on the transplant list for two years. The doctors at Schneider’s Childrens Hospital in Petah Tikvah would perform the transplant. Yoni’s family was once again in shock as they learned about the Palestinian organ recipient from a journalist who provocatively asked how they felt about donation to a Palestinian. Nobody at the Tel Aviv hospital had explained Israel’s blind organ donation system or that it was possible that any of Yoni’s organs might be donated to a non-Jew.
In order to understand how a Palestinian in East Jerusalem could benefit from the murder of a Scottish Jew by a Hamas terrorist, we must momentarily, to the extent possible, mute our personal feelings about Palestinian terror, and instead consider the philosophy of Israeli health care and the Jewish value of the sanctity of all human life. Israel practices an anonymous system of organ donation, meaning that any person, regardless of race, religion, or nationality, is entitled to receive a transplant. As the doctor in charge of the hospital’s tissue typing lab explains: “there are no restrictions…all the Arabs are treated just the same as the Jews…and we don’t care if they are Jews or Arabs or Druze or Christians or whatever…”
Although Israeli medicine historically has benefited Jews and non-Jews alike, starting in the Yishuv era, with the settlers’ eradication of malaria, the building of Hadassah hospitals, and the resultant increase in Arab life expectancy and drop in infant mortality, the international media nonetheless viewed the donation of Yoni’s kidney to a Palestinian girl as shocking, unprecedented and controversial. Some journalists were uncompromising in their negative view of Jews and Israel, and they expected the family to lash out at the thought of Yoni’s kidney being given to a Palestinian. Others in the media saw the transplant as an intentional act decisively taken by the family as some kind of Jewish sacrifice for the sake of peace...some kind of gesture meant to make amends for all the ALLEGED wrongs committed against Arabs by the Jewish state.
In both cases, however, the media had gotten it wrong.
The transplant was not something the family chose; it represented a situation forced upon them that they had to deal with in the best way they could. Yoni’s dream of saving lives and the family’s strong Jewish faith would guide them in meeting this excruciating challenge. Yoni’s eldest brother, Ari, explained to the press that: “The principle of saving a life is one of the greatest values of Judaism and one of the greatest values on which the state of Israel is based. The fact that in this instance it was an Arab girl from East Jerusalem is of no consequence…race, religion, culture, creed is not what’s important here.”
It is very much worth noting that all of Yoni’s other organs did go to Jewish recipients. Yoni’s second kidney and pancreas went to a 33-year-old diabetic man; his liver went to a 54-year-old man; and both his corneas were also donated. At the time of Yoni’s death, about 1000 Israelis were on the national list to receive organ transplants.
In 2003, during a memorial presentation called “Yoni Jesner Conversations”, Natan Sharansky, the great hero of Soviet Jewry and champion of Democracy and Human Rights, paid tribute to the Jesner family, telling an audience of over 700 people: “I want you to know: our enemies do not choose whom to kill. They want to kill as many as possible. We do not choose when we save lives. Yoni's family proved that people are created in the image of G-d. Yoni behaved on this level of moral responsibility always - in life and in death. That is a very powerful reminder to all of us.”
Although Yoni Jesner is gone, having performed the ultimate mitzvah, dying Al Kiddush Hashem, his legacy lives on and continues to elevate the world.
Jackie and I pray that Yoni Jesner’s legacy will live on in our Yoni, who, B’Ezras Hashem, will aspire to be the kind of person Yoni Jesner was. We want our Yoni to understand and embrace this precept of Hineni…Here I am…What is asked of me? We want Yoni to learn about Israel, Torah, Talmud & the importance of being involved in one’s Jewish community. We want our Yoni to value life and embrace the mitzvah of saving lives. We want our Yoni to understand the way someone such as Yoni Jesner embraced and “personified the qualities of Am Yisrael - B’Eretz Yisrael - Al Pi Torat Yisrael – The Nation of Israel, in the Land of Israel, according to the Torah of Israel.”
After his murder and in his memory, many of Yoni’s Yeshiva classmates volunteered for IDF service. Yoni’s family created The Yoni Jesner Foundation, which builds projects for the community in the spirit of Yoni’s legacy. There is a Yoni Jesner Scholarship award to help provide funds for Yeshiva and medical students, and the Foundation has sponsored various religious, academic & cultural events. The Foundation has also purchased and donated an ambulance to Magen David Adom, the Israeli paramedic organization.
Yoni Jesner was fond of conceiving and recording little aphorisms that expressed Jewish ethical precepts. I would like to read you one of my favorites, which I think resonates with the essence of Hineni: “A person who is only concerned with himself, will wake up one morning and question his worth. A person who gives his time and effort to others will know his worth when he sees the fruits of his labor.”
Ki tzar li alekha achi Yehonatan;
na’amta li me’od
I greive for you, my brother Yehonatan;
You were most dear to me
Al bamo-techa chalal.
Eich naflu gibborim!
Your beauty, O Israel,
Lies slain upon your high places.
How have the heroes fallen!